Unlike Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, Tu Bishvat is not a Torah festival. And unlike Hanukkah and Purim, it is not even a rabbinic festival. However, as will be explained below, it has received partial festival status, and is commemorated by a number of fascinating customs.
The day of Tu Bishvat, certainly for Jews in the Diaspora and even for the Jews of modern-day Israel, is associated primarily with the eating of fruit, and the planting of trees. However, the day, as with other Jewish festival days, contains far deeper meaning than the ‘fruit parties’ most of us are familiar with might suggest.
The New Year for Trees
Tu Bishvat is defined by the Mishnah as the New Year for Trees. As the Mishnah teaches: (Rosh Hashanah 1, 1): “On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees, these are the words of the Beis Shammai; Beis Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof.”
The most basic significance of the New Year of trees is for the laws of tithing (percentages of the crop that are given to the priests, Levites, and the poor): The produce of one year may not be tithed together with that of another year, the deciding date being the New Year.
In addition, although the age of a tree is determined by how many times it has passed the first of Tishrei (as the Mishnah states, this is the New Year for planting), only those fruit that begin to grow after Tu Bishvat belong to that year’s crop. This is significant with regard to laws of orlah. The fruit of a tree may not be eaten during the first three years after its planting. In the fourth year, the fruit (of the land of Israel) are holy; in the fifth, they may be consumed in the normal manner.
Why was the day of Tu Bishvat chosen as the New Year for trees? The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 14a) explains that this day was seen as the first time of the year in which the effect of the rains could be discerned: It is the time when most of the rains have already fallen.
The halachic ramifications of Tu Bishvat mentioned above apply primarily to fruit and trees of the land of Israel. Throughout the long years of our exile from the land, the day therefore lost its basic significance.
However, it was commemorated by Jews worldwide as a day of longing – a ‘festival day’ on which the Land of Israel and its crop is remembered, and its bountiful produce cherished.
Perhaps the most basic commemoration of Tu Bishvat is done by omitting the tachanun prayer (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 131:6): As a ‘festival day’, it is customary not to recite tachanun on Tu Bishvat. Similarly, the day is not declared a fast day (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 572:3).
The most familiar custom of Tu Bishvat, however, is the consumption of fruit. This custom is cited in Magen Avraham (131:16): “On Tu Bishvat… The custom of Ashkenazim is to consume extra fruit.”
One basic reason, for which fruit are consumed, is that we should remember the fruit trees, and pray for their success. Adnei Paz (Orach Chaim 131) thus writes: “By means of eating more fruit than usual, a person will recall that this is the New Year for trees, and will pray for the fruit to be plentiful. This is akin to the custom of placing trees inside synagogues on Shavuot, reminding the congregation to pray for them.”
There are various customs with regard to the consumption of fruit. The most familiar are eating fruit from among the seven species of the Holy Land; others have the custom of eating samples from fifteen different types of fruit. And some eat from three different types of fruit: fruit with a peel, fruit without a peel, and fruit whose peel must be removed. Sephardim have the custom of reading from the Bible, from Mishnah, Gemara, and Zohar.
Furthermore, many are careful to eat specifically fruit of the Land of Israel. It is important to note that even during times of exile, and irrespective of the political condition of the Land of Israel, the Land retains its holiness, and its fruit have a special status. This point is made by Bach (Orach Chaim 208): “The holiness of the Land, which is endowed by the holiness of the Upper Land, also influences the fruit, which draw from the holiness of the Shechinah which dwells in the Land… Therefore we add in this blessing “we shall eat of its fruit and be satiated of its goodness,” for in eating its fruit we are nourished by the holiness and purity of the Shechinah, and satiated from its holiness.”
Especially among kabbalistic circles, a special liturgy, known as the “Order for the Night of Tu Bishvat,” is recited. This seder, which resembles the Passover Seder, includes passages for study from the Bible, from Midrashic texts, and from the Zohar, as well as a prayer for the success of the fruit of the Land, which is intertwined with eating different fruit that pertain to different spiritual worlds (Atzilut, Beriah, Yetzirah, Asiah), and with the drinking of four cups of wine. The Order is recorded in the book “Peri Etz Hadar.”
In modern times, the Zionist movement has somewhat ‘nationalized’ the day of Tu Bishvat, making its central activity the active forestation of the land. Although this threatens to equate Tu Bishvat with other national Arbor Days, it does serve to give the secular Jew some connection with the festival day.
For many Jews, (national-) religious and secular alike, Tu Bishvat is therefore a day of planting trees – usually by means of donating to the forestation fund of the Jewish National Fund. This concept was introduced in the early twentieth century by the adherents of the Zionist movement, and the theme has been broadly adopted across a broad spectrum of Jewry.
