The almond trees are blooming, filling the landscape with more color of pink and white on green and brown. It is a sign for the end of winter and the coming of spring. It is Tu B’Shvat
It is mid-winter.
Good winters are filled with cold and rain, and hopefully snow in the higher regions of the country. In this coldest, darkets time of the year, Israel celebrates the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, the Festival of the Trees.
This is not a religious holiday like most of the other Jewish holidays. What this means is that it is not a holiday stipulated in the Tanach (Hebrew bible) and so there are no particular religious ceremonies to keep. In modern Israel work and school continue as usual. The holiday usually falls in late January or early February.
Tu B’Shvat derives its name from the Hebrew month of Shvat. Tu is the 15th day of this month, the day of the full moon. The original purpose of the holiday as described in the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah was as one of the four new years in the Jewish Calendar:
- The first of Nisan – new year for kings and festivals
- The first of Elul – new year for animal tithes
- The first of Tishrei- new year for calculation of the calendar, sabbatical years and jubilees, for planting and sowing
- The fifteenth of Shvat – the new year of the trees
There was a very important function for determining the new year of the trees. According to Jewish law fruits of trees could not be eaten or used as tithing during the first three years (Leviticus 19:23). Tu B’Shvat became the cut off date. In the final year, fruit ripening before Tu B’Shvat were considered mature and was permitted for tithing. Fruit ripening after this date was not permitted as tithing.
Let’s face it, tithing in those days was a form of taxation, so this could be very important for the farmer. In some Jewish ortodox circles these rules are still adhered to in determining if something is kosher or not.
Customs around Tu B’Shvat
It was always customary to mark this day by planting trees and eating of nuts and dried fruits. From a practical point of view this is natural. This is the time of year that is best for planting trees, as the soil is wet and more rain is still expected. The trees have the best chance to flourish.
Nuts and dried fruits. Mid-winter. No doubt people on purpose prepared dried fruits and stored nust for the time of the year when there would have been a scarcity of fresh fruits.
In 1890 Rabbi Zeev Yavetz took his students in Zichron Yaacov and planted trees on this day. This tradition was adopted by the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayement l’Israel) and the Jewish Teachers Union in 1908.
It is no surprise that the two organizations leading Tu B’Shvat are these two. Throughout most of modern Israel school children go planting, often in collaboration with Jewish National Fund. But many adults join in, and this can go into the millions total.
As part of keeping the traditions, many families make a seder meal with dried fruits and nuts, a seder meal emulating the Passover Seder, even with its own hagaddah.
For most Israelis Tu B’Shvat marks the beginning of the end of winter. The sign for this are the almond trees. When they bloom in pink or white flowers, we know that longer and warmer days are approaching. In their own right the blossoming almond trees are a magnificent sight, the tree being without leaves, and the middle of fields or orchards green from the winter rains.