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The Story of Tu B'Shvat

While some holidays, like Yom Kippur and Passover, have always taken a central place in the Jewish calendar, others had a tendency to fall in and out of favor. A well known example is Chanukah, but even a more striking example is Tu B’Shvat (which we will celebrate at the end of January), as it owes its historical revival to the least expected people: A Jewish False Messiah and a U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. 

Tu B’Shvat simply means “the 15th day of the month of Shvat” and was originally a Tax Day for the purpose of tithing fruit to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The farmer would calculate all the produce he grew until that date and would pay accordingly. After the destruction of the Temple by the Romans at 70 CE, the practice became obsolete and would have been completely forgotten had the rabbis in the Mishnah (200 CE) not given it a rather festive name – “Rosh Hashanah (New Year) for the Trees”. 

Despite its celebratory name, Tu B’Shvat had neither prayers nor rituals and remained a theoretical subject until Rabbi Isaac Luria moved from Cairo to Tzfat in the 16th century and attached to it a mystical meaning. One of the people who were influenced by Luria’s revolutionary thinking that involved the belief that the messiah was just around the corner was a young Jewish man from Izmir by the name of Shabtai Tzvi. Tzvi proclaimed himself to be the Messiah and many Jews followed him until he ended up converting to Islam (albeit under duress). Yet some remained loyal to him even after his death and in his honor the believers celebrated Tu B’Shvat as Shabtai Tzvi Day (mainly because he was known as a “Tree of Life”) with a festive meal, modeled after the Passover Seder. The ritual feast included eating 30 fruits, drinking 4 cups of wine and the recitation of prayers and of biblical readings. Despite its origin in a False Messiah, the Tu B’Shvat Seder was adopted by many rabbis and is still celebrated today across all Jewish denominations. 

In 1872 Julius Sterling Morton, who was a Nebraska newspaper editor and later served as a Secretary of Agriculture, founded Arbor Day by planting one million trees in his state. The news about the new festival quickly spread all over the US and across the ocean. Hamelitz, an influential Hebrew newspaper published in Saint Petersburg, called it fondly “new Yankee holiday”. A week later, the paper went further and claimed that Arbor Day was in fact a Jewish festival and its name is New Year’s for the Trees – Tu B’Shvat. Now, with Arbor Day as completely Jewish, planting trees became an important historical Jewish ideal. This is when Jews began planting trees (or sending money for that purpose) in Palestine, and after 1948 in the State of Israel. 

Today, while we still eat fruits and plant trees, we are witnessing a new incarnation of Tu B’shvat as a festival focusing on environmental awareness. As it is written in Midrash Kohelet Raba 7:28: 

“When the Holy One of Blessing created the first human He took him and showed him all trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him ‘See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy My world – for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.’”

Happy Tu B’Shvat!

Wed, December 2 2020 16 Kislev 5781