Tu B'Shevat: The New Year of the Trees
What is Tu B'Shevat?
The 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat is celebrated as the New Year of the Trees, a festival whose roots go back to the tithing laws of ancient Israel. Each year, the people paid a tax on the produce of their trees; the 15th day of Shevat marked the end of the year for tithing purposes. Falling near the end of the rainy season, when the sap has risen, and the fruits are just beginning to form, this is a natural demarcation between one year's produce and the next; fruits which blossoms after the 15th of the month belongs to the next year's tithe.
The term "Tu B'Shevat" means, simply, the 15th of Shevat. The letters "tet" and "vav" in Hebrew, which form "Tu," have the combined numerical value of 15. The month of Shevat generally falls in the middle of the winter, but at the time of year in many parts of Eretz Yisrael (Israel) when one would plant new trees. It is customary to celebrate it diaspora communities by making donations to have trees planted in Israel.
Tu B'Shevat has come to be a commemoration of our connection to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) and its observance is grounded in partaking of the fruits and nuts indigenous to Eretz Yisrael, as described in Deuteronomy 8:8 (five fruits and two grains are mentioned). Almonds are especially association with Tu B'Shevat because they are the first to blossom. With the rise of Zionism in the early 20th century, and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the significance of Tu B'Shevat has increased in many Jewish communities worldwide.
Ashkenazic Customs of Tu B'Shevat
There are many interesting customs associated with Tu B'Shevat. Ashkenazic communities of Europe developed the custom of eating 15 different fruits on the 15th of Shevat. Carob was particularly popular, because it could survive the long trip from Eretz Yisrael to Eastern Europe. In some communities, estrogim (citrons) were saved from Sukkot and prepared as preserves for Tu B'Shevat.
Sepharic Customs of Tu B'Shevat
Perhaps the most intriguing Jewish tradition growing out of Tu B'Shevat is the Tu B'Shevat seder, developed by the Kabbalists of Tzfat in the 16th century. These mystics applied their unique spiritual and ethical interpretations to the day, calling upon the imagery of the tree to symbolize the human being, and connecting the observance of the day with Tikkun Olam (the repair of the world). They taught that eating fruits improves our spiritual qualities. The trees tithed on Tu B'Shevat symbolize the Tree of Life, which sends forth roots of divine goodness and blessing into our world.
The Kabbalists developed a seder for Tu B'Shevat, modeled on the Pesach (Passover) seder. The ritual is found in P'ri Etz Hadar and involves the drinking of four cups of wine: The first cup is white wine, the second white with some red wine added, the third white wine with more red wine added, and the last cup red wine with a few drops of the white wine. The progression from white to red wine mirrors, symbolically, the progression through the last four sefirot (emanations) which gave rise to the material world. In addition, white wine symbolizes the dormancy of nature in the wintertime and red wine the springtime blooming of nature reborn. The menu for the seder includes 10 types of fruits and nuts clustered in three groups. The 10 types of fruits and nuts symbolize the 10 sefirot (emanations), from the Ein Sof to the physical world. The three groupings symbolize the levels of creation. The seder itself was, in many ways, a spiritual re-enactment of the latter stages of the creation of the world, and the eating of each group of fruits/nuts was accompanied by the recitation of a verse from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) or Talmud.
Tu B'Shevat is a wonderful occasion, as is Sukkot, for us to turn our attention to the pressing issues of the environment. As our ancestors appreciated and protected the environment, which was their precious link with life, we must learn to do the same. Trees are a blessing that provide shelter, food, oxygen, fuel, and great beauty, add immeasurably to our lives, and are a source of life for a myriad species on our planet.
Click here for a Tu B'Shevat story!
Seder for Tu B'Shevat
Grandma Nathan's Strudel
(Ben and Erica Finkel's great grandmother)
It is traditional to each foods made with fruit on Tu B'Shevat. Here is a magnificent strudel recipe:
- 1/2 pound butter
- 1/2 pint sour cream
- 2 cups flour
- apricot jelly
- chopped walnuts
- shredded coconut
- white raisins
- Cut flour and sour cream into "butter" with pastry blender. Push together to form a ball of dough. Divide into thirds. Roll in some sprinkled flour and cover and chill overnight.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Roll out each chilled ball of dough into a long oval or rectangular shape on wax paper.
- Spread with filling and roll up and tuck in corners.
- Bake 35 minutes (do not use insulated baking sheets). Cut while warm. Enjoy!
This page was produced through the research of, and with the help of: Michael Berkowitz, Erica Finkel, Karen Guralnick, Lisa Hollander, Michele Mindek, and Danny Scheinerman.