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Tu B’Shvat: A Time to Celebrate Trees

Michal Smart

Source: A packet of Educational Materials produced by COEJL

What is the source for Tu B’shvat?

The primary textual source for the holiday of Tu B’shvat is the tractate of Rosh Hashanah in the Mishnah, which states: “There are four New Years. On the first of Nissan is the the New Year for kings and for festivals. On the first of Elul is the New Year for tithing cattle. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say on the first of Tishrei. Onthe first of Tishrei is the New year for years, for Shmittah and Jubilee years, for planting and for vegetables. On the first of Shvat is the New Year for trees. According to the school of Shammai. The school of Hillel say, on the fifteenth thereof.” (M. Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

Why a New year for Trees?

Ancient Israel was primarily an agrarian society, in which certain Jewish laws pertained to harvest required that trees be aged. For instance, the laws of “orlah” ascribed a different legal status to trees aged three years and under, four years old, and five or older: “And when you shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then you shall reckon their fruit as uncircumcised. Three years shall it be as uncircumcised unto you: it shall not be eaten. But in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy for praise giving to the Lord. And in the fifth year you shall eat of its fruit, that it may yield to you its increase. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:23-25) Rather than track the planting date of individual trees, the rabbis instituted a “New Year for planting” which constituted a cut-off date for dating trees and their produce.

Likewise, according to Kalakhah, Jews in Israel had to give a percentage of their harvest in the form of tithes, called “,I>terumot and ma’aser.” These tithes were given to the Priest and Levites, to support their sacred service in the Temple. (See Number 18:21-24) In certain years, a second tithe was also set aside for consumption during festivals in Jerusalem, while in alternate years this “ma’aser sheini,” or second tithe, was given to the poor. (See Deuteronomy 14: 22-29) Tu B’shvat, the New Year for trees, served as the cut-off date regarding the designation of tithing years. (See Maimonides, Yad He-Hazakah, Hiklkhot Terumot 5:11) In this sense, Tu B’shvat was analogous to the start of a new fiscal year.

Why the Fifteenth of Shvat?

The schools of Hillel and Shammai debated about the proper date for the New Year for trees. The date was ultimately fixed according to the school of Hillel: the fifteenth (“tu”) of Shvat. According to certain understandings, their debate focused on matters of ecology. When did most of the rains of winter stop and when did the sap begin to rise within the trees? The Jerusalem Talmud explains the date: “Until this point, they [the trees] are sustained from the rainwater of the past year. From this point on, they are sustained from the water of the following year.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 1:2)

Both of these events–the cessation of the rain and the rise of the sap within trees–mark the end of winter and the onset of Spring, when trees again begin to drink water from the soil and to reproduce their leaves and seed. Thus, Tu B’shvat is a holiday which takes place in winter and foretells the coming of Spring. In fact, the fifteenth of Shvat is precisely the middle of winter. The Hebrew calendar has 12 months, which can be split into 4 seasons of 3 months each. The winter season is comprised of the three months of Tevet, Shvat, and Adar, in which Shvat falls in the middle. The fifteenth of Shvat is therefore the middle day of the middle month of the winter. It is also the full moon. On Tu B’shvat, the moon begins to wane and the winter begins to fade into spring.

How has Tu B’shvat been celebrated?

After the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel, Jewish communities continued to celebrate Tu B’shvat as a minor festival. The petitionary prayer of Tachanun, fasting and eulogizing were forbidden on this day. In the Cairo Geniza, archeologists discovered special prayers which were recited on Tu B’shvat, asking that the trees be given a good and productive year. Among Ashkenazi communities in Europe, it became customary to eat fifteen types of fruits on the holiday. Preference was given to the fruits that grew in the Land of Israel, especially the seven types of grain and fruit mentioned in the Torah to represent the fertility of the Land (See Deuteronomy 8:8). A custom also arose of singing a Psalm of Creation (Psalm 104) and the fifteen “Psalms of Ascent” (Psalms 120-134).

In the 1600’s, Kabbalists in Safed instituted a Tu B’shvat seder modeled after that of Passover, in which blessings were recited over four cups of wine and different types of fruits were blessed and eaten. Tu B’shvat seders have become a common part of contemporary Tu B’shvat celebration.

Since the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, significant efforts have been made to reforest Israel’s landscape. Through the Jewish National Fund, planting trees in Israel has become a part of Tu B’shvat observance around the world.

What can Tu B’shvat mean for us today?

Observe and celebrate the annual cycle of trees and the coming renewal of Spring:

Tu B’shvat is a fitting time to renew our connection to the natural world, and to learn more about trees and natural cycles. The rabbis designated Tu B’shvat a semi-holiday. The life of other creatures, the gift of living on this good Earth, and the changing seasons are cause for celebration!

Do: Read and share the basic information about trees on the following pages

Do: Take your class/group outside, and learn about the trees that live near you, and their situation at this time of year. How do trees survive the winter? (e.g. Some drop their leaves. They cease drinking water and store sap in their roots) Where can you find signs of the coming Spring? (e.g. flower and leaf buds, bird nests) See the enclosed activities for program ideas. On Pesach, the “holiday of Spring” you can return to this place and see how its changed!

