Dvora Waysman is an Australian-born writer living in Jerusalem for 37 years. She is the author of 11 books. Her latest novel, In A Good Pasture (Mazo), is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She can be contacted at [email protected].
So many of Judaism’s festivals are marked by solemnity, but Tu b’Shevat enhances our calendar with a delightful holiday that everyone can enjoy.
Tu b’Shevat (15th of Shevat), which this year falls on February 9, is the best known of the four “natural” New Years mentioned in the Mishnah. It is believed that this is when the sap begins to rise in Israel’s fruit trees. The others are: the New Year “for kings and the seasonal feasts,” observed on the first day of Nissan; the New Year “for tithing cattle” on the first day of Elul; and the New Year “for reckoning seven-year cycles and 50-year jubilees” on the first day of Tishrei.
Tu b’Shevat signals that winter is over and the trees’ boughs, which have been bare and skeletal, begin to bud. They put on new green leaves like lace, and reddish leaflets burst forth. The first tree to blossom is the almond. Soon the fields will be dotted with red anemones, yellow tulips and broom bushes starred with flowers.
The New Year of the Trees once was celebrated on the first day of Shevat, but Rabbi Hillel (30 BCE-10 CE) noted that the sap in the fruit trees rose with the full moon on the 15th of the month.
During Israel’s winter, the fruit trees are dormant. The wet and cold weather prevents them from absorbing the nutrients in the soil. But, as it is written, from Tu b’Shevat onward, “Till this day they live off the water of the past year; from this day on, they live off the water of this year” (Jerusalem Talmud Rosh Hashanah1:2).
Trees were once sacred to many people. Pagans believed that gods inhabited them and took their forms. They were a tender life form, which cooled, sheltered and calmed. It is easy to understand reverence for the beauty and dignity of trees, but only Judaism has a new year for them.
In the Land of Israel’s earliest times Tu b’Shevat was important in agricultural life, marking the date from which to count the age of the tree for reasons of tithe or taxes, and indicating the maturation of the fruit that even today cannot be eaten until the fourth year.
Outside of Israel it is a minor holiday and there are not even any special prayers. But in Israel, where Jews have returned to the soil in kibbutzim and moshavim, it is again significant. It is a lovely time, when the sun’s strength increases and white blossoming almond trees seem to promise warm summer weather.
It is a time to plant every variety of trees. It is also customary to eat Israel’s fruits – apples, almonds, carobs, figs, nuts and pomegranates. Scholars stay up late reciting Biblical passages about the earth’s fertility – from Genesis, how trees were created; from Leviticus, the Divine promise of abundance as a reward for keeping the Commandments; and from Ezekiel 17, the parable of the spreading vine. Schoolchildren will help Keren Kayemet plant the trees so vital to the reforestation program.
This festival affirms the fact that Israel’s soil is holy. We show our faith in the future by planting trees whose fruit we may not live to eat. In Judaism there is a mystical affinity between the people and the Land, and Tu b’Shevat reminds us every year of the wonder of creation.