By Cheryl Pine: Tu B’Shvat is the New Year of the Trees, according to the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1). It is the time for celebrating the cycle of agriculture in Israel on the cusp of Spring and re-birth. The name of the holiday refers to the date on which it is celebrated – the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. It seems strange to celebrate the holiday in the United States in the depths of winter, in January or February. Yet, in Israel, most of the winter rains have passed and hopefully the historic snowstorms of this year will not be repeated. The sap of the trees begins to flow beneath the surface bark and rises slowly from the roots buried in the hardened soil, as it pushes its way up. The major custom of Tu B’Shvat is to eat from the seven species which flourished in Israel during Biblical times (and today): wheat, barley, grape vines, fig trees, pomegranates, olive trees and date honey (Deutoronomy 8:8). In the 16th century, the Kabbalists initiated a Tu B’Shvat Seder which included selected blessings and songs, along with the eating of specific fruits and drinking four cups of wine.
In contemporary Israel, Tu B’Shvat also recognizes the importance of protecting the natural environment and planting trees. Israel is the only country, which entered the 21st century with a net gain of trees. Trees are also a universal symbol of a flourishing society, maintained and nurtured for future generations. They require regular maintenance and produce fruit each year without any new planting; but, without proper care, they will die.
I would suggest that the Jewish communities of the U.S. and of Israel could be compared to separate arbors, which are connected by the need for mutual nurturing and maintenance. In an excerpt from Israeli journalist Ari Shavit’s new book, “My Promised Land: the Triumphs and Tragedy of Israel,” he observes: “In North America, we created the perfect diaspora, while in the land of Israel we established modern Jewish sovereignty. The Jews of the 21st century have today what their great grandparents could only dream of: equality, freedom, prosperity, dignity.” Further, he notes: “Today, the Jewish community in Israel is one of the two largest in the world. Given current trends, by 2025 the majority of the world’s Jews will be Israelis.” With proper care and mutual support, may our Jewish communities flourish and continually be renewed as are the fruitful trees and agriculture celebrated on Tu B’Shevat.
Happy Tu B’Shvat! Enjoy the delicious fruits of Israel or join a Tu B’Sh vat Seder!