The festival of Tu B’Shevat (literally the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat) this year falls on 11th February. Commonly known as the “new year or birthday for trees”, it marks the beginning of a new agricultural year. It is a fairly minor festival in the Jewish calendar and many of the rules attached to major Jewish festivals prohibiting work and establishing particular festive rituals do not apply. However in Biblical times and increasingly in the State of Israel, the festival takes on a much greater significance as it was used to calculate the age of a fruit bearing tree for the purposes of taking the correct tithes.
Tu B’Shevat is one of four new years discussed in the Mishnah. Each of these “new years” is a different cycle in the Jewish calendar which focus on different aspects of Jewish (and primarily though not exclusively Biblical) life:
- The first of Nisan marks the new year for counting the lengths of reigns of kings and festivals, as the three Pilgrimage festivals cycle through Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.
- The first of Elul marks the new year for the tithing of animals, as the Mishnah and Talmud separate between animal and grain tithes.
- The first of Tishri (Rosh Hashanah) marks the new year for the calculation of the calendar, sabbatical and jubilee years and for the planting and tithing of vegetables
- The 15th of Shevat according to Hillel (while Shammai rules the 1st of Shevat) marks the new year for trees.
In the Bible there is a prohibition on eating the fruit of trees produced during the first three years after they have been planted (orla), which is extended with an obligation to take the fruit produced in the fourth year to the Temple as a tithe (Lev. 19:23-24). There were also other tithes connected to the Sabbatical (shmitta) cycle and Tu B’Shevat is the marker to determine to which year the tithes belong. From a practical point of view, fruit that ripened on a three-year-old tree before Tu B’Shevat is considered orla and is forbidden to eat, while fruit ripening on or after Tu B’Shevat of the tree’s third year is permitted. While these laws do not apply in the Diaspora, In the Modern State of Israel, these laws are once again in effect and have taken on a new relevance.
Nowadays Tu B’Shevat is appreciated as a time to reflect on how we interact with the natural world. Both in Israel and the Diaspora, Tu B’Shevat is treated as an opportunity to engage in environmental social action projects such as planting trees or clearing outdoor spaces. There is also the custom of holding a Tu B’Shevat Seder, eating fruits that are part of the “Seven Species” of the land of Israel denoted in the Bible: Wheat, Barley, Grapes, Figs, Pomegranates, Olives and Dates. This Seder is a Lurianic Kabbalistic (spiritual) custom, but has also been associated with an ecological and environmental focus particularly in recent times.
However Tu B’Shevat is celebrated, it provides a chance to consider our impact on the environment, particularly as global warming and deforestation threaten the world in which we live. By celebrating the new year for trees whose original purpose was to protect trees to grow to maturity and try to establish good future harvests, we are able to highlight just how important our relationship is with the natural world and reaffirm a commitment to maintaining it for the future.