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Tu B'shevat: Meaning & Opportunities

01/13/2021 11:45:13 AM

Jan13

Rabbi Brent Spodek

Towards the end of January, we'll celebrate Tu B'shevat, the Jewish holiday often thought of as the New Year for Trees. 

The name of the holiday is actually its date, like the Fourth of July in English. “Tu” is a pronunciation of the Hebrew letters for the number 15, and it falls in the Hebrew month of "Shevat."

In ancient times, Tu Bishvat was less of a holiday and more of an accounting date, similar to how for many organizations, July 1 is the start of the fiscal year. 

The Torah teaches, “When you enter the land of Israel and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten” (Leviticus 19:23). So nobody ate the fruit of the first three years. The fruit of the fourth year was to be offered to the priests in the Temple in gratitude for the bounty of the land, and the fruit of the fifth year -- and all subsequent fruit–was for the farmer. This law, however, raised the question of when the year began for the trees, so the Rabbis established the 15th of the month of Shevat as a general “birthday” for all trees, regardless of when they were actually planted.

It was years later, in the Middle Ages, that the kabbalists (Jewish mystics) gave Tu Bishvat greater spiritual significance. In the mystical tradition, all physical forms – including human beings – hide within them a spark of the Divine Presence, just as fruits or nuts hide within them seeds of new life and potential growth. The mystical tradition holds that human actions can release these sparks and help increase the Divine presence in the world, so on Tu Bishvat, kabbalists eat certain fruits as a symbolic way of releasing these divine sparks.

In contemporary times, Tu Bishvat has functioned as a “Jewish Earth Day,” where we center both our spiritual practices and the urgent activism needed to avert further climate catastrophe.  

In years past, we have gathered for Tu Bishvat Seders, modeled on the teaching of the mystics. This year, there are a few ways to take part:

However you mark the holiday, I pray this coming year is one of renewal for the trees as well as all of us who rely on the trees for food, air and even proof of the Divine Presence. 

Sat, January 16 2021 3 Shevat 5781