December 1, 2023 /
Sometimes called Jewish Arbor Day, Tu B’Shevat is holiday in the Jewish calendar for the celebration of trees. Specifically, Tu B’Shevat is a sort of New Year’s Day for trees (in calculating their ages). The name of the holiday itself, is a sort of calucaltion as the words Tu B’shevat (ט״ו בשבט (literally mean the 15th of Shevat. (The letters of the Hebrew alphabet correspond not only to the sounds we speak, but also to numbers—similar to Roman numerals. The letter tet “ט” stands for 9 and the letter vav “ו” stands 6, and 6+9=15.) Though there are relatively few traditional customs and observances for Tu B’Shevat, in recent years a focus on “living green” and a renewed interest in becoming stewards of the Earth’s environments have turned this otherwise minor holiday in to a beautiful and poignant way to celebrate the natural world around us.
Though little is set in stone regarding Tu B’Shevat, there are a few main observances for the holiday.
Many observe the custom to eat either a new type of fruit or one of the Seven Species (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates –from Deuteronomy 8:8) that represents the abundance of the land of Israel.
Also, many communities now observe a Seder. Similar to the Seders that bring us all together on Passover, Tu B’Shevat Seders include 4 glasses of wine as well as reading from a Haggadah. Instead, however, of retelling the tale of Jewish redemption from slavery in Egypt, we read about plants and the natural world—particularly the natural world in the land of Israel. Interestingly, the Tu B’Shevat Seder originated with the Kabbalistic mystics of the 16th century and focused on the spiritual significance of the Seven Species. Eventually, the
practice spread, and has evolved into the celebration we know today.
In recent years, another practice for Tu B’Shevat entails learning. Many recent books combining Judaism and the environment have been published. And traditional sources like the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, and even the Torah are being mined for information and wisdom pertaining to the natural world. On Tu B’Shevat, many started setting aside time to engage this new wealth of information.
Certainly, one celebrated cultural practice of Tu B’Shevat is the special seder that we discussed above. The celebration and the fun doesn’t however, need to end there!
Many Jews (both individually or communally) choose to plant trees on Tu B’Shevat. When circumstances prevent actually planting a tree, one alternative can be to make donations to the JNF (the Jewish National Fund) for the direct planting of trees in Israel. (For information on the Jewish National Fund, visit their website at www.jnf.org.)
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Tu B’Shevat is the holiday of the trees. Luckily, it’s also the holiday ripe with ideas for scientific discovery. Here are a few ideas you should try at home.