Tu B’Shvat’s Evolution From Tax Day to Earth Day
Like other Jewish holidays, the festival of Tu B’Shvat — the 15th day of the month of Shevat — has undergone changes since its first mention in the Jewish legal corpus known as the Mishnah, some 1,700 years ago. There, it was described as “the New Year for the Tree.”
During the days when the Jewish Temple stood, Tu B’Shvat was essentially Tax Day — an administrative date for calculating the tithing of trees. Without a temple, it evolved into a feast of fruits in the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, Rabbi Yitshak Luria of Safed and his disciples created a Tu B’Shvat Seder, celebrating mystical elements of the Tree of Life. Finally, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Zionists adopted the custom of planting trees in Israel on Tu B’Shvat.
In the past decades, Jewish movements — religious and secular alike — have explained Tu B’Shvat as a Jewish Earth Day. By celebrating trees, we reconnect with nature, and learn about Jewish traditions related to ecology and the preservation of the environment.
Like other native peoples, the Jewish people in the Land of Israel relied heavily on agriculture. The Torah’s teachings that pertain to harvesting the land appear like a sound warning amid the immense environmental challenges we face in the 21st century.
From a general commandment to guard the Earth (Genesis 2:15) to a ban on causing animals unnecessary suffering, Jewish tradition has many relevant examples for today’s world.
Take the case of shmita — the sabbatical year. It’s an agricultural hiatus that prohibits farmers from working the land for a whole year, once every seven years. It comes from the Torah, and is based on the importance of allowing the ground to rest — “six years you shall sow your land and gather its yield, but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow” (Exodus 23:10-11). Fallowing allows the land to recover and store organic matter while retaining moisture. Since shmita is followed in the modern State of Israel, and the current Hebrew year is a shmita year, we won’t see many trees planted this Tu B’Shvat.
The Talmud warns us that by generating so much unnecessary waste, we are destroying our resources. The Talmud states: “He who covers an oil lamp or uncovers a kerosene lamp for no purpose violates the prohibition of bal tashḥit (do not destroy) since by doing, so the fuel burns more quickly.” In a similar point, according to the European Commission, in 2020, European Union inhabitants generated 505 kg of municipal waste.
The meaning of Tu B’Shvat evolved over the past millennia to reflect the needs and challenges faced by Jews across the world in each particular period. As we approach this year’s Tu B’Shvat, it is impossible to ignore the changes in climate, and how they are affecting and will continue to affect our lives and those of future generations.
Since we will not be planting trees in Israel due to the shmita this year, we should use this opportunity to reflect on the climate crisis and reconnect with some of our oldest traditions pertaining to respecting nature.
In 2022, the central message of Tu B’Shvat is a perfect reminder — our interaction with nature should be one of mutual respect and care. Let us partner with nature to reach a common harmony. For us, and for the generations to come.
Tu B’Shvat Sameacḥ!
Marcos Roca is a member of the WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps, the flagship program of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), under the vision and leadership of President Ronald S. Lauder. This program empowers new generations of outstanding Jewish leaders. It is a highly selective global network of more than 350 members from 60 countries.