From the Rabbi (February 2017)
Tu BiShvat, which falls this year on Friday evening, February 10 and Saturday, February 11, is the New Year for Trees. Our adult education class recently studied some of the texts relating to this date and found a rather interesting history behind it. We began in the Mishnah, the early third century compilation of rabbinic law, where we are told about four different new year’s days. Not only is there “our” Rosh Hashanah on the first of Tishri, but for various purposes, the rabbis noted three other new years as cut off points either for dating documents, for making vows, or for the determination of tithes and other laws relating to produce. In the course of this discussion, we learned that the School of Shammai set the first of Shvat as the new year for trees, however their colleagues in the School of Hillel chose the fifteenth of Shvat (Tu BiShvat) instead, and that we follow the latter opinion.
The rabbis make it clear, however, that unlike Rosh Hashanah, the new year for trees was not a day of judgment. On the contrary, they established Shavuot, the festival of first fruits, as the time of year when the world is judged for the fruit of the trees. So in what sense, was Tu BiShvat a new year for trees? The rabbis chose this date, after most of the rain of the rainy season in Israel had fallen, as the cut-off date for determining the “tax-year” for tithing the fruit of trees and for other laws relating to fruits from trees. All fruit that had ripened prior to Tu BiShvat was taxed in the outgoing year and all fruit that ripened subsequently was taxed in the new year. This distinction was made for two reasons: first, because one was allowed to pay the tithes on one year, only from the produce of that year and secondly, because in different years, the tithes went for different purposes. None of this sounds terribly festive or provides much of a reason to celebrate.
Once the Jews were scattered around the world, these laws became fairly irrelevant unless you were living in the land of Israel. Jews in the diaspora recalled the date and so, by medieval times, we have certain liturgical recognition of Tu BiShvat, since it was called a “new year” as a quasi-holiday. That meant we omitted certain prayers that we omit on festive occasions and we do not fast on it. Still not really festive.
Sometime in the mid-16th century, we come across a mention by a Moroccan rabbi that he noticed while living in the Kabbalistic center of Safed in Israel, that the Ashkenazic community had a custom of eating many fruits on Tu BiShvat in honor of the name “new year for the tree.” Though this mention is included in a number of commentaries on the code of Jewish law, it seems that many Ashkenazim were unaware of it and did not practice it. As for the Sephardim, they did not know of this custom at all. The great kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, did not promulgate any particular observance for the day, nor do his disciples mention anything, though some of these rabbis produced volumes that speak of the land of Israel and of some thirty varieties of fruits and nuts with which God has blessed the land.
It was not until the 18th century, that an unknown author, a follower of Rabbi Luria’s students, proposed a seder utilizing these thirty kinds of fruits and nuts, and a mixture of red and white wine, together with a prescribed ritual including verses and kabbalistic discussion about these fruits, that a new “tradition” was born. Very quickly it spread, not among the Ashkenazim, who really did not have much access to fresh fruits in the winter months, but to the Sephardic communities, who embraced this new ritual enthusiastically and filled their tables to overflowing with all kinds of wonderful fruits and berries and nuts. They ate them in three different groups, those with shells, those with inner pits, and those which one could eat in their entirety. Together with the prayers and readings, four cups of wine and feasting, this became a true holiday and celebration among our Sephardic brothers.
Later it spread among the Chasidim and back into the Ashkenazic communities as well. In the past several decades, the Tu BiShvat Seder as reconfigured by modern rabbis has become associated not only with all kinds of fruits and nuts, but with the rebirth and reforestation of the State of Israel, with all kinds of environmental concerns, and with our general celebration of all of God’s creation.
We will be holding a Tu BiShvat Seder on Sunday, February 12, as part of our religious school program and we invite you to join us to take part in this joyous celebration of the new year of the trees.’
Rabbi Edward Friedman