Growing up in New York, I have vivid memories of Tu Bishvat. I recall sitting at my desk in grade school looking forward to experiencing the sweet taste of dried figs and the opportunity to drum my desk with the invincible dried carob that would invariably be passed around as a reminder of the great fruits of the Land of Israel. While the songs we sang centered around the budding spring and ripe fruit, the dissonance of that message with frost on the classroom windows and the teeth-defying dried carob was hard to understand.
Tu B’shvat is first mentioned in the opening mishnah of Tractate Rosh Hashana among a list of “dates to remember.” We are told that there are four times a year that we mark as moments of new beginning, “new years.” On the first of Nissan, we mark the counting of years for a king’s reign and the opening of the sequence of the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. On the first of Elul, we mark the accounting date for ranchers to take stock of their cattle and sheep for tithing. On the first of Tishrei, we mark the new cycle of years, the agricultural counting of the sabbatical and jubilee years and the deadline for tithing of vegetables and grains. On the first of Shvat according to the school of Shammai and the 15th of Shvat according to the school of Hillel, we mark the new year of trees.’
The date for this “new year of trees” does not mark the harvest of the tree’s fruits. In fact, it is a day where fruit is mostly absent from the tree and any fruit present is still very much dependent on the tree itself to sustain it. Both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds suggest several explanations to justify this “new year” timing. Perhaps it is now that the sap begins to awaken and flow through the tree’s inner veins. Or maybe this date is the annual marker where the majority of the season’s rain has fallen. Both estimations for this “new year of trees” underscores that this date falls squarely in the midst of the process of the tree’s inner development with evidence of its growth deep within.
The technical impact of this date for the “new year” is the tithing/ma’asrot gifts given from the fruit produced by the trees in the holy Land of Israel. Each year 10 percent of fruit that an individual harvests is set aside. This allocation is designated as either ma’aser sheni, fruit that is brought to be eaten in Jerusalem, or ma’aser ani, fruit that is gifted to those in need. This determination is based upon what year the fruit is formed. If a fruit has formed by Shvat, it follows the allocation of the previous year and if the fruit only formed after this date, it is regarded as the next year’s crop.
The dateline of Tu Bishvat is the tipping point instructing one to prioritize personal spiritual endeavors by travelling to and enjoying the glory of Jerusalem or allocating those resources to care for others. Tu Bishvat marks the moment when priorities shift and rebalance in the course of development. These micro-decisions highlight the subtle forces that guide and define growth within the monotony of the everyday.
It is the kabbalistic tradition of 16th century Tzfat that conceives of Tu Bishvat as a festival and reimagines the day’s significance in our cultural consciousness. The kabbalists, sensitive to the rich opportunity of this moment, transform this date into a chance to savor and nurture the love of the Land of Israel, marvel at the natural world at work and appreciate the future rebirth amidst the winter landscape.
While our taste-buds delight in the sweet taste of fruit, an enchantment for the journey is a more challenging sensitivity to cultivate. The midrash (Breishit Rabba 5:9) suggests that the ideal creation includes a tree where the taste resides not only in the fruit produced, but in the entirely of the tree itself. The redeemed tree is not a rough bark or stem which produces a luscious apple, but the entire apple tree sharing the taste of the sweet fruit. Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook (Orot Hatshuva 6:7) explains that this midrash illustrates our aspirations. He observes that human nature celebrates our achievements, but discredits and devalues the path there as a mere means to the end. This midrashic surreal creation insists that we appreciate the tree which toils with the same deference that we attribute to the fruit it bears.
This is Tu Bishvat. The moment emerges from a hallowed respect for the land in which the tree is rooted, the functioning ecosystem within, the micro-decisions that must be made to allocate our yet-unrealized future resources in the midst of the rainy winter, and the yearning for the land’s flourishing future. The process is savored as much as the fruit that it ultimately produces.
Israel is a country whose roots sink deep into the soil and whose trunk has withstood the bellowing winds of history. Over the last 70 years, Jews from around the world have built new attachments to the Land of Israel. A Jewish and Democratic state toils daily to breathe life into actualizing an expression of the values informed by our tradition. Soldiers, politicians, and intelligence officers dedicate themselves to secure our everyday. Farmers, doctors, teachers, engineers, and parents invest their ingenuity and efforts to advance our society. This is the vibrant pumping of our nation’s internal sap.
Travelling decades past my elementary school classroom to this time of year in the Carmel region of Israel today, I bear witness to the beautiful pink hue crowning above the fields of almond trees preparing to blossom. There’s something absolutely wondrous as the days are still short and the weather is still cold and wet, most of nature’s trees appear barren; yet the almond trees begin to divulge the inner power of the quiet thriving systems at work. We celebrate this Tu Bishvat. We celebrate the generations that savored the teeth-shattering dried carob as a yearning for the fruit of the holy land. We celebrate the promise of what is and what is yet to come.