Do: Hold a party in honor of trees. Have students dress up as creatures, including human beings, who rely on trees. Draw pictures answering “I’m grateful for trees because…”

Do: “Are trees of the field human beings?” the Torah asks (Deuteronomy 20:19). In truth, people also pass through seasons. We all have our springtime?s–times of abundance and productivity. And we all have our winters–times where we need to cut back to a minimal level functioning, where parts of us feel or seem dead. Discuss times of hardship in students’ lives, and how they have endured. What can Tu B’shvat and the changing seasons teach us about hope?

“The Earth is the Lord’s”:

Tithing entailed the redistribution of resources within Jewish society, and a “giving back to God of what is God’s.” Thus, Tu B’shvat, the date for tithing, reminds us that the earth does not belong to human beings to exploit at our will. Rather, the world belongs to its Creator, and our use of its riches must be in accordance with God’s will. In this sense, Tu B’shvat is a time to reassess our relationship with all of Creation, and to examine our patterns of consumption. Is our use of tree products and other resources governed by ethical and religious values? Do we take proper care of those in need? Are we appropriately reverential, or wasteful?

See: “Judaism and the Practice of Stweardship” by David Ehrenfeld and Phillip J. Bentley. Judaism34, no. 3 (summer 1985); 301-311.

See: “Learning to Live with Less” by Ismar Schorsch. In Spirit and Nature, eds Steven C. Rockefeller and John C. Elder. 25-38. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Do: Study the laws of Tithing (Numbers 18:21-24, Deuteronomy 14:22-29), Orlah (Leviticus 19:23-25), Bal Tashchit(Deutoronomy 20:19)

Do: Start a recycling program and/or conduct an environmental audit (How? see To Till and to Tend, or contact COEJL)

Do: Use COEJL’s Tu B’Shvat poster as an educational tool. (How? See the enclosed program ideas by Fred Dobb)

Trees are valued by God as living beings:

The Mishnah which introduces Tu B’shvat goes on to explain that trees are judged independently of God’s judgment of human beings and the determination of human welfare which take place on “Rosh Hashanah” in Tishrei. In the Gaonic period. Tu B’shvat became widely regarded as a day of judgment for trees. The trees have their own Rosh Hashanah because trees are not only “natural resources” for human use. They are also fellow creatures, part of the living Creation which, according to our tradition’s foundational story, is beheld by God and declared to be good.

Study:Genesis 1: 9-13, Psalms 96, 104, and 148, Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:2

Do:In a natural area, let each of your students find a tree or other feature of the landscape in which they are interested. Have them interview that tree (rock, etc.) with full imagination. What does it see/hear/feel? Invite them to write the song of praise of that particular tree (shrub, etc.)

Rekindle our connection to the Land of Israel:

Tithing was only practiced by Jews living in the Land of Israel; a testament to the unique relationship between Jews and our ancestral land. The kabalistic tradition of eating fruits from Israel on Tu B’shvat evokes the experience of living within the Jewish Homeland. On Tu B’Shvat, we can reflect upon our relationship to the natural world as a whole, and the Land of Israel in particular.

Do: Conduct a Tu B’shvat seder, with fruits from the Land of Israel (See COEJL’s list of Haggadot) Discuss participants’ relationship with a place? Have they ever had a religious experience upon visiting a particular place? How shall we kindle a closer connection between Jews and the natural world as whole, while maintaining a special connection to the Land of Israel?

Plant trees and Take Action :

On Tu B’Shvat, we can do more than appreciate and celebrate the natural cycles of trees and the changing seasons. We can lend a hand to help sustain and restore forests, both in Israel and at home.

Do:Plant trees in Israel. Contact the Jewish National Fund.

Do:Plant trees on school/synagogue property. Start a community garden.

Do: Learn about forest management issues in your area. Bring in a speaker. Take a stand!

Resources:

Stories for young children:

I Celebrate Nature, by Diane Iverson. Dawn Publications. A lovely book with couplet rhymes and hand drawn illustrations, teaching caring for creation. Ages 8 and under.

Listen to the Trees. by Molly Cone. UAHC Press. A collection of short stories which integrate Jewish legends and texts with appreciation of the natural world.

The Tree in the Ancient Forest. by Carol Reed-Jones. Dawn Publications. A cumulative verse, backed by bold colored illustrations, which depicts the interdependence of all creatures in a forest. Ages 4-10.

Activity Books:

Hands-On Nature, by Jenpher Lingelback. Vermont Institute of Natural Science. Available through Whitman Distribution Center: (603)448-0317. A rare combination of sophisticated information and enjoyable activities.

More Teaching Kids to Love the Earth. by Marina Lachecki and James Kasperson. Pfeifer-Hamilton*. A recent sequel to an award-winning collection of stores and activities, organized thematically.

Sharing Nature with Children. by Joseph Cornell. Dawn Publications* A classic resource by a founder of the nature appreciation field.

Sharing the Joy of Nature, by Joseph Cornell. Dawn Publications. * A classic collection of experiential outdoor activities.

The Kids’ Nature Book, by Susan Milord. Williamson Books. * 365 indoor and outdoor activities. Accessible and fun.

* An excellent source for these books (and more) is: the American Camping Association.

Tu B’Shvat/Trees from the Jewish National Fund:

The Trees Sing: A Sourcebook for Tu B’Shvat.

Trees are for Everyone. A Tu B’Shvat Reader for grade K-3.

Trees in the Bible. A study unit on the biblical view of trees in Jewish thought for students and adults.

A Tree Grows Up.A Play for K-4.

 

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