Rosh Hashanah Lailanot—New Year for the Trees.
The holiday of Tu B'Shevat marks the new year or the birthday of the trees in Israel. Tu B'Shevat translates as the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat; Tu is not a word, but a representation of the number 15. A harbinger of spring, Tu B'Shevat usually falls between the end of January and the middle of February and it is during this time that the trees in Israel begin to sprout flowers and fruits. Tu B'Shevat is believed to have the same meaning for trees as Rosh Hashanah does for people; on this day God decides how bountiful the trees will be in the coming year.
For Jews living outside of Israel, Tu B'Shevat has become a holiday that celebrates our connection to the Land of Israel and our commitment to Israel's growth. But for those who live and farm in Israel, this holiday has additional significance. The Torah sets forth certain laws regarding agricultural practice and treatment of our land. The Talmud regards Tu B'Shevat as the new year with respect to these agricultural and tithing laws. For example, we are commanded not to eat from the fruit of trees for the first three years. The fruits of the fourth year are to be set aside for God and only after that can the fruit be eaten by the people. Tu B'Shevat marks a year's time in a tree's life.
The Bible describes Israel as a land flowing with milk and honey. There are also five fruits and two grains associated with the land of Israel as recorded in Deuteronomy 8:8 "A land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey (dates)." These seven varieties of fruits and grains are known as the shivah minim, or seven species. On Tu B'Shevat, we make a special point to eat from these fruits and grains. We also eat almonds, as the almond trees are in bloom in Israel this time of year. Carob, or bokser, is also a popular Tu B'Shevat fruit for it was once the only fruit grown in Israel able to survive the long journey to Jewish communities in Europe and North Africa.
Tu B'Shevat Celebrations
Tu B'Shevat Seder
In recent years Tu B'Shevat Seders have become a popular way to celebrate the holiday. Based on the Passover Seder, the Tu B'Shevat Seder was instituted by the Kabbalists who connect each segment of the ritual to a different mystical teaching about the body and spirit. During the Seder we drink four glasses of wine, read 13 Biblical verses about agriculture and vegetation in Israel and recite special blessings over different groupings of fruits and nuts.
The image of the tree has always played a special role in Jewish tradition. The Torah is referred to as an Etz Chayim, a Tree of Life (Proverbs 3:18). One of the special ways we celebrate this holiday is by planting trees in Israel. If you can't be in Israel for Tu B'Shevat, the next best thing is to plant a tree through organizations such as the Jewish National Fund.
Environmentalism and Jewish Tradition
There is a natural affinity between environmentalism and Judaism, as both teach respect for land and nature. Biblical commentators teach that when God created Adam and Eve, He led them around the Garden of Eden and said, "Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world—for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)." This passage spells out our responsibility to take care of our world. It also underscores the Jewish concept of Bal Taschit, or the prohibition against wanton wasting. We may not use our power in the world to destroy anything without reason.
A number of laws relating specifically to the care and concern for land can be found throughout the Torah. One of the most famous examples of this is in Deuteronomy 20:21.The Jews are commanded that during a time of war it is forbidden to destroy any fruit-bearing trees found within the land of their enemy. This prohibition illustrates a sensitivity and respect for nature. Furthermore, the rabbis taught, "If a sapling were in your hand, and you were told that the Messiah is coming, first plant the sapling, then go out and greet the Messiah."
Additionally, in Leviticus 25:4, Jews are instructed that every seven years, the land must lay fallow and nothing may be planted or harvested. This is referred to as Shmitah, and, following this year of rest, the lay may again be worked.
Many experts agree that there is value in allowing the land to lay fallow at certain intervals. The land, like people, needs time to rest in order to regenerate itself. Our Sabbath provides a model of Shmitah—it illustrates that everything in the world needs time to rest. The land rests every seven years while humans rest every seven days. Not only does the Sabbath make us recognize God's omnipotence, it also provides us with the rare opportunity to reinvigorate ourselves for the upcoming week. This parallels Shmitah, as it gives the land the opportunity to rest—hopefully resulting in a greater yield in the future.