What is Tu B’Shevat about?

Dear Rabbi Fried,

Every year, since I was in Sunday religious school, I heard about Tu B’Shevat, the celebration of the trees. Now, 50 years later, I still don’t know what it’s all about and would appreciate your explanation. Thanks.

Morris K.

Dear Morris,

Tu B’Shevat, meaning the 15th day of the month of Shevat on the Jewish calendar, is celebrated this year on Thursday, Jan. 28. (“Tu” is an acronym for tes vov, the ninth and sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, totaling the number 15; hence, the 15th of Shevat.)

Jewish Law, as outlined in the Mishnah, proclaims Tu B’Shevat as the Rosh Hashanah, or the beginning of the year, for fruit-bearing trees (Talmud Rosh Hashanah, 2a). For the laws discussed in the Talmud, this means that for the purpose of tithing the fruit of trees, one cannot tithe from the fruit of one year together with the fruit of a different year. Tu B’Shevat is the time that the fruit-bearing trees of Israel begin to blossom, marking that time as a “new year” for the fruits; any fruit blossoming before that date belongs to the previous year.

This is in distinction to vegetables and legumes and the like, which are considered to have their “new year” marked like we do, on our very same Rosh Hashanah. The distinction and explanation of those technicalities, their sources and ramifications, are beyond the scope of this column.

Some of what applies to us, today, is that Tu B’Shevat is a special day of joy, reflected by the fact that, for example, certain prayers and petitions are omitted as we do on holidays (the Tachanun prayers, for instance). 

Furthermore, many have a custom to hold a type of “Tu B’Shevat Seder,” in which we recite the blessing on the fruit of the trees (…borei p’ri ha’etz) and eat various types of fruits, especially those which the Land of Israel is praised for. This would include grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (Deuteronomy 7:8). 

Some observe the Chasidic custom to recite a personal prayer, together with eating the fruits, that all of our actions, our children and our Torah study should all bear fruit — sweet, beneficial and pleasurable fruit which should continue to grow and bear more fruit (based upon Talmud Chagigah, 3b). Many embrace a similar Chasidic custom to say a prayer to receive a beautiful, kosher esrog (citron fruit) on the upcoming Sukkos holiday, since the blossoming and the growth of that fruit is said to commence on Tu B’Shevat. Some do so in conjunction with eating esrog jam on this day. 

Still others reflect on the verse, “…man is a tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19), which gives profound insight into the essence and growth of one who strives to become a great person and Jew. The Mishnah says that one should always be growing in their Torah knowledge, and should also have requisite good deeds, mitzvos, which even transcend the knowledge. This, says the Mishnah, is like a tree. For a tree to grow tall and mighty, to the extent that it is towering above the ground, it must have roots which are far deeper in the ground; otherwise a strong wind will blow it over. A tall tree with shallow roots will not endure; a tall tree with deeper roots will endure. The tree is the Jew, the height is the Torah knowledge, the roots are the actions (see Mishnah, Avos 3:12 and 3:22).

This is one reflection; there are many more, everyone finding their own inspiration for growth flowing from our comparison to a tree. 

May we all attain our full potential growth on this special day and going forward!

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