By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
Since being a child in Sunday school I have celebrated Tu B’shevat, singing the songs of Tu B’shevat Higia and other songs and eating fruits with my children, but I’ve never had the opportunity to understand it as an adult…I’m actually clueless as to what it really means (as I realized after an embarrassing encounter with a gentile co-worker who asked me to explain it to her). Could you please offer some updated information?
The word “Tu B’Shevat” means the 15th day of the month of Shevat. (The word “Tu” is an acronym for the Hebrew letters Tet and Vav, which spell the word “Tu” and have a total numerical value of 15). The Mishna says that this date is one of the four Rosh Hashanah days of the year. Besides the Day of Judgment we famously know as Rosh Hashanah, there are three other days which are considered the beginning of the year with regards to the growth of animals, vegetables and grains, Tu B’Shevat being one of them.
Tu B’Shevat is the beginning of the Jewish year with regards to the cutoff date to when performing the mitzvah of tithing the trees in Israel. One can tithe from the fruit of one tree for the other trees if their fruit began to ripen during the same year; one cannot tithe from fruits of one year to the next. This date also affects which fruits are considered to belong to the seventh, Sabbatical year in Israel, depending upon if the fruit began to ripen before or after Tu B’Shevat of the Sabbatical year (giving the fruits a different status if they do or do not belong to the Sabbatical year). Why this date was designated for the above determination has to do with the cycle of rainfall; most of the rain for the year in Israel falls before Tu B’Shevat.
Although this day is referred to as a Rosh Hashanah, the designation applies only to the above indicated matter; the day is not marked by a prohibition from work nor is it observed with festive meals or in the prayer service. It is, however, invested with a festive sense; we do not recite solemn prayers (tachanun, or eulogies, or Av Harachamim if it falls on Shabbos). It is customary to eat fruits which are ascribed to the Land of Israel; some do a “Tu B’Shevat Seder” filled with fruits and nuts. It is also customary to eat a “new fruit” in order to recite the joyous Shehechiyanu blessing.
One unique prayer recited by many on Tu B’Shevat is the prayer for a beautiful and kosher etrog (citron fruit) for the mitzvah of lulav on Sukkos, since the beginning of the maturation of those fruits is said to begin on Tu B’Shevat. My wife Miri has adopted the custom (and recipe) of the great Rebbetzin Tzeinvirt (wife of my late mentor, R’ Yosel Tzeinvirt ob’m) to make etrog jam to give out in shul on Tu B’Shevat. This is to provide people the opportunity to recite a prayer for a beautiful new etrog while partaking from the past year’s etrog.
Tu B’Shevat was always a special, joyous time for me to visit my Rebbe, R’ Yosel and the Rebbetzin, to receive some jam and their blessings, which they always showered upon us, especially on Tu B’Shevat. R’ Yosel would always say, “Tu B’Shevat is a type of joyous Rosh Hashanah not only for trees, but for us all, for the Torah compares a person to a tree. We, like the trees, need to continue to grow in our Torah and mitzvos, put down deeper roots, and extend our branches out to reach out to others. Our studies, teaching and our actions should ‘bear fruit’! Since all that we do is compared to the bearing of fruit, Tu B’Shevat is a special time for us to be blessed to indeed produce many, sweet fruits from all we do!”
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.