Alpaca Group, Hamahanot Haolim Educator Movement, 2007
Tu Bishvat - What is its significance? It is not a biblical holiday, not a historical event ... and yet it is celebrated in every home and educational institution in Israel!
A small glance at the Talmud shall reveal its source:
"There are four New Years: The first of Nissan is the New Year for kings and festivals. The first of Elul is the New Year for animal tithes. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say, this falls on the first of Tishrei. The first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for sabbaticals and for jubilees, for planting and for vegetables. The first of Shvat is the New Year for trees, per the opinion of the House of Shamai. The House of Hillel say - on the fifteenth of it." (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Rosh Hashana, 1)
If so, the 15th of Shvat is the New Year for the tithes to be given from tree produce. And why do the House of Hillel claim this falls on the 15th of Shvat and not on the first of Shvat? I do not know. Perhaps this is a clue to early celebrations held on this date, but I have no support for this far-fetched speculation. In any event, this is not the source of our Tu Bishvat. We do not celebrate the tax year for the trees.
The story of the holiday continues with the kabbalists of Safed, who believed that by reciting blessings over and eating fruit of the land, we bring about a correction to our souls and to the world, and thereby hasten the redemption, the messiah, the return of the nation of Israel to its land and its turning into a Garden of Eden on this world and to a light for the nations.
The kabbalists of Safed adopted the date of Tu Bishvat and issued a ceremony, based on the Seder of Passover, in which the blessings over each fruit of the land is included. The idea spread out and was received with outstretched arms by many Jewish communities (this is how it works with the regard of Jews to food). Well? The celebration was not complete without its indicator – the fruit of Israel. In that dark era before the age of emails, and even before the age of Tamagotchi (a prehistoric item...) there was one way to market Israel's fruit to the world – by drying them. For some reason this custom was perpetuated till today and we all merit the refreshing effects of many dried fruits on our digestive systems.
Our story has not come to an end yet. Zionism, in its attempt to renew Israel's holidays, has designated the New Year for Trees as a holiday of the renewal of nature in Israel. Tu Bishvat turned into the holiday for planting and nose-running tots would shove pots of pine seedlings into the ground on every high rocky hill.
Tu Bishvat turned into the perfect Zionist holiday when the first Israeli Knesset was inaugurated on this day.
This is how we received the holiday of plants, a focus on nature, the Tu Bishvat Seders and creative dried fruit cooking programs. Great, but is this what we would like? What is, after all, the essence of the holiday?
I do not feel that eating fruits of the land hastens the redemption (I have more of a tendency to endorse activism).
I also do not find it proper (it's rather a silly joke) to eat dried fruit.
On the other hand, I believe that trips, focus on nature and the Tu Bishvat Seders are amazing and they play an important role in educating individuals and the nation. Tu Bishvat is not a festival celebrating the land's flourishing produce – for this we have Shavuot. Even the Talmud, in that same tractate of Rosh Hashana, relates that "In four times of the year is the world judged: On Pesach – over the crops of the field, on Shavuot – over the fruit of trees..." so what actually is it?
Tu Bishvat is held at a perfect time of year. Earlier, we had the darkness of Chanukah. Then the days became longer and the sun returned to our lives. It is still cold and rainy occasionally, but most of the season's rains have already fallen at this time, and the world shines in the greenery the rain had produced.
The almond trees bloom in bridal gowns along the sides of the road, and anemones, cyclamens, mustard, marigolds, mandrakes and pimpernels, dot the fields with spectacular colors. The resin rises in the trees and they begin to bloom, and so does man - for man is the tree of the field. In my eyes, Tu Bishvat is a charming corner of the road - a time of year in which you can savor the beauty and abundance offered by the land, and then get up with renewed energy to do, create and repair the world. On Shavuot, we collect the fruits of the toil done all year and celebrate it, because afterwards comes the dry and stiffening summer. On Tu Bishvat we look at the existing things, recall visions and create from them - like the blossoming tree after standing naked in disgrace during the winter. This is a period of bloom, not of displaying fruits.
Tu Bishvat, by looking at the land that it calls for and by believing in the power of creation it implants in us, is also a good opportunity to be grateful to the land and take responsibility of the land that sustains us. To take a moment to consider everything that trees provide us with, and to know that all this ought not be taken for granted, and is transitory, that we roam through the trees of the land and be thankful for the goodness and realize that if we spoil nature there is no one to restore it for us. I recommend that we celebrate Tu Bishvat with nature walks, by planting, climbing trees, by holding Tu Bishvat Seders that emphasize the element of blooming and the renewal of creativity, and by eating fresh and exciting fruits in season, such as citrus fruits, avocados and strawberries.
And right after you will have celebrated, the time has come - you guessed right - to correct the world.