Sign In Forgot Password

Tu B'Shevat

Tu B'Shevat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, is called the New Year for Trees, as it marked the date at which the tithe for fruit-bearing trees was calculated. Unlike our contemporary dread of "tax day," Tu B'Shevat is a joyous occasion celebrating the magnificent natural world with which God has blessed humankind and emphasizing the importance of caring for and preserving our environment. Jewish mystics interpreted the New Year for Trees as an anniversary for the Tree of Life—like the Sephirotic chart describing the emanations of God's creation as a tree whose roots are in heaven and whose fruit is all of the universe. Just as trees begin to bud in the middle of winter, the Tu B'Shevat Seder describes a re-awakening of the mystical Tree of Life honoring the four worlds: Acting, Relating, Knowing and Being.

Temple Emanu-El traditionally holds a Tu B'Shevat Seder and Winetasting, followed by our Shabbat Shirah service. 

God led Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, "Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world -- for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you."

-- Midrash, Ecclesiastes Rabbah

 What is Tu B'Shevat?

Tu B'Shevat, the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat, is also known as the New Year for Trees. ("Tu" comes from the Hebrew letters "tet", the ninth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and "vav", the sixth; nine plus six is fifteen.) Judaism has several different "new years", much like in America we have the calendar year (January-December), the school year (September-June), or the fiscal year.

Tu B'Shevat is the new year for the purpose of calculating the age of trees for tithing. In the time of the First Temple, farmers were taxed on their crops and produce as well as their animals. After grains and fruit were gathered, there was a mandatory gift (tax) called "Terumah" given to any person who was a Kohain (priest). Also, there was a series of taxes called "Ma'aser", meaning "a tenth", or one tenth of the harvest. "Ma'aser Rishon" (The First Tenth) went to any member of the tribe of Levi. There are two other Ma'aser gifts, only one of which was taken in any given year: "Ma'aser Sheini" (The Second Tenth) was taken by its owner to Jerusalem to be eaten there, and "Ma'aser Ani" (The Tenth of the Poor) was given to the poor.

What is the significance of Tu B'Shevat?

Spiritually, Tu B'Shevat was designated as the time of renewal. The early winter rains were mostly over, the sap in the trees had risen, and the period of budding was just beginning. The origin of Tu B'Shevat in the Torah was a time for renewal of our commitment to God and to share the yield of the land with the poor: "Every year, you shall set aside a tenth part of the yield, so that you may learn to revere your God forever" (Deuteronomy 14:22-23).

After the exile of the Jews from Israel, Tu B'Shevat became the day to commemorate our connection to the Land of Israel. Originally, Tu B'Shevat was observed by eating fruit associated with Israel. Deuteronomy 8:8 lists five fruits and two grains from the "land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and [date] honey." Almonds were particularly popular at Tu B'Shevat since they were believed to be the first trees in Israel to blossom.

The medieval mystical Kabbalists carried their interpretation of Tu B'Shevat a step further. For them, trees were a symbol of humans: "For a human is like a tree of the field" (Deut. 20:19). Kabbalists regarded eating a variety of fruits on Tu B'Shevat as a way of improving our spiritual selves. They pictured their philosophical construct of the Sephirot (the ten mystical emanations of the Divine) in the form of a heavenly tree, or ladder. For the Kabbalists, trees were symbolic of the Tree of Life, which carries divine goodness and blessing into the world. The Kabbalah sees in the fruitful earth the feminine element, vis-a-vis the rain-providing heavens, which represent the masculine element.

Significance of Tu B'Shevat in Modern Times

In modern times, the principles of tithing remain relevant. In Jewish tradition, "The earth is the Eternal's and all that it holds" (Psalms 24:1). "The Land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine" (Lev. 25:23). The land is not ours to do with as we please. We must be responsible stewards of the land: we must share its bounty with those in need, allow the land to rest during the sabbatical year (every seventh year), redistributing the land every 50 years (the Jubilee), and maintain the integrity of the land so it will sustain future generations.

In the 20th century, with the growth of Zionism and founding of the State of Israel, the association of Tu B'Shevat with the land of Israel is even more significant. In Israel, thousands of children plant trees, which play a vital role in the ecological healing of the land that was degraded after centuries of Ottoman rule. In the Diaspora, we give money to the Jewish National Fund for tree planting in Israel. It is also customary to collect tzedakah for those in need.

Connection of People and Trees

Biblical: The Torah suggests a profound relationship between human beings and trees. In the first chapter of Genesis, we find, "And God caused to sprout from the ground every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food; also the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. ... God took man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work it and to guard it."

Thus, the purpose of Original Man in the Garden was "to work and to guard it", meaning use his uniquely human abilities to develop nature, but to do so in a way that would not harm it. God, the creator of nature, was the first environmentalist. Also, Adam and Eve were vegetarians, for they were permitted to eat only from the trees of the Garden. The survival of people is synonymous with the survival of trees. Just as trees must grow branches, twigs, flowers and fruit to fulfill their purpose, so humans are put on earth to be productive and labor to produce moral, intellectual, and spiritual growth. This is why the sages refer to the reward for good deeds as "fruit".

In the Psalms: In Psalm 92:13-16, a model for the righteous person is expressed through the medium  of trees:

A righteous person will flourish like a date palm, 
Like a cedar in Lebanon he will grow tall, 
Planted in the house of God, 
In the courtyards of our God they will flourish; 
They will still be fruitful in old age, 
Vigorous and fresh they will be.

 Tu B'Shevat Customs

Though Tu B'Shevat no longer serves its original fiscal function, Jewish communities continue to celebrate the New Year of Trees as a minor festival. Today, we celebrate Tu B'Shevat also for renewal of our commitment to serve and protect nature and all of God's creation. There are a few cutoms or observances related to this holiday. One custom is to eat a new fruit on this day. Some people plant trees on this day. Many Jewish children collect money for trees in Israel. Work is not prohibited on Tu B'Shevat, there are no required festive meals, and no special prayers added to the regular prayer services. Nevertheless, the day is invested with a festive sense.

