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What is Tu Bishvat?

Tu Bishvat, sometimes transliterated as Tu B'Shevat, traditionally marks the date on which farmers began calculating the tithing of their fruit crop for the coming year.

    (Photo credit VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

    Origins

    Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees, is a minor festival and one of four new years – the others being Rosh Hashanah on Tishri 1, the start of the calendar year on Nisan 1 and the least known, Ellul 1, the new year for tithing cattle in classical days (akin to the start of the tax year).

    Unlike the other new years, Tu Bishvat occurs mid-month rather than at the beginning; its name simply refers to the date on which it falls, the 15th day of the eleventh month, Shevat. Although not mentioned in the Bible, it is referred to as Rosh Hashanah L’Ilanot, New Year for Trees, in the Talmud and marked the date on which farmers began calculating the tithing of their fruit crop for the coming year.

    Modern observance

    While it is rooted in the agricultural life of the past, the festival has enjoyed a new lease of life for two reasons. Firstly, for the Zionist movement, planting trees in the Land of Israel was a practical way to regenerate the ancestral homeland, hence the festival became associated with the greening of Israel. Even outside Israel, schools and synagogues will often commemorate the day by planting a new sapling.

    Secondly, as environmental awareness has grown, so Tu Bishvat has become more significant to some as a reminder of responsibility to the planet. (The biblical ban on cutting down a fruit tree around a city under siege is one example of an eco-friendly commandment.)

    Celebrating Tu Bishvat

    The most popular way of celebrating the day is very simple – to eat fruit, especially fruit connected with the Land of Israel. Many will go on a fruit spree and make sure to eat 15 different types. 

    While today it is easy to get hold of fruit from Israel all year round, in the days before modern transportation, Jews in Europe would often eat the dry fruit of the carob on Tu Bishvat since it could endure a long journey. It is far from being an exotic fruit (and is now used as a substitute for chocolate) but has historic cachet since it is mentioned several times in the Talmud. Another tree linked with the festival is almond, as it was among the first to reawaken in spring in the Land of Israel.

    A custom that has been enjoying a revival is the holding of a Tu Bishvat Seder. It was instituted in the latter part of the 16th century by the Kabbalists of the town of Safed. As with the Pesach Seder, it is punctuated by the drinking of four cups of wine but with a difference: the first cup is traditionally white wine, the second white with a few drops of red, the third mixed red and white, and the fourth mostly red. In the mystical tradition, white is associated with the attribute of kindness, red with justice.

    It is customary also to eat four groups of fruit at various points during the Seder, each group invested with different spiritual connotations.

    Unlike the Pesach Haggadah, there is no prescribed liturgy for Tu Bishvat, hence greater scope for creative freedom about what to read around the table.

    Religious requirements

    It is not permitted to fast on Tu Bishvat and the supplicatory prayers of Tachanun are omitted from the morning service.

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