The holiday of Tu Bishvat is not mentioned in the Bible. Its first mention as a special date shows up in the Mishna, in the tractate of Rosh Hashana, "There are four New Years: On the first of Nissan, falls the New Year for kings and of festivals; the first of Elul, the New Year of animal tithes; the first of Tishrei, the New Year for sabbatical and jubilee years, for planting and for vegetables; the first of Shvat, the New Year for trees, as per the opinion of Beit Shamai; whereas according to Beit Hillel : on the fifteenth of Shvat"
Originally, Tu Bishvat was not destined to be a holiday, rather, a technical date date for determining the tithes of that year. This is a set date, likened to the "beginning of the tax year", in which the amount of tithes a farmer is required to contribute from his trees' produce is determined. This season was chosen to mark a new "year of taxation" for trees' produce, since in this season most of the fruit trees shed their leaves and are undergo the process of renewal towards the production of fresh fruits. All of the fruit that grows up until this date, are considered those of the previous year and all of the fruit that will grow from this date on, are attributed to the oncoming year's tithe.
Probably, Tu Bishvat turned into an actual holiday only in the 16th century when the kabbalists of Safed began to hold fruit celebrations and Seders of Tu Bishvat on this day. These Seders included consumption of various fruit in memory of the crops of the Land of Israel, and also the drinking of four cups of red and white wine. Throughout the Seders, the kabbalists would read passages from the scriptures, from the Mishna and from the Zohar that deal with trees and plants. Throughout the 17th century, the kabbalists of Safed began to publicize "Tikkuns" (corrective recitals) for Jewish holidays, which included the "Tree of Citrus Fruit" – a Tikkun for Tu Bishvat. This Tikkun spread out among the entire Jewish world and especially in North Africa, the Balkan states and in Turkey.
Tu Bishvat is a holiday that essentially typifies an agricultural society that lives in its land and cultivates it. It maintains a taxation system that promotes division of assets and assistance to weak segments of the population. The laws of tithes (the taxes) of the holiday are divided into two main categories: One, called "Ma'aser Rishon", designated to be given to the Levites and the priests, who do not engage in economical, creative activities, and the second one is called "Ma'aser Sheni", which would be carried over to Jerusalem by the farmer who would pilgrimage to Jerusalem and once every three years it was donated to the poor and to the weak ("Ma'aser Ani"). These are taxes, whose social designation and method of calculation are advanced and socially – oriented. They are progressive taxes, i.e. the more a farmer would profit, the more he would pay, and the less he would profit, the less he would contribute. In this way, a considerable balance of the economical gaps was achieved.
When the nation of Israel was exiled from its land and the agricultural society cultivating its land existed no more, the practical aspect of this date gave way to a more spiritual one. Instead of cultivating fruit trees it turned into a celebration in commemoration of fruit trees and fruit of Israel. The land of Israel was transformed from an arena of practical settlement matters, to a utopian, inconceivable idea.
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With the onset of the idea and the advent of Zionism, a degree of criticism was directed towards the customs of this holiday. Teachers and instructors of the Diaspora would give their charges fruits of Israel to taste. Young Zionists who dreamt of immigrating to Israel and to settle in it, no longer sufficed with the memory of trees and the taste of fruits, but wished to actually grow them on their land, the land of Israel. They exchanged the longing for Israel to actual Aliyah and settlement.
On Tu Bishvat of 5650 (1890), the teacher and author, Ze'ev Yavetz, set out with a group of his students from Zikhron Yaacov and celebrated a tree planting festival. Once again, it was the teachers who preserved the atmosphere of the holiday, but at this time, in a Zionist practical way. With this activity, Yavetz instilled a new character into the holiday for the Zionist generations to follow. The custom of planting gradually spread out to all Hebrew settlements. In 1908, the Teacher's Union officially declared Tu Bishvat a holiday of planting and later, the Jewish National Fund adopted this date as a symbol and holiday for planting trees in Israel.
Over the years, with the establishment of the State and the development of settlement in the country, tree planting has lost its status of centrality to a certain extent and the holiday was imbued with new content: the celebration of nature conservation. This day, which our forefathers had already viewed as the beginning of the transition from the cold winter to the onset of renewed growth, is expressed in nature as a period of general bloom, the blossoming of the trees, the almond blossom, the awakening of bird species to nest and to breed and other phenomena. Going out to nature noticing its changes has become a new conceptual focus of the holiday. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), led by Azaria Alon, a member of the immigrant camps and Beit Hashita, declared the week, in which Tu Bishvat falls as The Week of Nature Conservation. This, of course, did not do away with the practice of eating fruit or of the significance of planting, but it paved the way for a new awareness, suitable for all, to the land's nature.
In recent years, with the growing concern about air pollution and global warming, the content of the festival was enhanced to include ecological concerns, including reinforcement of the call for the preservation of the earth and for prevention of air pollution. Another custom that has been spreading throughout the country in recent years is the Tu Bishvat Seder: a fruit meal and the reading of a narration dealing with the nature of the Land of Israel. The first to initiate this celebration were Noga Hareuveni, of blessed memory, of Neot Kedumim, and Amnon Yadin of blessed memory, member of the Geva group.