“On the first of Tishrei is the New Year for years (such as the reckoning of dates for shetarot, or promissory notes), for Sabbatical years (the seven-year cycle of shemitta in Eretz Yisrael, when the earth lies fallow), for Jubilee years (the culmination of seven seven-year cycles, i.e., the 50th year), for planting (calculating the first three years when a newly planted tree is considered orla and its fruit may not be eaten), and for [the tithe of] vegetables.
“On the first of Shevat is the New Year for [tithing the fruit of] the tree, according to the ruling of Beit Shammai; Beit Hillel [disagree and] say, On the 15th of that month.”
We can easily see that these various “calendar” years are intertwined with the laws of tithes which are stated in Parashat Korach (Bamidbar 18:21-32), Parashat Re’eh (Devarim 14:22-29) and Parashat Ki Tavo (ibid. 26:12-15). Our sages expounded therefrom the laws regarding the various tithes: ma’aser rishon, the first tithe that is given to the Levites; ma’aser sheni, a second tithe set aside the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the shemitta cycle, and which had to be eaten in Jerusalem ; and ma’aser ani, the tithe set aside for the poor during the third and sixth years of the Sabbatical cycle, replacing ma’aser sheni.
Rambam (Hilchot Ma’aser Sheni 1:2 and Hilchot Terumot 5:11), based on Tractate Rosh Hashana 14b (the baraita of R. Shimon b. Eleazar) and 15b (stating, “If the fruit of a tree blossoms before the 15th of Shevat …”), rules that we follow the view of Beit Hillel. In fact, the discussion in the Gemara (ibid.) sets the date of the 15th (tet-vav or “tu”) of Shevat as the dividing line to determine for which year fruits of various trees are to be tithed.
In Bnei Yissaskhar, the Dinover Rebbe, R. Zvi Elimelech Spero, derives from the wording of the Mishna, “the New Year of the tree” (in the singular, as opposed to the plural used in the other cases) that on the 15th of Shevat every Jew should pray for a choice etrog that is beautiful to look at and in accordance with the most meticulous requirements (mehudar). He understands “the tree” to refer to one particular tree, the citron tree.
R. Yosef Caro states in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 572:3) regarding the laws of fasting that “if a community desires to proclaim a public fast for a Monday and the Thursday and Monday that follow (Ta’anit B’Hav), and [one of] the fast day[s] would fall on Tu B’Shevat, the fast [schedule] is deferred to the following week so that a fast should not be decreed on Tu B’Shevat, which is the New Year for the trees.” Rema adds that if they have already started the fast [schedule], it is not canceled, as would be the case on Rosh Chodesh and Chol Hamo’ed.
The Magen Avraham and the Ba’er Heitev both relate the incident when the Maharil had decreed that the community refrain from eating meat every Monday until Rosh Hashana. That year, the 15th of Av (which is comparable in status to the 15th of Shevat) fell on a Monday, and the Maharil refused to eat meat. However, on the eve of Yom Kippur (when we have to eat two se’udot with meat) and on the occasion of a se’udat mitzva it was permitted because of his [original] intention – he had not intended to include these days in his decree.
This would conform with the view of Rema (supra), who indicates the lesser status of Tu B’Shevat in regard to fasting. It is a progression from the preceding halacha (572:2) which states that if the community had already started a fast on Rosh Chodesh, Chanukah, Purim or Chol Hamo’ed, they are allowed to complete the fast – but they incur the obligation of another fast day for having fasted on that day.
The Magen Avraham explains that even though Rosh Chodesh is referred to as a “mo’ed” (a festival), it is not a yom mishteh ve’simcha (a day of feasting and rejoicing). The Yad Ephraim points out that Purim is indeed referred to as “yom mishteh ve’simcha” (Megillat Esther 9:17), but he notes that Rosh Chodesh is de’oraita (Biblical) while Purim is not.