In keeping with the idea of Tu Bishvat marking the revival of nature, symbolized by the budding of the almond tree, many of Israel’s major institutions have chosen this day for their inauguration. The cornerstone-laying of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem took place on Tu Bishvat 1918; the Technion in Haifa, on Tu Bishvat 1925; and the Knesset, on Tu Bishvat 1949.
Tu Bishvat in Kabbalistic practice
Many customs and prayers of Tu Bishvat are derived from Kabbalistic traditions – for instance, the aforementioned custom of eating three different types of fruit, corresponding to three distinct spiritual worlds known in the Kabbalistic tradition. The book Chemdat Ha-Yamim (over whose author there continues to be a degree of controversy) is much quoted in this connection, and many Tu Bishvat traditions are based on its writings. In addition, many sources are collected in the above-mentioned Peri Etz Hadar, which presents a seder, parallel to the Passover Seder, for Tu Bishvat.
The following tradition is mentioned in Mo’ed Lekol Chai (30:8): “Most people do not follow this practice, but rather read from the book Peri Etz Hadar according to its order, over the fruit that he has. Some make no order of fruit, and some serve specifically fruit of the seven species that the Land of Israel is praised with. See also Chemdat Ha-Yamim. There are places where fifteen Psalms are recited, and the teachers of schoolchildren teach the children all fifteen Psalms, so that they should study them at their father’s table on the night of Tu Bishvat.”
Peri Etz Hadar further quotes an esoteric tradition whereby eating fruit on Tu Bishvat has the power to mend the original sin of Adam.
Another part of the Kabbalistic tradition of Tu Bishvat is the prayer for a beautiful etrog in the coming year. Bnei Yissachar (Shevat 2:2) explains the reasoning behind the timing of the prayer: “The reason for which the Mishnah mentions the New Year of the tree… and the word ‘tree’ is written in the singular, rather than the plural ‘trees.’ This alludes to that which our Rabbis instruct us to pray on Tu Bishvat for a kosher and beautiful etrog that God should provide for us at the time of the mitzvah… Therefore the Mishnah states the singular ‘tree,’ hinting at the singular tree that the Torah specifies for the mitzvah [of the etrog].
Based on the above teaching of Bnei Yissachar, Ben Ish Chai composed a special prayer for the etrog. It is noteworthy that Ben Ish Chai, from Bagdad, was influenced by the European Bnei Yisschar, to adopt this custom. This demonstrates the universality of the Tu Bishvat spiritual tradition.
Added Meaning of the Day
In several places, the Talmudic Sages explain that humankind is paralleled with trees. The Sages base this parallel on the Torah verse (Deut. 20:19), “for is man the tree of the field.” However, whereas the tree’s roots are below, in the earth, man’s roots are above him, in the spiritual worlds. The fruit of man, as the Talmud teaches (Sotah 46b), are his mitzvos and his good deeds.
As the New Year for fruit trees, Tu Bishvat therefore has special significance for humanity. This significance is borne out by the fact that the day of Tu Bishvat falls forty days before the twenty-fifth day of Adar, which is the day, according to one opinion cited by the Talmud, on which Adam was created. The time period of forty days indicates a period of incubation, and Tu Bishvat it thus symbolic of ‘going towards’ the creation of humankind.
Like the tree, which on Tu Bishvat begins its journey towards the fruit-bearing season, so humanity, while still in the winter months, begins its journey towards the recreation associated with Nissan and the Pesach season. This is part of the reason for which the Kabbalistic tradition places emphasis on the day of Tu Bishvat, and why prayers for the seemingly distant etrog are recited.
This deep idea is summed up by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, (Kedushas Levi, likkutim):
There are forty five days that span from the fifteenth of Shevat until the first day of Nissan. Likewise, there are forty-five days from the fifteenth of Av to Rosh Hashanah. The principle is that Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer dispute whether the world was created in Nissan or in Tishrei. Tosafot explain that humankind was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul, meaning that the forty days during which the fetus is completed begin on the fifteenth of Av. Similarly, according to the opinion that the world was created on Nissan, humankind was created on the twenty-fifth of Adar, and the forty days commence on Tu Bishvat. The halachic ruling follows both opinions, which is why both the fifteenth of Av and Tu Bishvat are commemorated.
Tu Bishvat is therefore a preparation for Pesach, which is a preparation for the giving of the Torah. A proof to this idea is that the Torah was given on Sivan, and Moshe Rabbeinu gave over Mishnah Torah (Deuteronomy) during the month of Shevat, as the verse states, “on the eleventh month,” which demonstrates that the month of Shevat is a preparation for giving the Torah.
The day certainly has inner meaning. Let us strive to make the most of it, focusing on the fruit of the Land of Israel, on our yearning for redemption, and on the implication for our personal service of Hashem.
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