Holidays with a strong “home” component have always been my favorite. Passover, Sukkot, Hanukkah, and Thanksgiving (definitely a “Jewish” holiday) allow us to be creative in our Jewish expression. No two families have the same Passover seder or decorate their Sukkah in precisely the same fashion. No two families have the same Thanksgiving rituals or make exactly the same latkes. “Home” holidays provide an opportunity for us to tailor our Jewish experience in a profoundly personal way.
One frequently neglected opportunity for home-holiday creativity is Tu B’shevat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. Since the inception of Judaism, Tu B’shevat has served as the New Year for trees, just as Rosh Hashanah is the New Year for us as human beings. According to Beit Hillel in the first mishnah of tractate Rosh Hashanah, this date was chosen because most of the annual rainfall in the land of Israel occurs before this date, as it does here in the Bay Area. Therefore, any fruit which blossoms after Tu B’shevat belongs to the next year when it comes to tithing and observing other agricultural laws. As blossoms begin to bud and winter begins to fade, Tu B’shevat marks the first hints of Spring in Israel, but this is not the end of the story.
For all of Jewish history, Tu B’shevat has lent itself to creativity in the collective consciousness of the Jewish people. After the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from their land, Tu B’shevat decreased in its importance as a signifier of agricultural requirements while the centrality of trees and our concern for them increased. The rabbis extrapolated numerous laws regarding trees. For instance, the commandment against being wasteful is derived from a concern regarding fruit-bearing trees. In the 16th century the holiday underwent a significant revival and transformation as the kabbalists built an entire seder (similar to Passover) around the concept of trees as metaphors for the essential aspects of cosmology, personality, and Divinity. In the 19th century the holiday took on significance as a motivation to rebuild Zion and establish a renewed Jewish state, particularly through the reforestation project of the Jewish National Fund. For many, planting a tree in Israel through JNF is still the primary activity of Tu B’shevat. Finally, in the late 20th century, the holiday became something of a Jewish Earth Day, drawing on centuries of Jewish laws and literature expressing an ardent connection between Judaism and environmentalism.
Today, Jews throughout the world embrace different aspects of Tu B’shevat’s history in crafting their own experience, but the unifying element of all Tu B’shevat observance and celebration is the focus on trees as an absolute necessity for human existence. Biologically, ecologically, aesthetically, emotionally, and psychologically, we need trees in our world at a fundamental level. Tu B’shevat is about taking time out of our lives to elevate our awareness of this inalienable fact as individuals, families, and a Jewish people. For us as 21st century Jews living in the Diaspora, Tu B’shevat can be a tailored amalgam of ritual. Plant a tree in Israel; plant a tree right here in California; hold a Tu B’shevat seder for you family (let me know if you would like guidance on selecting a seder…there are lots of them online); purchase agricultural products from Israel; make a commitment in some way to increase your efforts in saving our planet; commit to reciting traditional Jewish blessings of thanksgiving for our food in recognition of the agricultural, Divine, and environmental resources that brought your food to your plate; come up with your own way to elevate you consciousness and that of your family to the importance we place on trees and the environment as Jews. Above all else, be creative and engage your children and grandchildren in the planning process. There are innumerable positive, creative, and memorable moments to be had this Tu B’shevat if we take the time out of our daily lives to experience them. This year, Tu B’shevat is on January 31st.