Tu B’Sh’vat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees by Rabbi Ellen Bernstein

tu b'sh'vat jewish new year for the trees pixabay

Generously provided by Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, author of The Splendor of Creation. The following is Rabbi Ellen’s Introduction to her recent A New Year for the Trees A Tu B’Sh’vat Seder for Everyone, © Ellen Bernstein, 2015.

A New Year for the Trees
A Tu B’Sh’vat Seder for Everyone
Ellen Bernstein
© Ellen Bernstein, 2015 www.ellenbernstein.org

Introduction – History and Customs

Tu B’Sh’vat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, falls on the full moon of the midwinter month of Sh’vat; it is literally the 15th of Sh’vat (the letters of “tu” add up to 15). Unlike the High Holidays and Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot, Tu B’Sh’vat is not mentioned in the Torah. It is first mentioned in the Talmud in the early centuries of the common era.

There are four new year days: the first of Nisan is the new year for reckoning the reigns of kings and the feasts; the first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of the cattle; the first of Tishrei is the new year for reckoning of the years and taking stock of human lives; the first of Sh’vat is the new year for the fruit trees. That is according to the school of Shammai; the school of Hillel says: on the 15th of Sh’vat.
-B. Rosh Hashanah 15b

Tu B’Sh’vat began as a day to pay tax on fruit trees. In order to pay the fruit tax, it was necessary to know to which year the fruits belonged. In Israel, fruit trees lie dormant during the rainy season from December to mid-February, when cold inhibits them from absorbing water. The trees’ new year began when the weather warmed up enough for the trees to soak up the water from the ground again. Fruits that ripened on the trees before Tu B’Sh’vat were taxed for the prior year, because they used the last year’s rainwater. Legends explain that the trees requested this unlikely mid-winter date for their new year because they understood their utter dependence on the winter rains. Their new year was a celebration of the waters that promised renewed life.

Given that, originally, the 15th of Sh’vat was not so dissimilar from our 15th of April, how did Tu B’ Sh’vat evolve into a joyous celebration? Bits and pieces of evidence show its development through the ages. In the tenth century, in a Tu B’Sh’vat poem, Rabbi Yehuda ben Hillel Ha- Levi praised trees and the Israelite landscape and described Tu B’Sh’vat as a festive new year. In the 10th century, Rabbenu Gershom, Israel’s chief rabbi, prohibited public fasts on Tu B’Sh’vat, declaring the day a celebration, not a deprivation. While there was no prescribed liturgy for Tu B’Sh’vat, there is evidence that many Jewish communities recited Psalm 104, which more than any other psalm, recounts God’s presence in all of nature.

Tu B’Sh’vat was a relatively minor holiday until the 1700’s, when the Kabbalists, the mystics who lived in Safed, took it to heart. They developed a Tu B’Sh’vat seder, a ritual meal and a guided conversation for this day, based on the structure (although not the content) of the Passover seder. The seder included four cups of wine, three categories of fruit, and readings about nature, and specifically about the ‘seven species,’ the seven types of fruits and grains mentioned in the Bible that grow in the land of Israel. We don’t know exactly who wrote the text for the original Tu B’Sh’vat seder, the P’ri Etz Hadar, or Fruit of the Goodly Tree, or when it was written. It was first published as part of an anthology of kabbalistic customs called the Hemdat Yamim and it was printed as a separate booklet in 1728 in Venice.

Until recently, Tu B’Sh’vat seders were popular only among the Sephardic communities where the P’ri Etz Hadar was reprinted many times in the last three centuries. In Ashkenazic literature, however, the P’ri Etz Hadar and its customs are never mentioned, undoubtedly because the Ashkenazic community condemned the Hemdat Yamim as heretical. The Ashkenazic Jews were rationalists and they considered the practices of the Sephardic Jews to be magical and superstitious.

Once the text for the seder was published and made available, communities around the world developed various ways to celebrate the holiday. The custom of eating fruit on Tu B’Sh’vat was common. In some communities, fifteen (‘tu’) kinds of fruits native to the land of Israel were eaten, recalling the days when the Israelites lived in close relationship with their trees on their own land. Tu B’Sh’vat was known as the ‘day of eating the seven species’ in Bucharia and Kurdistan, and the people feasted on thirty types of fruit. In India, it was fifty varieties. In Morocco, the rich invited their neighbors to their homes and loaded their guests’ hats with fruit. In Persia, Jews climbed on one another’s roofs and lowered empty baskets down chimneys; these were filled with fruit and returned. In Turkey, each family member developed a special relationship to one species of fruit. In many countries, people saved their etrogim (a citrus fruit) from Sukkot and made jelly from it on Tu B’Sh’vat.

A variety of folk practices were associated with Tu B’Sh’vat. In some areas barren women planted sweets or raisins near trees and prayed for fertility. In others, young girls, eager to wed, participated in imitation marriage ceremonies under special trees. One legend tells that the trees embraced each other on Tu B’Sh’vat, and those who witnessed the event were granted their wishes. As a holiday of rebirth, Tu B’Sh’vat symbolized resurrection and hope, and in some communities, those who had lost loved ones in the prior year would hold Tu B’Sh’vat ceremonies.

In this century, through the efforts of the Jewish National Fund, Tu B’Sh’vat has become associated with tree planting. Tu B’Sh’vat provided the early Zionists, who were eager to restore forests to the Israeli landscape, an opportunity to ritualize the act of planting and to engage Jews with the land of Israel. When this custom was inaugurated, the agricultural realities in Israel were not fully understood. The optimal planting season is earlier in the fall with the accompanying rains. Nevertheless, the custom of planting trees was established on Tu B’Sh’vat, and today, tree planting ceremonies take place throughout Israel, and Jews from around the world participate by contributing money to purchase trees.

Today with the renaissance in Judaism and spirituality in North America, the Tu B’Sh’vat seder has enjoyed unprecedented popularity over the last two decades. Because there is no established liturgy for the holiday, Tu B’Sh’vat lends itself to creative interpretation. Celebrate it! You and your families and friends can enjoy this festive holiday in your own way, or you can use the full seder as model. It is available at www.ellenbernstein.org, and you are welcome to use it as a blueprint for a Tu B’Sh’vat seder. (Many additional materials are available on Rabbi Ellen’s excellent website – please don’t miss them!)

(Top image source: Public domain image from pixabay)
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