In reference to the Tachanun prayer and nefilat appayim (lit. falling on one’s face during the act of prostration), the Mechaber states (Orach Chayyim 131:6) that the custom is not to do so on Tu B’Shevat and other semi-holidays. (Note: The Talmud in Megilla 22b refers to the custom of falling on the face when prostrating during the Tachanun prayer on a public fast day. Rav, who happened to be in a synagogue in Babylon on a public fast day, did not “fall on his face” when the rest of the congregation did so. The Gemara assumes that the reason was that the floor of the synagogue was made of stone, and we are taught in Vayyikra 26:1, “Ve’even maskit lo titnu be’artzechem le’hishtachavot ale’ha – You shall not place a stone covering in your land to prostrate yourselves upon it.” “Ale’ha” is understood to refer to a stone covering “in your land,” meaning wherever you live, but not in the Temple, where it is permitted. The Gemara also offers an alternative answer – that it is only full prostration with arms and legs extended that is prohibited everywhere but in the Beit Hamikdash. Therefore, today we make sure that there is something, such as the arm, that separates between the face and [any] floor.)
There is no mention of a formal se’uda in regard to Tu B’Shevat, just as there is none for Rosh Chodesh. But the Magen Avraham and the Ba’er Heitev (loc. cit.) cite two interesting minhagim (customs). One is that on days when we do not say Tachanun, “Bnei Austria” (Jews living in Austria) did not eat lentils since these denote mourning. The other custom mentioned is that we, “Bnei Ashkenaz,” the Ashkenazic Jews, eat many kinds of fruits growing on trees. Of course, we have to be careful to recite the shehecheyanu blessing on new fruits in addition to the regular blessing we make before eating fruit (see Shevet Mussar, quoting the testament of R. Eliezer Hagadol to his son).
Although “Bnei Ashkenaz” are mentioned specifically, the Sepharadim also celebrate Tu B’Shevat. In fact, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Rosh Kollel of Chazon Ovadyahu and son of the Gaon Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, devotes no less than nine paragraphs to the laws of Tu B’Shevat in his halachic book Yalkut Yosef. He notes (Hilchot Tu B’Shevat, Siman 4) the custom [of Sephardic Jews] to learn Mishna and Zohar on the night of Tu B’Shevat, including, of course, the laws pertaining to orla, Teruma (the first produce offered to the Kohanim), and tithes.
Even though this minor festival does not affect our prayers nor is there any specific Torah reading for the occasion, whether it falls on Shabbat or on a weekday, we do find that he examines (Siman 6) the situation when Tu B’Shevat occurs on a Sabbath, and deals with the question when the new fruits are to be brought to the table to say the shehecheyanu blessing over them. If the fruit is served after Kiddush, but before washing for the meal, there is a dispute among Poskim whether the Grace After Meals serves as a substitute for the Beracha Acharona, the blessing that is normally said after eating fruit, based on the principle “safek berachot lehakel,” namely, when there is a doubt about the requirement for a blessing we tend to be lenient. He expresses the opinion that it is therefore proper to serve the new fruits during the meal, before Birkat Hamazon, so that the fruits are definitely included in the Grace After Meals.
We catch a glimpse of the importance of trees in our life when we read in Parashat Shoftim (Devarim 20:19) the admonition not to destroy fruit-bearing trees when we lay siege to a city. The phrase “Ki ha’adam etz hasadeh” is taken to be a question, meaning that we should not destroy trees because they do not attack us as people do or, alternatively, that man depends on the tree, “For man is the tree of the field.” All the commentators refer to man’s dependence on the fruit of the tree for his sustenance. The tree is considered as a source of life and we are anxious to preserve it.
The Talmud (Ta’anit 7a) relates that when R. Zera was not feeling well enough to teach the Law, R. Jeremiah asked him to expound something of an aggadic character. He replied by quoting R. Yochanan on the verse, “But is man a tree of the field?” Since it states “from it you shall eat,” and “it you shall not destroy,” but it also states in the following verse, “It (an ornamental tree) you may destroy,” we derive from the wording that if a scholar (who is compared to a fruit-bearing tree) is worthy, we should eat (i.e., learn) from him.