This Wednesday evening and Thursday, Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of Tu B’Shevat (15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat). Tu B’shevat traditions include planting new trees, and eating dried fruit. Tu B’Shevat has also become the Jewish Earth Day, to celebrate the environment and learn about ecology.
What is Tu B’Shevat all about?
In ancient times, rabbis set Tu B’Shevat as the new year for trees. Since the date of tree’s flowering determined the age of the fruit, a tree whose flowers budded before Tu Beshevat yielded fruit that counted as produce from the previous year.
The rabbis needed to know the age of the fruit for two reasons:
- Tithes were taken on a seven-year cycle. For example, during the third and sixth years of the cycle an extra portion was given to the poor. During the seventh (sabbatical) year, the land lay fallow. Fruit from the seventh year could not be sold—instead it was distributed among the population at no charge
- Fruit from trees less than three years old had the status of orlah and could not be eaten, and special rules applied to fruit from the fourth year.
These rules are still observed today, with some accommodations for a modern economy.
The rabbis wanted to set a specific date during the agricultural season to begin counting the age of the tree. They chose one in the middle of the rainy season, when no one was likely to be planting. That way it would be easier to know whether the fruit, which almost always buds after Tu B’shvat, belonged to this year or to the previous one.
Tu B’Shevat has nothing to do with actually planting trees, but that hasn’t stopped generations of Israeli schoolchildren from braving the cold and damp to plant throughout the country. The ecological sentiment has borne fruit, as Israel was one of the few countries to end the last century with more trees than it had at the beginning.
Eating fruit is another worthy tradition for Tu B’shevat, particularly the seven biblical species: olives, dates, figs, pomegranates, and grapes along with barley and wheat. You can incorporate the fruit, along with wine, into a celebratory meal known as a Tu B’Shevat Seder. Many people associate dried fruit with the holiday, because the Jews in Eastern Europe couldn’t get fresh fruit in the winter. Here in the Middle East, one can find fresh dates and pomegranates, along with pickled olives. Israeli markets also feature delicious local produce like avocado, persimmons, and oranges.
Another annual tradition is for the media to warn the public about the chemicals used in processing dried fruit. Look for organic produce.