What is Tu BiShvat? And why do the trees need a birthday anyway?Here's the quick version of the long history of Tu Bishvat:
- First - The Torah includes various laws about how we should harvest trees and fruit in Israel. Things like tithing for the poor and for the priestly class that has no land of their own. Things like bringing a portion of your harvest to Jerusalem to thank God and celebrate with community. And things like letting the land rest every seven years. Since these laws operate on a yearly cycle, its important to determine when that cycle begins and ends. It's like a fiscal year for farmers.
- We don't know for sure how this worked in the biblical period, but eventually the rabbis came up with more laws to clarify the ones in the Torah, and Tu BiShvat was established as the new year for trees. It seems like a weird time, in the middle of winter, but in Israel, it's the point when the majority of the rain for the winter has already fallen and the first trees (the almonds) are starting to flower.
- These laws became mostly irrelevant for a long time while the Jews were in exile and didn't live in Israel.
- Tu BiShvat got a new life when a group of Kabbalists, mystical leaning rabbis, in Tzfat in the 16th century created a Tu BiShvat Seder. They saw three different kinds of fruit as metaphors for worlds of closeness with God. Over the course of the seder, they imagined a spiritual journey through these worlds, to the final world, a world so spiritual there was no need for actual physical fruit. We use their seder as a model for Tu BiShvat celebrations today, but outside of their circle, at the time, it didn't really catch on as a part of mainstream Judaism
- Skip ahead a few hundred years to the modern state of Israel, and here's where Tu BiShvat starts to really take off. Jews developing the land of Israel had a real stake in growing trees, and fruit. They were developing a new agricultural society in the old Jewish homeland, and Tu BiShvat really resonated. It became a time to plant trees, and to celebrate the seven species mentioned in the Torah that grow so well in Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates, as well as some others that have become popular, like the early flowering almond and bokser, carob which grows as a sort of edible pod on trees that grow well in Israel. New Tu BiShvat seders celebrated the success of making the desert bloom
- A few decades later, while many Jews were still celebrating Tu BiShvat as a modern Israeli agricultural holiday, the environmentalist movement emerged, bringing interest from a new group of jewish people, and adding yet another layer to this evolving holiday. Tu Bishvat also became a Jewish earth day - a time to reflect on the wonder of God's created world and our responsibility to preserve it.
- Tu BiShvat celebrations today usually focus on one or both of the last two elemets, the state of Israel, and the environment.