Jews all the world over celebrate the most significant Jewish holidays, bringing together tradition, family, and faith. Each holy day has its own meaning, and I’ve always had a soft spot for some of the lesser known, less celebrated holidays. One of these is approaching, and I’ve always thought it’s a lovely way to remember our history, connect to the homeland, and grow spiritually.
15 Shevat, or Tu BiShvat will be celebrated on January 17, 2022. It marks the new year for trees, a merker that had a practical meaning historically and has evolved into an environmentally conscious modern observance.
In ancient times, there were proscriptions in the Torah that regulated how farmers were to handle their crops. Trees were particularly significant, and the yield from those trees was handled differently, depending on how old the tree was. Crops from the first three years of a tree’s life were not to be eaten; it was forbidden by the Torah in Leviticus 19:23. Fruits from the fourth year of a tree’s life were offered to the priests at the Temple. Only beginning in the fifth year and in all years that followed could a farmer harvest and eat the fruit of a tree.
As you might imagine, any time a person’s livelihood is at stake, there might arise questions about how the age of a given tree is to be determined, given that they’re not all planted at the same time. Given the way the rainy season falls in Israel, Rabbis set the 15th of Shevat as the birthday for all trees for the purposes of determining their age and what should be done with their yield.
So historically, Tu BiShvat was a practical matter. In modern times, the date has marked environmental celebrations, and the holiday has become increasingly popular over the last few years. In Israel, the date is typically observed by planting trees and sharing a seder with friends and family. In the US, organizations like the Jewish National Fund US mark the occasion by raising money to plant trees in the homeland.
Though it was originally designated as a date with a literal significance relating to tithing and the harvest of fruit, Tu BiShvat also has a larger spiritual significance that’s worth exploring and reflecting on.
One aspect of Tu BiShvat’s spiritual meaning is the notion of renewal. Though much of the year is dry in Israel, the peak of the rainy season is mid-winter. That means that by 15 Shevat, much of the land is saturated, prepared to awaken and begin producing the food that sustains life. While every person goes through difficult periods of spiritual and emotional drought, Tu BiShvat can serve as an uplifting reminder that we experience cycles. A bleak period will eventually be followed by hope, nourishment, and renewal. Likewise, through national and political difficulties, Tu BiShvat can be an encouraging reminder that strongly rooted beliefs, like trees, will survive the hard times and be there to manifest the good.
Another spiritual aspect of 15 Shevat is the analogy the Torah makes between men and trees. In Deuteronomy 20:19, we read that “man is a tree of the field.” If we turn the analogy over in our minds, we can think about our roots – deeply moored in our faith and traditions. Religious celebrations strengthen our roots, while also nourishing our ability to grow and evolve. As the Jewish people reside all over the globe, the observance of Tu BiShvat is also an opportunity to look back to our homeland, the heart and home of all Jews, no matter where we are born or where we live. Connecting with ancient traditions helps us remember where we began and appreciate where we are today.
Strong roots are important, and so, too, is guidance and training as we grow. Our families and our fellow believers help ensure we grow straight, rather than bent or twisted by environmental forces. Picture a strongly rooted tree with a perfectly straight trunk; that should be our aspiration, and Tu BiShvat helps us connect that vision with reality by celebrating the renewal of the trees each year.
And finally, we can reflect on the fruit we get from trees. If man is a tree of the field, our fruit is our good works. By consciously supporting others through our good works, we are performing the same function as those ancient farmers’ trees – nourishing our communities. It’s fitting and in the spirit of Tu BiShvat to focus some of our efforts on the environment. Projects large and small, at home or overseas, can help us take care of the earth and its blessings.
Jewish values infuse our lives, and while there are a number of these cherished values we could discuss in relation to 15 Shevat, there’s one that resonates most deeply with me: Tikkun Olam, which instructs us to repair the world. Rifts and strife occupy much of our thoughts, and goodness knows the harm we’ve done to the environment. Tu BiShvat reminds me of my obligation to repair the world. Feeding body and soul is a noble endeavor, and as trees of the field, we are uniquely poised to answer that call.