The special thing about the end of one year and the start of the next is that with each new year, there comes the promise of a new beginning. In Western culture, there’s even a rather comical, yet wildly popular ritual that echoes this idea where towards the end of every year, millions of people worldwide think back on the events of the previous months before setting themselves imposing new goals and resolutions that they ambitiously plan to put into practice at the start of the upcoming year. It’s an entertaining and playful game, however, it only really exists in the Gregorian calendar. By this, we mean to say that Jews traditionally have very different customs when it comes to celebrating a new year festival, though don’t worry yourself if you ever want to take advantage of the auspicious timing of the secular new year to set yourself some lofty aspirations like ending bad habits or implementing any new and healthier lifestyle routines. After all, there’s no law that says that a Jew can’t enjoy making just as many of his own humorously over-optimistic resolutions as any of his non-Jewish friends!
In any event, what we wanted to talk about today is a rather unique and special Jewish holiday that has sadly become somewhat obscure and forgotten in this day and age. Specifically, we are referring to a minor festival that takes place on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat that most know by the name, Tu B’Shvat (alternative spellings include Tu BiShevat, Tu B’Shevet, or even Tu Bish’vat). In true Jewish fashion, this moniker has been derived from the particular date and month the festival occurs on in the Hebrew calendar, however, it is the holiday’s other, lesser-known name that offers any explanation for why it exists: Rosh Hashanah La’illanot – the New Year of Trees.
Generally speaking, most people in the world are either already familiar with Rosh Hashanah, the official Jewish New Year that falls out during the Hebrew month of Tishrei, or at least they have heard of it, however, there are still many out there who are unaware that within the Jewish calendar, there are actually four different new year dates. Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for Trees, happens to be one of those new year’s days. This year, in 2021, the holiday will be falling out on the Wednesday evening of January 27th and ending the following evening on January 28th. Though few people outside of Israel will celebrate the holiday, within Israel, the holiday is kept alive by many Israelis who celebrate the wonderful festival with the planting of new trees and a special “Seder” of different fruits in a nod to the Tu B’Shvat of Biblical times when it once marked the point between seasons when the earliest blossoming trees in Israel started their new seasonal cycle, thus cueing the Tree’s “new year.”
If you want to know what Tu B’Shvat looked like in its heyday, we’ll tell you. In the past, Tu B’Shvat used to be a much more significant holiday than it is now. Without going into too much detail, in Jewish law, there is an agricultural cycle within Israel that lasts for a period of seven years before beginning again. During the days of the Holy Temple, this cycle was especially important as in certain years, a percentage of all crops grown that year would be contributed to the Temple and to the poor, while every seventh year was a sabbatical year for the earth to rest and grow naturally without human intervention. Therefore, it was vital that a deadline date be established, as previously, agriculture was more than just a means of sustenance; it was a spiritual and social responsibility that ancient Israelis took seriously.
Tu B’Shvat provided a way for people to calculate when a particular tree began its fruit-bearing cycle, which was crucial for farmers since any tree that blossomed before Tu B’Shvat would be considered a part of the previous year’s crop, while those that flowered afterward would be deemed the product of the new year even if both were harvested after Tu B’Shvat had passed. For this reason, Tu B’Shvat became recognized as the universal “birthday” for all trees in Israel regardless of when they were actually planted.
So as we previously mentioned, in today’s world, Tu B’Shvat is viewed a bit differently than it had been before, most notably within modern-day Israel. Naturally, as we no longer have a Temple and many ancient laws are no longer applicable, the holiday is obviously now seen more as an enjoyable springtime festivity rather than the serious spiritual one it was in the past. Despite the sabbatical year of Shmita still being observed every seventh year in Israel, for most modern Israelis, Tu BiShvat has become an environmental awareness day. Each year, thousands of Israeli children and adults flock to parks, forests, fields, and private gardens to plant trees before sitting down to a festive meal of fresh and dried fruits, grains, and nuts. Most have the custom of eating the fruits and grains associated with the Seven Species, such as barley, wheat, dates, pomegranates, olives, figs, and grapes, but other popular fruits include apples, carob, and almonds.
So while it may not hold the same spiritual importance as it did in the past, we’re thankful that Tu B’Shvat still remains such a delightful and special holiday in the Jewish calendar to recognize the life-giving beauty of our planet and celebrate the incredible gifts that trees give to us each and every year! On behalf of Judaica WebStore and all of Israel, we wish our readers (and the trees, of course!) a wonderful Chag Sameach!
Lastly, if anyone is looking to spice up their Tu B’Shevat Seder, we highly recommend you check out our amazing selection of Tu B’Shvat Gifts to find something perfect for your holiday table!