Growing Tradition: Tu b'Shevat

Growing Tradition: Tu b'Shevat

The Jewish Journal, January 2014
Mike Comins

Would you throw a birthday party for your child at 3 a.m.? The Jewish New Year of the Trees, Tu b’Shevat (the 15th of the Hebrew month Shevat), falls in the dead of winter. Instead of colorful flowers or delicious fruit, deciduous trees are barren of even leaves! 

But this strange situation is yet another testament to the power of our dynamic tradition, and the loyalty and creativity of its adherents.

The origins of Tu b’Shevat are mundane to the core. In ancient times, the majority of people were farmers. They paid their taxes by tithing their produce. The question inevitably arose: Do these olives or figs belong to the current tax year or the next one? They needed to choose a date, and, to avoid confusion, they picked one far away from harvest time. 

As tithing stopped with the loss of sovereignty in our land, one would have expected Tu b’Shevat to remain an obscure date known only to scholars and students of the Talmud — at best, the answer to a Jewish trivial pursuit question.

Skip ahead to 16th century Sfat (Safed), where the great rabbis — Isaac Luria, Joseph Caro and others — led a renaissance of Jewish legal thinking and Jewish mystical thought. They connected with the natural world around them and are perhaps best known in popular Jewish culture for going out into the fields to welcome the Sabbath bride and bringing the beloved prayer “Lecha Dodi” into the Kabbalat Shabbat Friday night liturgy. They saw a great spiritual opportunity in the New Year of the Trees, reflecting the already well-developed metaphor and symbol of the Torah as a “Tree of Life.”

Like most innovation in the conservative Middle Ages, the mystics of Sfat adapted an accepted form, the Passover seder, to introduce a new ritual. The Tu b’Shevat seder was structured around the drinking of four cups of wine, frequent blessings and the telling of stories from the Midrash (Jewish legends and interpretations of the Bible).

Medieval Jewish mystics experienced God as a Divine Flow, the Shefa, which sustains and enlivens creation. All of Jewish ritual and the performance of commandments, according to this view, have an additional purpose: to affect the Shefa, sometimes called the “River of Light,” and bring God‘s blessing into the world. The new Tu b’Shevat seder was dedicated to that purpose. At the seder, participants eat different kinds of fruits and nuts and say the appropriate blessings with the intention of drawing Divine goodness and light into the earth and its creatures.

Still, Tu b’Shevat remained in the shadows, as the ritual was only celebrated by a dwindling number of mystics in the late Middle Ages (though the advent of Chasidism appears to have enlarged the number in early modernity). But Jewish history was not finished. The rise of Zionism renewed the Jewish connection with nature on a massive scale, and as the Jewish National Fund began the reforestation of Palestine and then Israel, the New Year of the Trees was rediscovered again. New songs and largely secular rituals were created to educate and rally the Jewish People in support of the new Jewish polity. 

Today, the story continues to be written. In the last generation, a renewed interest in spirituality and the rise of the Jewish environmental movement prompted many to search Jewish sources and rituals for insight and guidance. It was “deja vu all over again” as Tu b’Shevat garnered new attention. The holiday is now celebrated in various iterations across Israel and the Diaspora, and Tu b’Shevat seders, creatively adapted to our times, are common in many communities and households.

That a tax deadline for Israelites living 2,500 years ago is today a significant, if minor Jewish holiday is the kind of thing we take for granted as heirs to an ancient tradition. Reinventing ourselves might be a Jewish norm, but it boggles the mind nevertheless.

Tu b’Shevat may now be at its most popular moment in Jewish history, but I would argue that it is not prominent enough. When I look at the ideas and activities attracting the next generation, my judgment is that Israel, environmentalism and spirituality are in the top five. Tu b’Shevat combines them in a unique historical, political and moral context that demonstrates the vitality of Jewish culture and the creativity of the Jewish people. I pray that the story of Tu b’Shevat is just getting going.