Tu Bishvat, (the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat), is known as the Jewish new year for the trees. When the Temple was standing in Jerusalem this day was declared as the birthday for all trees for the purpose of picking and tithing fruit.
Today we celebrate Tu Bishvat by eating various fruits, especially those that are products of the Land of Israel like dates, figs, olives and grapes. The celebration of Tu Bishvat in the Jewish world has historically served to strengthen connections to the Land of Israel as the holiday is based on the agricultural cycle in Israel.
Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the observance of Tu Bishvat has taken on even greater meaning. It is also customary, especially in Israel, to plant trees and seeds on Tu Bishvat.
One of the customs of Tu Bishvat is that of participating in a Tu Bishvat Seder, a ceremony that originated in the 16th century among mystics in the town of Safed in Israel. During the 16th century, Safed became the center of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). Kabbalists developed new meanings and rituals for celebrating and rejoicing in the birthday of the trees. Families would gather around tables that were set with a white cloth, flowers and fruits as well as red and white wines. This feast was modeled, to a degree, on the Pesach Seder.
These ceremonies included readings from the Torah, Talmud and the Zohar (a key kabbalistic text), and special blessings to be said over fruits and flowering and fruit-bearing trees. The seder also included four cups of wine shading from white to red to symbolize the changing seasons. There are many variations of Tu Bishvat Seder ceremonies today and most are based on the ones created in the 16th century.
In more recent years, Jewish individuals and environmental groups have embraced the holiday as an opportunity for education and advocacy, and this has also become a time to renew our commitment to the preservation of our environment. This is a major focus of Tu Bishvat celebrations and observances today.
The following reading speaks to some of the fundamental Jewish values related to the environment layered with a contemporary voice:
Tu Bishvat has become more widely known and celebrated in the US in recent years as the connection with environmental issues has become more prominent.