Tu B’Shvat: The Festival That Proves the Jewish People’s Connection to the Land of Israel
by Emanuel Miller
The Jewish calendar has many holidays. Some celebrate the survival of the Jewish people over various enemies, and some are solemnly spiritual in nature — but others exist, too. One such festival, Tu B’Shvat, is perhaps the greatest proof of the Jewish people’s deep connection with the Holy Land.
Tu B’Shvat is a Jewish holiday heralding the blossoming of trees and the beginning of the coming cycle of fruit. The name actually derives directly from the Hebrew date of the holiday, which occurs on the 15th day of Sh’vat. “Tu” stands for the Hebrew letters Tet and Vav, which have numerical values of 9 and 6 respectively, which add up to 15.
Tu B’Shvat’s roots can be traced all the way back to the Jewish Talmud. While Rosh Hashanah, the main Jewish new year festival, is familiar to many people, there are actually a number of new year dates in the Jewish tradition. The Talmud records a debate with various opinions, leading to the establishment of four new years:
- The first of Nisan as the “new year for kings and festivals”;
- The first of Elul as the “new year for the tithe of cattle”;
- The first of Tishrei as the “new year for years,” including the calculation of the calendar and sabbatical years; and
- The 15th of Sh’vat as the “new year for trees.”
Many centuries ago, a variety of different taxation methods were employed. One of the most common was called tithing. Tithing required separating percentages of produce, and handing them over to the local authorities. In ancient Israel, Tu B’Shvat marked the date when calculations of the forthcoming fruit crop would begin.
The Talmud records this date as being the point in time when trees in the Land of Israel are said to awaken from their winter hibernation and start the process of renewal. While the date can naturally only be approximate, the month was selected because “most of the yearly rainfall has passed” (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 14a), causing the trees to renew and their fruit to ripen.
So before it was ever considered a festival, Tu B’Shvat was actually a formal date that was primarily significant for its function in governance. Over the centuries, however, the day has been transformed into an opportunity to connect with the Land of Israel.
Each year, Jews around the world celebrate the Tu B’Shvat festival, but celebrations are experienced most strongly in Israel.
It is customary to eat fruit, specifically produce from the Land of Israel, known as the Shiv’at HaMinim — wheat, barley, grapes, dates, pomegranates, olives, and figs, collectively called “the seven species” that have a special significance in Judaism.
Jewish law states numerous commands and prohibitions regarding produce from the Land of Israel, and many of these are connected with Tu B’Shvat:
- The prohibition against eating a tree’s fruits until it is fully three years old.
- The requirement to allocate the fruits of a tree in its fourth year to the Jewish Temple (Leviticus 19:23-25).
- The command to separate the first fruits from the fifth year of the tree’s life and onward, along with other annual crop tithes, to be donated to the needy and the Temple.
- The command to observe the Sabbatical year, called Shmittah in Hebrew. During this time, produce grown in the seventh year cannot be consumed, sold, or used. Fruit from trees that begin to bud prior to Tu B’Shvat are reckoned as of the previous year, while trees which bloom after Tu B’Shevat are deemed as the first fruits of the new year.
Over the centuries, a meal known as the Tu B’Shvat Seder has been incorporated into the day. The Seder, based on multiple Jewish spiritual sources, calls for consuming an array of fruits, particularly ones of trees that are native to the Land of Israel. The Seder, compiled by the students of a famed 16th century Rabbi from Safed, celebrates our yearning to return to the Land of Israel. The Seder as instituted required eating 10 specific fruits and drinking four cups of wine in a specific order while reciting the appropriate blessings. Contemporary Tu B’Shvat Seders tend to be less rigidly structured, however, but two things do stand out above all others: First, participants try to eat “new” fruits, meaning fruits that they have not consumed for at least one month, and second, the inclusion of the Shivat HaMinim — the seven fruits and grains that are associated with the Land of Israel.
In contemporary Israel, tree-planting is central to the Tu B’Shvat experience. The practice can be traced back to the time when the Jewish pioneers began to settle in the Land of Israel. For them, working the land became an ideal, and they began a process of afforestation in order to overcome the desolation of the land.
The planting of trees on Tu B’Shvat gradually became customary, and in 1908, the Jewish National Fund and the educational system officially adopted the custom. Since then, Tu B’Shvat has been known in Israel as a holiday for planting trees, on which schoolchildren and their teachers plant trees all over the country. The tree-planting ceremonies symbolize the renewed connection between the nation and its land.
By 1948, approximately 2% of Israel was covered by trees. Over the space of the 70 years thereafter, the percentage had grown to roughly 8.5%, making Israel the only country in the world with a net growth in trees over the course of the 20th century.
So strong is the connection to Israel’s identity, that on February 14, 1949, Israel’s Constituent Assembly convened for the first time in the Jewish Agency building in central Jerusalem. The Hebrew calendar date that day was Tu B’Shvat. Each year, the Knesset celebrates its establishment on the New Year of the Trees, and on that day, its members participate in tree-planting ceremonies around the country.
Outside of Israel, Tu B’Shvat generally remains a minor holiday, with no special prayers recited in synagogues and no connection to any particular historical event. Nevertheless, Jews around the world view the day as an opportunity to be grateful for the planet we live on, and specifically for the Land of Israel. Even if one is unable to relocate to Israel, we are all able to partake in this day, enjoy fruits and grains grown on Israeli soil, and celebrate the millennia-old connection the Jewish people have with the region.
These rituals and their specifics serve to highlight the centrality of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people’s identity.
The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.