Tu B’shevat: The Changing Face of a Festival
Rabbi Gilad Kariv
The Mishna, which was completed in 200 CE, is the earliest source that attaches special meaning to the 15th day of Shevat:
"There are four new years. On the first of Nisan is the New Year for kings and for festivals; on the first of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of animals; Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say, on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for Sabbatical years, for Jubilee years, for planting, and for vegetables. On the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees according to the School of Shammai. The School of Hillel say on the fifteenth thereof".
(Mishna, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Chapter 1)
We are all familiar with the 1st of Tishrei, which is what we mean today when we refer to Rosh Hashanah – the Hebrew New Year. We may have heard about the argument long ago as to when the Hebrew year begins – on the 1st of Tishrei, or the 1st of Nisan-but what about the 1st of Elul and the 15th of Shevat (or the 1st of Shevat, according to the School of Shammai)?
The answer to our question takes us back to the tax system of the ancient Jewish state during the Second Temple times. Jewish society at the time was primarily agricultural, and the existence of national, religious, and educational institutions relied on taxes imposed on agricultural produce. These taxes were based on the laws of tithes and donations detailed in the Torah. The 1st of Elul marked the beginning of the tax year for the livestock of Hebrew farmers, while the 15th of Shevat was the beginning of the tax year for arable produce. At the time, it seems that these days had a purely administrative significance, without any festive trappings. Nevertheless, they highlighted the profound bond between society, agriculture, and the blessings of nature.
Following the destruction of the Second Temple, and the gradual erosion of Jewish autonomy in the Land of Israel, these two new years lost their practical meaning. But while the 1st of Elul survived as a special day only on the pages of the Mishna, the 15th of Shevat acquired a new, festive meaning by means of a process that took place over centuries and is still evolving to this day.
The earliest sources attaching special Halachic meaning to the 15th of Shevat date back to the early Middle Ages in Europe. These sources present the day from a negative perspective, detailing actions that must not be performed. The prohibition against fasting, eulogizing the dead, and reciting the prayers of supplication show that the Sages of the period sought to grant a certain festive status to the 15th of Shevat. However, we do not have any evidence of the precise character of the day, and how it was marked in ceremonies and customs in the various Jewish communities.
Seder Tu B'shevat in the Reform Minyan of Hadera
It is only from the sixteenth century that we begin to find testimonies mentioning the custom of eating fruit on the night of Tu B’shevat. This practice became the main emblem of this old-new day. This custom combined the traditional perception of the 15th of Shevat as the festival of trees with the strong longing for the Land of Israel that characterized Jewish cultural activity throughout the centuries of Exile. It is no coincidence that eating fruit came to symbolize the longing for the Land of Israel. While prayers and songs of longing, or intellectual discussions of the Halacha are abstract actions, eating fruit offers a physical experience that leaves it mark on all our senses. The taste, fragrance, shape, and color of the fruit brought the Land of Israel back to life and transformed a vague memory into something alive and tangible.
As with other festivals and special days, the Kabbalists of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Tzfat played a key role in shaping Tu B’shevat. The work Hemdat Yamim, composed in the early seventeenth century, presents a complex ceremony for the day that later came to be known as “Seder Tu B’shevat” or “Tikkun Tu B’shevat.” This ceremony included a festival meal featuring fruits, each of which was honored with verses from the Bible and the Aggadic literature, along with various blessings and poems. Four cups of wine were drunk during the ceremony, as is the case with the Passover Seder, but in this case the cups mixed red and white wine, perhaps to symbolize the changing seasons or the elements of heat and cold that influence the tree.
A few decades later, the Tu B’shevat Seder was printed in a Kabbalistic and Sabbatean book entitled The Citrus Fruits. The spread of Lurian Kabbalah to most of the Jewish communities also disseminated the customs surrounding Tu B’shevat around the world, and in particular among the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities. Since the festival was relatively “young” and lacked a firm Halachic basis, each community felt free to shape and expand the customs surrounding Tu B’shevat. This led to a diverse and charming range of popular customs, all of which feature the love of the Land of Israel and longing for its fine fruits.
A new stage in the history of Tu B’shevat began with the emergence of the Zionist movement, which sought to realize the ancient vision of a return to the Land of Israel. The establishment of new communities in the Land led to innovative cultural and spiritual practices that drew on the traditional Jewish festivals. Like Hanukkah and Lag Ba’Omer, Tu B’shevat acquired a new layer of meanings and customs expressing the spirit of Zionist revival, the blooming of the wilderness, and the bond with the land and with agriculture.
Planting at the Reform congregation of Shoham
The most important custom associated with this new version of Tu B’shevat was, of course, the planting of trees. This custom began as early as 1884, but it was officially launched at the founding conference of the Union of Teachers in 1908 in Zichron Yaacov, on the initiative of the educator Ze’ev Yavetz. The conference declared Tu B’shevat the festival of planting and nature. The traditional custom of eating fruits while reciting texts and songs became less central as efforts focused on the desire to “paint” the Land of Israel green. As the State of Israel was established and consolidated, Tu B’shevat continued to be seen as a festival celebrated mainly in schools and youth movements, which continued the tradition of annual planting ceremonies. However, the festival appeared to lose its appeal among the general public.
Over recent decades, Tu B’shevat was seen another period of revival through the addition of the ecological dimension. The success of the Zionist enterprise and Israel’s growing economic strength have allowed us to turn our attention to the price nature – and humans – pay for our own successes. The public struggle in this area began with the protection of flora and fauna, and moved on to efforts to combat the pollution of air, streams, and water sources. Ecological concerns have gradually become a key item on the agenda of Israeli society. As a result, Tu B’shevat has become a day to raise awareness and engage in soul-searching regarding our relationship with nature. The love of the Land, its soil and its trees, which once drove the desire to plant and conquest the wilderness, has now become the motivating force behind the call for humans to moderate and curb their ecological footprint. The customs surrounding Tu B’shevat, and in particular the Tikkun or Seder, offer an opportunity for learning and experience that allow us to listen to the wisdom of the Jewish sources regarding the role of the human within creation. These sources emphasize our responsibility not to damage God’s work. This process has granted new meaning to the Kabbalistic term “Tikkun” (“repair,”) as each of us is urged to work in our own immediate surroundings and in the public domain to repair ecological damage and to prevent future harm to nature. New versions of the Tu B’shevat Seder have been published in recent years combining the traditional customs of eating fruits with love of the Land and an emphasis on human responsibility for the condition of the world. And so Tu B’shevat takes another turn in its dynamic history, showing its ability to serve as a source of study and action for the Jewish people.