Tu B’Shevat Sedarim and Tree Planting: What is the Message of Tu B’Shevat?

One of my daughters is currently participating in a very special high school program where she and fifteen of her friends are spending a month in an Israeli school in Maaleh Adumim embedded in Israeli society in a way that is different than, perhaps, many of the Israel summer programs that our American teens attend.  She recently told me that her group will plant trees in honor of Tu B’Shevat this week.  I wonder whether this custom of planting trees has any religious significance or is it simply a nice cultural activity that is devoid of religious significance.

I recently read an article by the historian Avraham Ya’ari on the historical development of Tu B’Shevat as a holiday.  There is no reference to Tu B’Shevat in the Torah, but in Masechet Rosh Hashana, Beit Hillel states that this day is the “Rosh Hashana la’ilanot,” the beginning of the year for trees.  The Gemara explains that at this time, most of the rain from the rainy season has fallen, and, according to Rashi, this is the time when the fruits on the trees begin to blossom.  Note that this date is not the day of judgment for the fruits on the trees.  In fact, the next Mishna states that this day of judgment takes place during the holiday of Shavuot, and we offer a sacrifice then because of this.  However, the significance of Tu B’Shevat is that it is the beginning and end of the fiscal year when we tithe our fruit.  If a fruit blossomed before Tu B’Shevat, then it is considered fruit from the previous year and must be tithed together with the fruit from the previous year, and if a fruit blossomed after Tu B’Shevat, then it is considered fruit from the next year and must be tithed together with the fruit from the next year.  There is no mention of any tree plantings or Tu B’Shevat sedarim, for that matter, in the Mishna, the Gemara or the Midrashim.

Menachem Zulay found two liturgical poems about Tu B’Shevat in the Cairo Geniza that were written in the era of the Geonim, but other than that, there is no reference to reciting special prayers on this day until the end of the 17th century.  (Of course, like any good minor Jewish holiday, the custom developed not to recite Tachanun on Tu B’Shevat in some Ashkenazic communities in the era of the Rishonim.) At the end of the 17th century, a Sefer entitled, “Chemdat Yamim” was written by a Kabbalist named Rabbi Binyamin Halevi of Tzefat.  This work contains a text and instructions for an elaborate Tu B’Shevat Seder.  The Seder instructions include tasting a wide variety of fruits and reciting a number of Biblical verses that relate to fruit, Eretz Yisrael or the final redemption.  After this work was published, Tu B’Shevat Sedarim sprung up in many communities and many communities developed their own unique Tu B’Shevat Seder customs, as well.

In modern day Israel, the first mass planting of trees on Tu B’Shevat is recorded to have been organized by Rabbi Zev Yavetz in 1890, when he led a group of students from the Zichron Yaakov school at which he served as principal into the fields.  Each student carried a sapling to be planted and the procession and occasion were marked by festive and relevant communal singing. Sixteen years later, in Elul of 1906, at a general meeting of the Hebrew Teachers Association in Yaffo, a proposal was adopted to make Tu B’Shevat into an official day of tree planting and a letter by Rav Kook in 1924 endorses this practice.

When I reflect upon the history of the development of Tu B’Shevat, I wonder if the customs of eating special fruit, reciting special prayers and planting trees naturally reflect the spirit of the holiday as envisioned by our Sages.  Do these customs truly reflect and emanate from the original description of the holiday as simply being the beginning of the fiscal year for tithing?

It seems to me that we need to ask a more basic question.  Why is the date of calculating tithing when the fruits begins to blossom and not when the fruits begin to ripen?  Why do we bring a sacrifice for the fruits when they are being judged on Shavuot, and yet for purposes of tithing the timing is not the fruits ripening but it is when the fruits begins to blossom?  I think the answer is that we are trying to accomplish something different on Tu B’Shevat than on Shavuot.

On Shavuot, we are ready to harvest the fruits because they are now ripe.  Therefore, we pray and we offer a sacrifice so that this year’s crop will be plentiful and we will be able to eat from the fruits and prosper.  On Shavuot, we pray for our own material wealth.  However, the focus on Tu B’Shevat is not fruit per se, but the focus is specifically the fruit of Eretz Yisrael.  When we mark the day of Tu B’Shevat, the fruit is not really edible; it has just begun to grow.  However, this growth is a fulfillment of settling and developing the land and it is a sign of God’s Divine providence over the land.  And maybe it is more than that.  Maybe the growth of fruit in Eretz Yisrael is actually a sign of redemption. This is what the prophet Yechezkel declares will occur and this is what Rav Abba in Masechet Sanhedrin predicts will occur as a clear sign of the final redemption.  In his work, Kol Tor, the Vilna Gaon writes that he yearns to come to Jerusalem and plant a tree.

Celebrating Tu B’Shevat, reciting special prayers on Tu B’Shevat, eating special fruits on Tu B’Shevat and planting trees on Tu B’Shevat are not about a farmer praying for his livelihood. These activities are performed by the Jew who pours out his heart and prays for signs of the final redemption and celebrates those signs and does what he can to bring about the final redemption through prayer, a festive meal and through planting trees.  Tu B’Shevat is a day to connect with God specifically through the beauty of the Eretz Yisrael.  So this year on Tu B’Shevat, do something!  Plant a tree, recite a special prayer, eat some Israeli fruit and, most importantly, remind yourselves how lucky you are to be able to witness clear signs that the final redemption is approaching speedily in our days.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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