Is it my imagination or has Tu B’Shevat taken on a significance beyond its original intent? When I was growing up we bought a few JNF trees — a quarter each; put the quarters in the cute little slots, ate some bokser and we were done. Now, suddenly, it’s a big deal; it’s not enough that we have a Pesach seder — now we have a Tu B’Shevat seder — who makes this stuff up?
Am I detecting some tree hostility here? A bit of fruity discontent? A smidgen of forest frustration? Think, instead, of an enhanced holiday rather than a made-up celebration. You are right on both counts. Yes, Tu B’Shevat has evolved in its meaning and yes, people do innovate some of these practices. But this might be seen as a good thing — you would not want to be the Grinch that Stole the Trees’ New Year, would you?
The earliest mention of Tu B’Shevat is in the first Mishna of Tractate Rosh Hashanah. Here, the four New Years are outlined; the first is in the spring, on the first day of the month of Nissan — the first of the months, right before Pesach. The second New Year is the first of Elul marking the year for Biblically mandated tithes. The third is the first of Tishrei, the most well know New Year which brings us all to synagogue as we prepare to be judged. Finally, the fourth and final New Year is Tu B’Shevat, the 15th of the month of Shevat, which is the New Year for the tress.
This of course does not mean that trees are out buying briskets and getting ready to hear the shofar. It means that on this date we begin to count the year in regard to trees’ produce and the gifts that must be offered from them. More than anything, this day heralds spring! Trees are beginning to blossom and we are reminded to appreciate the Land of Israel and to praise its produce. We extend our appreciation of trees to notions of gratitude for gifts of a rich and ripe future and recognition of our own precarious place on this earth; hence, the evolving nature of the day and its commemoration.
Early Zionists naturally gravitated to Tu B’Shevat as an opportunity to celebrate the land and espouse its centrality in Jewish life. The planting of trees was central to their vision of a new Israel sprouting as result of their heroic efforts at reforesting the ancient homeland. Jewish National Fund adopted Tu B’Shevat as an annual fulcrum upon which they could leverage their campaign for forest funds. It worked. We all responded and still do to this annual ritual of supporting the replanting of the Holy Land and the more recent environmental and water issues essential to Israel’s development.
Another enhancement to the original Mishnaic framework is the Tu B’Shevat seder. Confession: I did not learn of this other seder until I was grown. My first instinct was: What? Another Seder!? I quickly learned that this one involves less of the time and trauma than the better-known seder of matzoh and wine. Instead it celebrates the fruits of the land of Israel, symbols of seasons, and the telling of tree stories and praises. These practices are rooted largely in Sephardic and Hassidic traditions.
The origin of the Tu B’Shevat seder, however, is just recently being scrutinized. The latest take is that the originator of the Tu B’Shevat seder may have been a Sabbatean! That is, a follower of Shabbtai Tzvi, the false messiah of the 17th century. Nathan of Gaza is the supposed prophet of the infamous pretender. This dubious derivation casts aspersions on the Seder text. However, rest assured these allegations are being quickly countered by claims of authenticity and proofs of more reputable Lurianic origins.
All this notwithstanding, I hold these truths to be self evident: Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, affords us the opportunity to draw meaningful understandings that can’t but help us embrace lofty lives of appreciation. Consider these four values:
1. Trees teach us to plan for the future. Honi the Circle Drawer of Talmudic fame is the great hero of this lesson. Meeting a person planting a carob tree, he wonders aloud about their efforts. He reminds them that the carob tree is long to bear fruit and that he, the planter, will never profit from planting the tree. The wise cultivator responds, “as my ancestors planted for me; I will plant for my descendants.” Trees teach us again and again this critical message — we remember it each year as we bite into the hard carob, bokser bark — Honi, think beyond yourself.
2. We were environmentalists from way back. The Book of Devarim exhorts conquering Israelites to refrain from cutting down fruit-bearing trees. This concept of Baal Tashchit, not destroying, is expanded in later halachic literature to include other instances of waste and notions of preserving the earth’s resources. The Midrash reminds us of the early command to human beings to work and to guard the Garden of Eden. When the Holy One created the first humans they were passed before all the trees of the Garden of Eden and God said to them: “Do you see My handiwork, how fine and excellent they are! All that I created was created for you. Be careful not to ruin and destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.”
3. Trees are symbols. They have captured our imaginations from generation to generation. Though not a Jewish source, the well-worn words of Joyce Kilmer tell the sweet tale: “I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree./Poems are made by fools like me/but only God can make a tree.”
Trees inspire us. They lift our eyes and fill us with wonder, grounded on earth they stretch heavenward. The Torah often implements trees to dramatize ideas. The Torah is a tree of life, a righteous person flourishes like a palm tree — and vineyard owners? They are like God, the true arborist of the world.
4. Tu B’Shevat is an opportunity to remind ourselves about the host of mitzvot connected to the Land of Israel. The Torah commands us to offer annual tithes from our crops, to leave the corner of the field to the poor, and to allow the gleanings of the field to remain behind for those unfortunate. We are expected to rest the land in the seventh year, Shabbat, for the earth; reminding us of our need to have faith in the One Above. This year, 5768, is a Sabbatical year and the struggle to observe the laws are complicated and challenging in the modern State of Israel. Tu B’Shevat gives us the opportunity to investigate and to consider these ideal expectations.
So here’s hoping that you had a meaningful Tu B’Shevat and if not — start planning for next year!