In the 16th century, the Kabbalists from the city of Safed created a Tu B'Shevat seder, loosely modeled after the Passover seder, which is still popular today. The Tu B'Shevat seder follows a specific order and is divided into four parts. As in the Passover seder, we drink four cups of wine, each cup here changing color in combinations of red and white wine to correspond to the changing seasons. Modern Tu B'Shevat seders are celebrated with prayers, Biblical readings, stories, poetry, songs and discussions about nature and the environment. 

The early pioneers of the State of Israel began the practice of celebrating Tu B'Shevat by planting trees. In recent years, Jewish communities around the world celebrate Tu B'Shevat as a "Jewish Earth Day" -- organizing seders, tree-plantings, ecological restoration activities and educational events, all of which express a Jewish commitment to protecting the earth. In Israel, Tu B'Shevat signals the coming of spring, as flowers begin to appear and the earth reawakens. Tu B'Shevat is also a day of national pride, when Israelis recall how the early pioneers worked the land and made the desert bloom. 

Celebrating Tu B'Shevat with Your Family

  1. Attend a Tu B'Shetvat Seder: Temple offers a Religious School Seder, ECE Seder, or Adult Tu B'Shevat Seder & Wine Tasting. Choose the one that's right for you.
  2. Create your own Tu B'Shevat Seder and ask friends and family to join in the preparation and in the fun. Start your own family traditions.
  3. In a small pot, plant your own parsley. If you plant it on Tu B'Shevat, your parsley will be ready in time for your Passover seder.
  4. Arrange to plant a tree in Israel by contacting the Jewish National Fund at (800) 542-8733. The JNF helps in the reforestation of Israel. Planting a tree is a way of adding life to Israel and honoring someone special in your life. The cost for each tree is around $10.00.
  5. Contact an organization concerned with public parks, gardens or the environment (such as COEJL, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) to find out how you can become involved. 
  6. Make a donation to an organization that feeds the hungry.
  7. Research the seven species of foods named in Deuteronomy 8:7. Why are these species given special mention in the Bible? 
  8. Go to your local botanical gardens and learn about the plant species that are native to your area. Then plant some of your own. Don't forget to decorate the flower pots. 
  9. Make bird feeders: cut a 3" round hole in one side of an empty 2-liter soda bottle 3' from the bottom, poke a stick through the bottle just under the hole, fill the bottom of the bottle with birdseed; hang in a tree. 
  10. Make bird feeders: smear a pinecone or bagel half with peanut butter (for those with peanut allergies, use marshmallow cream), then roll in birdseed; tie a string to it and hang on a tree branch. 
  11. Read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein together.
  12. Go on nature walks and gather leaves of various shapes, sizes and colors, then use them for decoration or to make a collage.
  13. Join one of Temple Emanu-El's monthly Wandering Jews hikes and services that celebrate nature and Judaism in beautiful landscapes. 

Create Your Own Tu B'Shevat Seder

Your Tu B'Shevvat seder can be a meal by itself or part of a full festive meal. Below you will find the special foods and prayers to include. These are just the basic elements of a Tu B'Shevat seder. Be creative and add your own special touches! 

Wine or Grape Juice: Give everyone at the table four cups of wine or grape juice -- two cups of white wine or juice and two cups of red. Taste from each cup in the following order: 

  • 1st cup: all white, symbolizing the cold weather of winter
  • 2nd cup: white with a little red mixed in, symbolizing the coming of spring
  • 3rd cup: red with a little white mixed in, symbolizing the warmth of spring
  • 4th cup: all red, symbolizing the heat oif summer and the full blossoming of nature

Kiddush: Before tasting from each cup of wine or juice, recite the Kiddush: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha'olam, borei p'ri hagafen. Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Ceremonial Foods: Give everyone at the table five kinds of foods: 

  1. A food with an outer shell or peel that cannot be eaten: nuts, pomegranates, kiwi, or bananas
  2. A food that has pits or seeds inside: apples, olives, peaches, pears, plums, prunes, or dates
  3. A food that has pits or seeds inside and an outer shell or peel that cannot be eaten: oranges, tangerings, or grapefruit
  4. A food made from wheat: bread, cake, or cookies
  5. A food that is completely edible: raisins, figs, strawberries, or carob

Fruit: Before eating each type of fruit, recite the following prayer: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha'olam, borei p'ri ha'eitz. Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the tree.

First Fruit: Before eating the first fruit, recite the prayer above and the following: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha'olam, shehecheyanu v'kiy'manu v'higiyanu lazman hazeh. Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who has given us life, sustained us, and helped us to reach this day. 

Bread: Before eating bread, recite the following prayer: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha'olam, hamotzi lechem min ha'aretz. Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.

Baked Goods: Before eating cake, recite the following prayer: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha'olam, borei minei m'zonot. Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of all kinds of foods. 

The contribution of the tree is not rooted in its magnificent branches, leaves, and fruits, but rather in its roots, which are held in a place where winds and storms do not reach. They are strengthened by the source of living water of renewal. The tree does not worry when the storms seize it and shake and bend it -- it does not stir or move from its place, and as long as it is not uprooted from its place, it shall spring back! Consequently, we find that not only did the tree not lose anything, to the contrary, it gained strength from the struggle. So too is man. As long as he adheres to his spiritual roots, no wind is capable of uprooting him from his place. The opposite is true: the storms will arouse the power of renewal! 

                                                                          -- Rabbi Samuel Raphael Hirsch
Tue, September 18 2018 9 Tishrei 5779