Tu Bishvat Day: What and When is it celebrated, How people celebrate?
Photo: Life of Zion

What is Tu Bishvat and when it occurs?

Tu BiShvat (Ti BiShavat, Tu B'shevat, Tu B'Shevat, Tu Bishvat) is the Jewish new year for trees. It occurs on the 15th day (In fact, "Tu Bishvat" means "15th of Shvat" in Hebrew) of the Shvat month in the Jewish calendar. This is a lunisolar calendar, which means that the months are based on the lunar cycle, but years are based on solar years. This keeps Jewish holidays around the same time of year, but since the months are based on the lunar cycle, the date of the holiday each year.

In Judaism, the age of a tree is important in determining whether you can eat the fruit from it. The fruit from a tree cannot be eaten for the first three years, and the fourth year’s fruit is only for G-d. After the four years, you can eat the fruit from a tree. Tu BiShvat is the day that each tree ages a year for the purposes of determining if one can eat from it.

This holiday is a minor Jewish holiday, and it is not mentioned in the Torah. Scholar believe that this holiday started originally as an agricultural festival celebrating spring in Israel. However, after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 C.E. (stands for Common Era, and refers to the same time period as A.D.), many Jews were exiled and the agricultural celebration stopped. Over time, some Jews felt a need to symbolically bind themselves to their homeland, and Tu BiShvat was a way to fill that need.

They introduced a new ritual, the Tu BiShvat Seder. This Seder (a ceremonial dinner) is similar to the Seder at Passover. The Seder involves eating biblical foods native to the holy land. As a part of this, people eat fruit and the seven spices of Israel. The fruit is typically grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, or dates, as they are mentioned in the Torah as food from the Holy Land. Some families would have a 15-course meal, and each course would be one of the foods associated with the land, according to Boston Public Library.

How is it celebrated?

While Tu Bishvat's early days may have been less about partying than pragmatism, the holiday has become more celebratory over time. In the 1500s, for example, Kabbalists began holding a seder on Tu Bishvat modeled after the Passover meal. This seder typically involved tree fruits native to Israel, according to Yitzhak Buxbaum's "A Person Is Like a Tree: A Sourcebook for Tu BeShvat," as well as discussions on "philosophical and Kabbalistic concepts associated with the day."

Tu Bishvat seders are now common, often focusing on the "seven species" of Israeli crops listed in Deuteronomy 8:8 — wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (honey). This tradition has helped some Jewish environmental groups use Tu Bishvat to promote sustainable, locally grown food. U.S.-based Hazon, for one, offers tips on sustainable seders and on finding local seven-species options. (If fresh seven-species fruit isn't available, Hazon suggests raisins, dried figs and dates, honey, jelly, and even wine — ideally all local and organic.)

Tu Bishvat Day: What and When is it celebrated, How people celebrate?
Tu B'Shevat seder (Photo: My Jewish Learning)

And since trees are what Tu Bishvat is all about, perhaps the most salient way to celebrate is simply to plant more of them. A variety of groups in Israel and elsewhere sponsor local tree-planting or broad afforestation projects on Tu Bishvat, and many families plant a new tree on their property or join volunteer efforts on public land. Others mark the holiday with just a walk in the woods.

"Tu Bishvat is a good reminder of our connection to the Earth," says David Krantz, president and chairman of the Green Zionist Alliance, a Jewish environmental group. "We have a symbiotic relationship with trees, but we tend to forget that. Humans and trees are dependent on each other. When we harm trees, we harm ourselves."

In that spirit, some people see Tu Bishvat as a time not just to plant new trees, but to protect existing ones. That's why two New York summer-camp directors prepared for Tu Bishvat in 2012 by living in the canopy of 200-year-old California redwoods, part of a long-term "tree-sitting" campaign to save them from being cut down. Yoni and Vivian Stadlin, founders of Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, New York, said in a press release that spending a week in redwoods was "like living in the lungs of the Earth."

Many people follow this example on a smaller scale, using Tu Bishvat to launch other environmental efforts like composting or home gardening. But however you spend this ancient holiday, Krantz says it should be more than a one-day diversion.

"Tu Bishvat serves in part as a holiday telling us to stop and think about how we breathe, stop and think about our connections to trees and our connection to the environment as a whole," he says. "While Tu Bishvat is a great holiday and a fun holiday, it's important that we don't let our environmental thoughts end when Tu Bishvat ends. We should let them carry our commitment throughout the year.", cites Treehugger.

Different ways to celebrate Tu Bishvat

Try a new fruit, late bloomers. One step at a time.

Test your nature knowledge. Then do it without Googling.

Have a Tu B’shevat Seder. An ancient Kabbalistic custom called for a Seder similar to the Passover meal to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, incorporating figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, grapes, wheat, and barley—or some combination of all of them (think pilaf!)—and red and white wine. This tradition has been embraced by the Jewish student group Hillel, which offers free, downloadable materials to help you with your own DIY Tu B’Shevat Seder.

