Tu BiShvat – The New Year of the Trees

Many countries in the world observe the holiday of planting trees, which is great because it teaches and reminds people of the vital role that trees play in our lives and the environment. In this way, it promotes and celebrates ecological awareness. This type of observance is usually called “Arbor Day,” where people plant trees or raise funds to plant trees. Other countries call this observance “National Tree Planting Day.”

Here in Israel, people observe Arbor Day, too. It is called “Tu BiShvat” (or “Tu B’Shevat”). “Tu BiShvat” literally means “the 15th day of Shvat.” Shvat (or Shevat) is the fifth month of the civil year and the eleventh month of the Hebrew calendar’s ecclesiastical year. It is approximate to January-February on the more familiar Gregorian calendar.

When and how was Tu BiShvat established?

Tu BiShvat is a minor Jewish holiday. Unlike the typical Arbor Day, which is purely secular in nature, Tu BiShvat has a spiritual significance. And there’s more to Tu BiShvat than just planting trees!

Tu BiShvat marks the season in which the earliest-blooming trees emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle. Traditionally, it marked an important date for Jewish farmers during ancient times. The Torah says, “When you enter the land of Israel and plant any tree or food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten” (Leviticus 19:23). The fruit of the trees in their fourth year was to be offered to the priests of the Temple as a gesture of gratitude for the bounty of the land, the fruit of the fifth year – and subsequently all produce – would be, finally, to the farmer.

However, this law raised questions about how farmers were to mark the tree’s “birthday.” Therefore, the rabbis established the 15th of Shvat as the “birthday” for all trees, regardless of when they were actually planted.

The Torah makes special mention of fruit trees because of their importance of providing food and sustaining life, as well as a gesture of God’s divine favor. Even during times of war, God warns the Israelites not to destroy the trees: 

“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees… Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed.” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).

Talmudic explanation

In later years, the Talmud rabbis established four “new years” throughout the Jewish calendar: 

  • The first of the month of Nisan – the new year for kings and festivals;
  • The first of the month of Elul – the new year for tithing (taxing) cattle of Jewish farmers to be offered to the Temple; but some other rabbis placed this on the first of Tishrei.
  • The first of the month Tishrei – the new year for years (for the calculation of the calendar) and for release years (the sabbatical years), jubilees, planting and for the tithe of vegetables; 
  • The first of the month of Shevat – the new year for trees, according to the school of Shammai (although the school of Hillel established this on the 15th of Shvat).

The Talmudic rabbis have given an explanation why Tu BiShvat was established as the new year for the trees, saying that Tu BiShvat occurs after mid-winter (usually in February) and concluding that most of the annual rainfall has already occurred by this time in the Land of Israel. This results in healthy, water-logged soil, which is ideal for planting trees. 

Kabbalistic custom

In the Middle Ages, kabbalists (Jewish mystics) saw Tu BiShvat with greater spiritual significance. They celebrated Tu BiShvat with a feast of fruits in keeping with the Mishnaic definition of the holiday as a “New Year.” They established a Tu BiShvat seder in which the trees and their fruits were given symbolic meaning. The central concept was that eating ten specific fruits and drinking four cups of wine in a particular order while reciting blessings would help bring human beings and the world achieve spiritual perfection.

In modern Israel, the kabbalistic custom of Tu BiShvat seder has been revived and observed by many Jews.

Hasidic custom

Hasidic Jews pickle or candy etrog (citron) from Sukkot and eat it on Tu BiShvat. Some people would pray that they will be worthy of a beautiful etrog on the following Sukkot.

Tu BiShvat – the Jewish “Earth Day”

For the Jewish environmentalists in Israel and the Jewish diaspora, Tu BiShvat is considered an ancient and authentic “Earth Day,” educating Jews about the traditional advocacy of conserving God’s creations as manifested in ecological activism.