Like so much in contemporary Judaism, the holiday of Tu Bishvat has its roots in customs both new and old.
Known as the new year for trees, Tu Bishvat – or the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat – was originally established as a cutoff for calculating tithes. The Bible in Leviticus says that the fruit of newly-planted trees should remain untouched for the first three years, donated to God in the fourth, and enjoyed by its farmers from the fifth year onward.
But more recently, the holiday has taken on additional meanings, from the secular and nationalistic, to the mystical.
Notably, this 15th of Shvat marks the 70th anniversary of the very first meeting of the Knesset – Israel’s parliament.
On February 14, 1949, which coincided with the holiday of Tu Bishvat, Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, along with many other fledgling parliament members, made a pit stop at Sha’ar HaGai en route to Jerusalem for the first Knesset assembly. There, they planted trees in honor of the holiday. Planting trees had become a trademark of the Zionist and religious revival taking place in the Land of Israel since the late 19th century, with an emphasis placed on involving children in the festivities.
In honor of the 70th anniversary of the Knesset’s establishment and David Ben-Gurion’s groundbreaking tree-planting ceremony, here are five fruitful facts related to Tu Bishvat.
It’s not in the Bible
While Tu Bishvat has legal implications for the biblical law of tithing, or donating a portion of the harvest to charity, the holiday is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. In fact, the first mention of Tu Bishvat comes in the Mishnah, or Oral Torah, compiled during the second century CE.
The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah says that there are four new years in the Jewish calendar: One before Passover, by which is calculated the reigns of kings; one in Elul, by which animal tithes are calculated; the familiar new year of Rosh Hashanah, which falls in the month of Tishrei; and the New Year for Trees, which takes place in the month of Shvat.
Interestingly, there is a dispute between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai whether the New Year for Trees falls on the first day of Shvat or the 15th. Like in most cases, we hold by the ruling of the School of Hillel, and the holiday has been established on the tet-vav, or 15th, day of Shvat.
Tu Bishvat has become a symbol of Zionist renewal
The Jewish National Fund, or Keren Kayemet LeIsrael (KKL-JNF), was established by the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901.
Planting trees in a land that had grown barren over the centuries became a priority for the JNF-KKL, and it soon began a campaign raising money to plant trees in the Holy Land. Traditional charity boxes were widespread in Jewish homes and institutions around the world throughout the 20th century, and planting trees in Israel became a Tu Bishvat tradition. The efforts also continued year-round – for bar and bat mitzvahs, anniversaries, and other occasions, people commonly donated to the JFN in the name of a loved one, and would receive a certificate showing that a tree had been planted on their behalf.
To date, the JNF-KKL has planted over 250 million trees in Israel.
A kabbalistic custom is partially responsible for its revival
Disciples of the 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, also known as the Ari, reestablished the significance of the holiday of Tu Bishvat with a mystical ceremony infused with symbolism, known as the Tu Bishvat seder. Over the years, the custom has become increasingly popular with both Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities the world over.
Similar to the Passover seder, wine is drunk and fruits are eaten, and references are made to the spiritual attributes of the seven species indigenous to the Land of Israel, as mentioned in Deuteronomy.
The species, and corresponding divine attributes are: wheat, symbolizing kindness; barley, as strength; grapes, as kindness; figs, as perseverance; pomegranates, as humility; olives, as foundation; and dates, as royalty. These attributes are said to be shared by God and the human spirit.
Environmentalists love it
Tu Bishvat has also been embraced as a Jewish day of environmental and social activism, with initiatives focusing on conservation, recycling, healthy eating, getting back to nature and educating about climate change.
From the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Tu Bishvat social action guide, to various local community initiatives, Jews around the world take advantage of the New Year for Trees to pay renewed attention to nature and the world around them. Making an extra effort to be environmentally friendly, participating in beautification projects, and educational Tu Bishvat seders are just some of the green activities people do in honor of the holiday.
Israel’s Knesset has also embraced the eco-friendly trend, adopting the “Green Knesset” initiative making it one of the world’s most environmentally friendly parliaments.
Modern Tu Bishvat may have been inspired by Arbor Day
According to the website Israel21c, a 2014 paper by Dr. Hizky Shoham of Bar Ilan University claims that Arbor Day, now known as Earth Day, may have been the inspiration for the modern Tu Bishvat.
Established in 1872 by Nebraskan politician J. Sterling Morton, Arbor Day inspired the Zionist movement to turn Tu Bishvat into a tree-planting holiday, Shoham writes in his paper, “From the town – and from the village? The Creation of Planting Ceremonies on Tu Bishvat.”