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January 28, 2021 8:00 am

A Tu B’Shvat Guide for the Perplexed

avatar by Yoram Ettinger

Opinion

A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

Here are some facts about Tu B’Shvat:

1. The Jewish Arbor Day, Tu B’Shvat (ט”ו בשבט) highlights human gratitude for the creation of the fruit-bearing trees, via a one-sentence-blessing before consuming any fruit.

2. On Tu B’Shvat, it is customary to eat fruit of the new season, particularly the 30 types of fruit growing in the Land of Israel, while maximizing optimism and happiness and minimizing pessimism and sorrow.

3. The centrality of trees is reflected by the date of Tu B’Shvat, when the relevant portion of the Bible commemorates the receipt of the Ten Commandments and the Five Books of Moses (Exodus 13-17).

4. Israel’s legislature (the Knesset) was established on Tu B’Shvat 1949.

5. Tu B’Shvat is celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Shvat, featuring a full moon, just like the holidays of Passover, Sukkot, and Purim.

6. Tu B’Shvat is one of the four Jewish new years.

7. The Hebrew word for tree — Etz (עצ) — is the root of the Hebrew words for independence (עצמאות), strength/viability (עוצמה), substantial (עצום), identity/selfhood (עצמיות), essence (עצם), and bones (עצמות).

8. Another Hebrew word for tree is Ilan (אילן), whose Hebrew root is איל — which means (in Hebrew) awesome/mogul as well as the majestic ram. The first and third letters (אל) mean God and the second letter (י) is an acronym for God. The Hebrew spellings for the rugged, Biblical terebinth and oak tree are אלה and אלון, both starting with the two letters אל (God in Hebrew).

9. According to Deuteronomy 20:19-20: “When you besiege a city … you shall not destroy its trees. … For you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down, since the human-being is a tree of the field. … Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut down.” Psalms 1:3 states: “He shall be like a tree planted by the brooks of water, that brings forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he does shall prosper.”

10. Human beings are better off emulating trees, with deep roots and a strong trunk to grow and withstand threats and challenges, humility, extending shade and fruit to the needy, long-term thinking, and patience in the face of adversity.

11. Proverbs 3:18 refers to the Torah as “the tree of life to those who cleave to it.” The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge are mentioned in Genesis 2:9 (the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden).

12. Trees were created on the third day of Creation, the only day that was blessed twice by God (Genesis 1:11). Leviticus 19:23 stipulates: “When you come to the Land, you shall plant fruit trees.”

13. Tu B’Shvat is not mentioned in the Bible, but in the Mishnah, which is the collection of Jewish oral laws, compiled by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the Chief of the Sanhedrin (the ancient Jewish judiciary and legislature) around 200 CE.

14. The almond tree, which blossoms earlier than most trees/fruit, ushers in Tu B’Shvat. The almond tree commemorates the rods of Moses and Aharon (the symbol of shepherds’ authority), which were endowed with miraculous power during the Ten Plagues that afflicted Pharaoh, the ensuing Exodus, and the Korach rebellion against Moses.

Yoram Ettinger is a former Israeli ambassador and commentator.

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