Updated: Jul 14
The month of Shvat
Today is Rosh Chodesh Shvat; the first day of the Jewish month of Shvat. The countdown to spring is beginning, which is ironic since it feels more like summer here in Israel right now. But in two weeks, whether we’re in short sleeves or sweaters, we will celebrate the unofficial first day of spring called Tu B’Shvat (in Hebrew: the 15th day of the month of Shvat). It’s also known as Rosh HaShanah La'ilanot - the New Year for the Trees.
Tu B'Shvat in the States and In Israel
Growing up in the States, the holiday was all about bokser (Carob fruit), but here, the holiday enjoys a whole different vibe. Schools use the holiday as a springboard for teaching about ecological sustainability and nursery school children proudly make their way home with a sapling in hand. Trails are filled with students escaping the confines of the classroom, hoping to see the season’s first flowering almond trees. Local plant nurseries are filled with families using the holiday as a reminder to start planning their summer gardens. And the news is peppered with stories about successful new farming techniques developed here in Israel.
The history of Tu B'Shvat
But what is the history of this much-loved Israeli celebration of nature? Israel is Beautiful is happy to share some background with you.
The Torah (Leviticus 19:23) tell us that when the Children of Israel would enter the land and plant trees, the fruit of the trees would be forbidden to them for three years. But the farmers needed a date for counting those years. The rabbis, after much discussion, established the 15th of Shvat as the New Year for the Trees. Why this date?
Counting the years
Well, before we answer that question, it’s important to understand the importance of fruit trees in the Land of Israel. Even after the three years, the farmers could not immediately benefit from them. In the fourth year, the fruit had to be presented to the priests serving in the Holy Temple as a way to thank G-d for the bounty of the land. It wasn’t until the fifth year that the fruit really belonged to the farmers to do with as they wished. And, in Leviticus chapter 20, shortly after the discussion of allowing the trees to mature before taking their fruit, the Israelites are warned not to destroy the fruit trees when they are involved in a protracted battle. The fruit trees provide sustenance and their bounty cannot be taken for granted.
So, again, why did the rabbis establish the new year for the trees on the 15th day of Shvat? Shvat usually comes out between late January to mid-February. By this point, the majority of the rainfall in Israel has fallen and Israeli farmers can plant in the rich, drenched soil.
A Tu B'shvat seder
And the spirituality of the day is marked with Tu B’Shvat seders inspired by kabbalistic comparisons between the hidden inner spark of all human beings with the inner potential of life found hidden in the seeds of fruits and nuts. Elaborate platters piled high with fruits and nuts are passed around as friends and family read biblical and kabbalistic passages relating to the potential of man and the trees of Israel.
While Tu B’Shvat seders may be relegated to Zoom this year, Israelis can still mark the holiday by looking for the first blossoming almond trees and planning their summer gardens on balconies, terraces, back yards and even on windowsills.
Wishing you all a very green and happy Tu B'shvat.
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