Resources for sustainable Seders abound, with most suggesting Seder hosts offer local foods and organic wine and, of course, recycle afterward. You should probably also go green—as in, paperless—with the invites.

Take a walk, and really pay attention to your surroundings. It might help to be listening to this Vox Tablet podcast about Jewish environmental activism.

Fig out. Take advantage of the nutritional benefits of the fig, Tu B’shevat’s mascot and a high-fiber source of detoxifying vitamins. Keep it healthy with these flaxseed, fig, and walnut crackers or indulge with this pecan macaroon and fig tart. Fig juice—blended, not juiced—can be tricky to make, since it’s not a particularly juicy fruit. Premade is always an option; this variety touts potassium, calcium, and iron.

Or sit back and make Ruth Reichl happy by ordering a jar of Fig and Olive Spread from online gourmanderie Gilt Taste. (These vegan, kosher, gluten-free coconut macaroons won’t arrive until after the holiday, but they’re probably still worth it.)

Make like a tree and compost. It’s not hard! Even urban dwellers can do it, with these new freezer bins. And you never know what might happen in your own backyard.

Go classic. Plant a tree in someone’s honor or in memory of a loved one, or gift a tree to be planted. Trees are, after all, the gift that keeps on giving.

Walk through Tal Schochat’s paradisiacal forest. The Israeli photographer shoots single trees against black backdrops, to stunning effect. Or what The New Yorker called “a set designer’s version of Eden—extravagantly bountiful but oddly unnatural.”

Read The Pagan Rabbi, Cynthia Ozick’s 1971 book of short stories, including the title story, in which a rabbi gets a little too intimate with nature.

See the film Tree of Life. Or don’t. For what it’s worth, Brad Pitt probably loves nature, suggested in tabletmag.

Customs

Tu Bishvat Day: What and When is it celebrated, How people celebrate?
Photo: My Jewish Learning

Tu BiShvat served in part to fill that spiritual need. Jews used this time each year to eat a variety of fruits and nuts that could be obtained from Israel. The practice, a sort of physical association with the land, continued for many centuries.

The 16th- and 17th-century kabbalists (mystics) of Israel elaborated on those customs, creating a ritual for Tu BiShvat somewhat similar to the Passover seder. On erev Tu BiShvat, they would gather in their homes for a 15-course meal, each course being one of the foods associated with the land. Between courses, they would read from an anthology called P'ri Eitz Hadar (The Fruit of the Goodly Tree), a compilation of passages on trees drawn from the Bible, the Talmud, and the mystical Zoharm, shows reformjudaism.

Today, Tu BiShvat has become more of an environmental holiday: a day to remind us of the Jewish duty to care for the natural world, and a tree-planting festival for both Israelis and Jews throughout the world. Much of the credit for the great joy and spirit of the holiday is a direct result of the important work of the Jewish National Fund, or JNF (sometimes also known by its Hebrew name, Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, or KKL). Historically, JNF emphasized the importance of planting trees in Israel as part of working the land, and the organization revived the holiday of Tu BiShvat to be about tree-planting, which became associated with the Zionist ethos.

Tu BiShvat may be observed in a variety of ways:

Tu BiShvat seders are not just for mystics! Host a seder and celebrate the wonderful fruits and nuts of Israel. Many recipes include these foods. Entree to Judaism for Families: Jewish Cooking and Kitchen Conversations with Children by Tina Wasserman includes numerous recipes for families to enjoy cooking together.

While the food is cooking, keep busy by making a Tu BiShvat Handprint Tree or one of these other fun family activities.

Incorporate social and environmental justice into your celebration by taking a hike, committing to “reduce, reuse, recycle,” or any of the other suggestions in our Tu BiShvat Social Action Holiday Guide

Plant a tree, either in Israel or where you live.

What to eat on Tu B'Shevat?

Celebrating Tu B’Shevat with a Vegetarian Meal: In many homes, Tu B'Shevat is celebrated by eating a meatless meal. It impacts the environment in a positive way, plus it gives Jewish families more opportunities to integrate seasonal fruits, vegetables, and grains into the menu. Many households take this day as an opportunity to try a new-to-them piece of produce.

Typical foods served on Tu B’Shevat include fruits, nuts, grains, and vegetables. In California, the almond trees bloom at this time of year, so almond-laden foods often make an appearance on the holiday table. Those who partake in a Tu B’Shevat seder will eat at least 15 different types of fruits and vegetables. It is also customary to include the seven species mentioned in the Torah: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.

Here is a meatless Tu B’Shevat menu that you can enjoy with your family:

To Start:

Stuffed Figs with Goat Cheese

Green Salad with Fruit

Main Dish:

Butternut Squash Soup with Chickpeas

Pumpkin Sage 'Alfredo' Sauce with Kale Pesto

For Dessert:

Seven Species Muffins

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