What is Tu B’Shevat?

By Amy Lansky (CJC Ritual Chair)

 

First of all, what does the word “Tu B’Shevat” mean? “Tu” come from the Hebrew letters “Tet-Vav” which add up to the number 15. “Shevat” is a month in the Hebrew calendar, roughly occurring in January. So the word “Tu B’Shevat” literally means the 15th day of the month of Shevat.

The significance of this date is that it is used to determine whether the fruits of a tree belong to the next season or the preceding season (i.e. it marks the beginning of the next agricultural cycle). Fruits picked before Tu B’Shevat were considered to be from the preceding season. This was important for purposes of tithing harvests each year, a practice required by biblical law (Leviticus 19:23-25). Thus, Tu B’Shevat is essentially the New Year for trees.

The celebration of Tu B’Shevat as a holiday was first developed by the Kabbalists in the 16th century. Based on the Passover seder concept, it celebrated the “Tree of Life” or the Kabbalistic map of qualities or Sephirot.  One traditional blessing is: “May all the sparks scattered by our hands, or by the hands of our ancestors, or by the sin of the first human against the fruit of the tree, be returned and included in the majestic might of the Tree of Life.”

Over time, it became customary to eat dried fruits and nuts on Tu B’Shevat, especially those species abundant in Israel (grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates). Fruits are “graded” according to their spiritual quality, from lower levels of spiritual symbolism (those with inedible exteriors but edible interiors) to medium levels (wholly edible except for a  pit), to highest levels (completely edible).

In modern Israel, Tu B’Shevat is celebrated as an ecological awareness day and day for planting trees.