In the first Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah we are told of four different New Years, and one of them is the New Year for trees, which falls on the 15th (ו “ט Tet Vav) of month of Shevat. It sounds odd at first – why should trees have a new year? What do they do to celebrate it? Well sadly the trees do nothing to celebrate, this is a date set for tax purposes – we are commanded to offer certain tithes from our grains and fruit trees, firstly to give ‘Terumah’ an offering to God in thanksgiving which was originally brought to the Temple, then to offer three different offerings in different agricultural years – one share given to the Levites, one share to be eaten in Jerusalem, and one share to be given to the poor. Also the age of a tree for the purposes of “orlah” (one is not allowed to eat the fruit from a tree in its first three years) was counted using Tu B’Shevat. The criteria as to which year a fruit fell into for tax purposes included which year it was formed in, and the critical date was the 15th of Shevat. Why this date? Because in Israel it was understood that the trees begin to grow on this date, coming out of their winter dormancy and beginning to form flowers and fruits.
While for a long time after the fall of the Temple the minor festival of Tu B’Shevat was effectively not much practised except in some liturgical amendments, it was not totally forgotten and there was an Ashkenazi custom to eat the different fruits and grains of Israel on the day “in honour of the significance of the day” and so grapes, figs, pomegranates, dates, olives, wheat and barley were all consumed especially on this day. In 16th Century Sfat in Northern Israel the Kabbalists who had gathered there connected the trees and fruit of the land with their own mystical tradition which used the idea of a Tree of Life with roots in the divine space and its branches in our world. They developed the kabbalistic Seder we know today. And of course return to the land and a renewed connection with the agricultural cycle has given Tu B’Shevat a new impetus in Jewish life today.
Trees have always been special in Jewish tradition, and fruit trees most of all. In bible the first thing that God does is to plant a garden within which are trees of all kinds and of course those two particularly special fruit trees – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (the fruit of which was eaten by Adam and Eve) and the tree of Life (whose fruit was specifically protected from being eaten by the expulsion from the garden of Adam and Eve). We are told that in order to imitate God, we too should plant our gardens and tend them well and planting trees in the Land of Israel is a mitzvah for us to this day. Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine wrote that agriculture has the power to unify the Jewish people, and that our ideal Jewish society should be based on agriculture rather than on commerce. Commenting on Mishnah Bikkurim 3:3 which tells us that “All the professionals in Jerusalem would stand before them (the farmers) and inquire as to their welfare,” Rabbi Kook wrote: “….When the nation is morally depraved, when individuals’ eyes and heart are only upon money, these two types, those who engage in nature and those who engage in artifice become alienated from one another. The farmers, who dwell in villages close to nature, will be the object of disrespect on the part of the professionals who have learned how to live as a society divorced from nature.” He worried that we would develop into a people who did not value the land and those who work it and who feed us all from it.
Fruit trees have a special place in our tradition – from the biblical injunction not to cut down fruit trees in times of war and siege to the extraordinary blessing to be said on seeing for the first time that year a fruit tree in bloom “Blessed are You, Eternal our God, King of the universe, Who has ensured there is nothing lacking in the world, and Who created in it good creatures and good trees in order to benefit and give pleasure to people, we are reminded that our lives are dependent on trees and plants, that we are nourished and sustained by them and would quickly die if they failed.
Tu B’Shevat comes to remind us to look again at how we value our trees and our land, and how we value those who work with the land in order to provide our food. It reminds us that we are all dependent on the natural world, that we must look after it and keep it in good order not only for our time but for the generations that follow. The midrash in Kohelet Rabbah tells us that God took the first human being around the Garden of Eden and said “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are, and everything that I created, I created for you. Be careful. Do not spoil or destroy my world, for if you do there will be nobody who will come after you to repair it”
Recipe: My mum’s Date and Walnut Bread
½ cup roughly chopped walnuts
½ lb chopped dates
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
¾ cup boiling water
½ cup sugar
1 ½ cups self raising flour
Large knob of butter
Put dates, bicarbonate and butter into a bowl and pour on the water
Add beaten egg, flour etc and mix together
Bake in a loaf tin for one hour, 180C
(first written for wimshul cooks on wordpress in 2012)