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Tu Bishvat Guide: Holiday Introduction

INTRODUCTION

 

Far underground, the roots of trees are beginning to suck at earth’s replenished breasts. Their branches are beginning to grope toward the gathering light. There is barely any change to see; there is barely any change to hear. However, the turn of the year has come. The still and quiet months are over; the seed is quickening, life is reasserting itself. In this hushed moment, we celebrate the new year of the trees; and the reawakening of the Tree of Life. (Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy, p.105)

 

Tu B’Shevat, also known as Chamishah Asar B’shevat (the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat) has a long and varied background in Judaism. Jewish literature of the first several centuries of the Common Era informs us that Tu B’Shevat was the New Year for trees. It was the date on which trees in Israel were determined to be mature enough for their fruit to be harvested. This date was also the New Year for the annual tithe (ma’aser in Hebrew), which refers to one-tenth of one’s produce set aside as a religious offering. Tu B’Shevat was the date designated because by then the early winter rains had largely subsided and the period of “budding” was just commencing. Tu B’Shevat is a celebration of renewal.

 

Tu B’Shevat is considered a minor festival without many prescribed observances. It is customary to eat fruits grown in Israel, especially the fruit of the carob tree (bokser). In the Ashkenazi communities in Europe, it was customary to eat fifteen different kinds of fruit on the fifteenth of Shevat, and special preference was given to the kinds of fruit grown in the Land of Israel.

 

The Sephardi Jews gave the New Year of Trees a greater significance. By the Sixteenth Century, the custom of eating fruit and reciting Psalms on Tu B’Shevat had been expanded by the mystics, and it became a central celebration of the kabbalists of Safed in Northern Israel. For the kabbalists, trees were a symbol of human beings, as Scripture says, “For a human is like the tree of the field” (Deut.20:19). In connection with their general concern for tikkun olam (restoring wholeness to the broken world)—the kabbalists regarded eating a variety of fruits on Tu B’Shevat as a way of improving our spiritual selves. More specifically, they believed that eating fruit was a way of expiating the first sin—eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Similarly, trees were symbolic of the “Tree of Life,” which is a visual representation of the flow of divine energy that carries goodness and blessing into the world. To encourage this flow and to affect tikkun olam, the kabbalists created a Tu B’Shevat seder, loosely modeled after the Passover seder. [See page 9.]

 

Today, the most commonly associated theme ascribed to Tu B’Shevat is the environment and environmental issues. It is considered a festival of nature, full of wonder, joy, acknowledgment and thankfulness for God’s creation as we anticipate the renewal of the natural world. Linking these ideas and tikkun olam, during this festival we consider our obligation to care for God’s world, of which we are the custodians, and our responsibility for sharing the fruits of God’s earth with all. Since the rebirth of the modern State of Israel, there has been a focus on the reforestation of the Land of Israel during Tu B’Shevat.

 

The goal of this guide is to give individuals and congregations a resource that helps them integrate and incorporate social action programming related to the environment within their Tu B’Shevat holiday practices. Three distinct aspects of the environment are examined: natural resources, health issues and endangered species. For each theme, there are suggested activities for individuals and families, as well as program ideas for congregations, youth groups and religious schools. These ideas can be adapted and changed to fit the needs of individuals, families or congregations.

 

For general information on the origins of Tu BiSh’vat and how you can celebrate visit ReformJudaism.org. There are also additional environmental programs highlighted in other RAC holiday guides and congregational resources, particularly Hanukkah, Sukkot, Shavuot, Passover, and the Yamim Noraim (The High Holy Days). You may also be interested in the RAC’s Food Justice resources or in observing Food Day.