A thoughtful essay by our member, Hershel Allerhand, on the meaning of Tu Be’Shvat.
Tu Be’Shvat, the ‘New Year for trees,’ falls this year on February 6th. The holiday is called by its date, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat. It is celebrated in the state of Israel by planting trees and in the Diaspora by eating fruits mentioned in the Torah as growing in the land of Israel, such as dates, figs, and pomegranates.
Tu Be’Shvat is not mandated by the Torah but was instituted by our sages because of the necessity of dating trees to comply with the law formulated in Leviticus 19:25. “When you shall come to the land and you shall plant any fruit tree, you shall treat the fruit as forbidden; for three years they shall be forbidden to you, they shall not be eaten. On the fourth year all the fruit shall be sanctified and in the fifth year you may eat its fruits so that it will increase its crop for you. I am the Lord Your God.”
Rather than deal with individual dating of sapling trees, our sages proclaimed that on the fifteenth day of Shvat (when the bulk of winter rains had passed and the ground ready for planting) all trees would be considered a year older. There are many laws in the Torah dealing with our relationship to nature; the general concept is dominion rather than destruction. We can use the land and animals to better our lives but we are forbidden to destroy in a wanton manner. “… God said let us make man in Our image… they shall rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and over the animals and the whole earth.” (Genesis 1:26) But Deuteronomy 20:19 says, “when you besiege a city… thou shall not destroy the trees thereof… thou may eat of them, thou shall not cut them down.” Our sages point out that as we are forbidden to destroy the trees of our enemies how much more so must we care for our own trees. There are also laws forbidding cruelty to animals.
King Solomon so valued the trees of Lebanon that he “mortgaged” wheat crops and olive oil to import the timber of cypress and cedar to build the first Temple (Kings 5:24). Psalm 92, which is recited in the Sabbath service, compares righteous men to flourishing trees. “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree and grow tall like a cedar in Lebanon… They will still bear fruit in old age.”
The late sixteenth century Jewish mystics in Safed believed that cutting open and eating a fruit on the Tu Be’Shvat released sparks of holiness.
In the late nineteenth century, the early Zionists believed planting trees and draining swamps not only revived the land but themselves as well: “We have come to the land to build and be rebuilt by it.” (Zionist work song) In the United States during the 1950s children in Jewish schools were given notebooks with pictures of trees and outlines of leaves. Each time you made a contribution to the reforestation effort in Israel, you colored in a new leaf.
Tu Be’Shvat is a small part of the tradition which connects us to the land of Israel. Three times a day, except on the Sabbath, in the Amidah (the standing silent prayer) we ask God “to Jerusalem your city may you return may you rebuild it rapidly in our days…” We fast on the ninth day of Av to mourn the destruction of the temples; we conclude the Passover Seder and the Yom Kippur services with “next year in Jerusalem” and in our wedding ceremonies we break a drinking glass underfoot, under the chuppah to remind us that even in times of joy we are not to forget Jerusalem. There are many more examples of the tradition of remembrance.
To maintain our separate identity and longing for the land of Israel for almost two thousand years while living in mainly hostile environments is a feat unparalleled in history. We attribute this survival of identity to the hand of God; secularists will cite anti-semitism and ghettoes. Whatever the belief, eating a fig on February 6th is a pleasant way to celebrate our tradition.