Barry Newman

A Call to Enhance Tu B’Shvat

Not too long after the chanukiyot have been returned to their honored though somewhat less conspicuous locations in the display cabinet and our stomachs have finally settled down from the infusion of oil from the latkes and the rush from sugar-laden sufganiyot  (although, to be honest, some of us, in addition, still have to work out how to recoup the losses resulting from several ill-fated spins of the dreidel), we can expect to see advertisements for Purim costumes and accessories, and bakery shelves have already began displaying a wide variety of hamantaschen. I’m not unaware, of course, that between the two festivals commemorating the victory of oppressed and outnumbered Jews against the Greeks on one hand and the Persians on the other there is a birthday celebration for trees and the annual welcoming of spring. The trouble is, though, I’ve always found Tu B’Shvat to be a somewhat subdued day of note relative to the other celebratory days of the Jewish calendar.

Personally, nature and I have a long-standing agreement: I avoid interfering in the growth, development and variety of our environment and nature makes no special demands of me. The fact is, there is nary a hint of green in either of my two thumbs. I much prefer purchasing cucumbers than spending hours on my knees planting, nurturing and harvesting them, and with all due respect to Joyce Kilmer, the beauty of well-crafted poetry – and, for that matter, music and art as well – easily surpasses that of trees.

Stated simply, I do not eagerly prepare for or look forward to Tu B’Shvat. Grapes, figs, and pomegranates, tasty as they may be, are nonetheless commonplace and noshed on throughout the year, so they are hardly something to enthusiastically anticipate.  In addition, fun centering around the exchange of gifts and treats is not among the customs of the festival. And even the synagogue service does not involve additional verses or prayers in observance of the day but, rather, the omission of several that are typically left unsaid on festive days. A somewhat roundabout way of celebrating, you might say.

Indeed, having spent just about the first half of my life, more or less, as an urbanite in New York, I often wondered if G-d was using Tu B’Shvat to play a little joke on his Chosen People. We’ve been commanded to celebrate Passover in the spring but there is no similar requirement for the month in which the New Year for the Trees is to be observed. So, rather than enjoying Tu B’Shvat amidst balmy breezes and swaying sycamores, to this day I associate what should be the beginning of the year’s most pleasant season with bellowing blizzards and treacherous black ice.  And while the month of Shvat, here, is somewhat more comfortable than in most of the northern hemisphere, it still, nonetheless, falls in the middle of Israel’s typically rainy and cold winter.

That aside, it seems strange that over the last several millenniums the rabbis did not recognize a need to give Tu B’Shvat a bit more pssaz, something similar to the excitement of an epic saga involving a courageous Jewish heroin, or a suspenseful narrative of how natural law was suspended for seven days, or the haunting blasts of a rudimentary, nature-sourced wind instrument. Granted, the Tu B’Shvat seder is a nice reminder of the gifts and bounty that come from the land of Israel and provides an opportunity to express the gratitude we owe G-d for His succor, but, really, does it even come close to the other, more extravagant, symbol-filled seder we all participate in and look forward to? And while there is most certainly national pride in having school children engaged in tree planting and other nature-related activities, plans for the day are dependent on the weather and are generally cobbled together at the last minute; as a consequence, few memories of Tu B’Shvat linger, particularly since the excitement and energy of Purim is only a month (or, like this year, two) away.

One of the problems, undoubtedly, is that Tu B’Shavat is regarded as a minor festival at best. The day itself is not mentioned in the Torah; rather, it is first encountered in the Mishna where it is defined as one of the four New Years of the Jewish calendar. The date in Shvat on which the celebration is to take place, moreover, was not even cited; it was decided on after a debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, with the former’s opinion that it should be observed on the fifteenth of the month – designated as the center point between the start of winter in Tevet and the beginning of spring in Nisson – taking preference. Tu B’Shavat, in other words, suffers from a lack of supreme authority and specificity.

Which is too bad since the mandate to observe the New Year of the Trees is actually way ahead of its time. The now universally adopted idea of appreciating and protecting the environment is relatively new, and an increasing number of nations are enacting legislation to prevent the abuse of natural surroundings. Jewish law, on the other hand, recognized from the moment of Creation the symbiotic relationship between man and nature, and included more than a few mitzvot devoted to land preservation, agricultural practices, and husbandry. Tu B’Shvat, though not associated with any specific mitzvah, is nonetheless part of that big picture, and deserves a more appreciative and structured means of observance.

Just as our rabbis found justification to enhance the sanctity of Israel Independence Day, so should they explore ways to bring a greater awareness of what Tu B’Shvat is all about. It would not hurt, for example, to be reminded that in the early chapters of Genesis a tree played a key role in the development of the human race, and was instrumental in introducing the concepts of reward and punishment. A summary of the obligations to prevent the destruction of trees can easily be compiled together with specific tree-related citations that are found throughout Tanach. And no supplemental reading would be complete without including the Midrashic teaching of how our ancestors planted saplings upon arrival in Egypt, and when they began their journey toward Israel how those saplings, now fully-grown trees, were overjoyed to be used in the building of G-d’s sanctuary.

Not that Tu B’Shvat has gone completely ignored, of course. There are a number of scholarly books that have been published over the years that focus on the source material, customs and traditions of this specific festival. And, yes, Tu B’Shvat activities are not infrequently held in synagogues and community centers. But they are, for most part, rudimentary motions rather than anything truly meaningful. An upgrade is sorely called for.

The Torah has been called the Tree of Life and, in turn, has likened man to a tree in the field. High time we explore these concepts in greater detail and make Tu B’Shvat into something more than a mere opportunity to munch on walnuts and dried apricots.   Oh, and yes, Mr. Kilmer was quite correct: Poems are made by fools like me/But only G-d can make a tree.

About the Author
Born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side, Barry's family made aliya in 1985. He worked as a Technical Writer for most of his professional life (with a brief respite for a venture in catering) and currently provides ad hoc assistance to amutot in the preparation of requests for grants. And not inconsequently, he is a survivor of stage 4 bladder cancer, and though he doesn't wake up each day smelling the roses, he has an appreciation of what it means to be alive.
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