Whether it is bearing fruit, cleaning the air or protecting us from an oppressive sun, the value of trees — and nature itself — has long been recognized by the Jewish people.
Tu B’Shevat, also known as the New Year for Trees, is one of the four new years recognized by the Jewish religion. When the First and Second Temples still stood, it marked the deadline for calculating the agricultural portion of tithes. In the 16th century, students of the Jewish mystic tradition of kabbalah are said to have begun the custom of the Tu B’Shevat Seder, which is still practiced by many communities to this day.
“The Tu B’Shevat Seder, unlike the Passover Seder, is not proscribed, and so there are many variations,” explained Rabbi Mindie Jo Snyder, head rabbi of Congregation Lev Shalom of Flagstaff. “One of the things that we know is the historical significance of the Tu B’shevat Seder relative to the kabbalists in T’svat in Israel in the 16 century. The idea that the temple no longer exists physically brought to mind other creative ways to attend to this idea of first fruits and the Jewish relationship between the Holy One, the land and the people.”
Snyder explained the Tu B’Shevat Seder typically involves drinking four glasses of wine, beginning with a cup of white wine. Subsequent cups have progressively more red wine mixed in, a unique practice to the Tu B’Shevat Seder.
The ceremony also usually involves the consumption of a number of fruits and other plant products, often including the seven species, which Snyder explained were a group of plant species associated with Israel in biblical times.
In modern times, as the human impact on the environment became difficult to ignore, the holiday came to serve as a kind of Israeli Arbor Day.
In contemporary Israel, many mark the day by planting trees or performing other environmental service work. In the early 20th century, this practice was championed by educator Chaim Aryeh Leib Zuta. Zuta was a Russian-born Jew who moved to Israel and proposed that tree planting should be an official part of the holiday there.
Also during that period, the effort to plant trees in the region was championed by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael Jewish National Fund, which has planted some 240 million trees throughout Israel over the last 100-plus years.
“The theme of Tu B’Shevat is planting,” said Rabbi Micah Caplan, head rabbi of Congregation Or Tzion in Scottsdale. “It’s the idea of planting young trees, specifically in the land of Israel, but it also developed into a Jewish Earth Day, so to speak, around the world.
“In addition, there’s this metaphoric idea of spiritually planting new things for ourselves. Tu B’Shevat seems to always fall in the month of January, which is the secular New Year, and so it is an opportunity to really take an inventory of the things that we have. Are we nurturing? Are we giving water and sun to our values? What could we plant in our lives that’s lacking?”
The holiday continues to remind people around the world about the importance of the environment and the value in protecting it, in addition to serving as an opportunity for personal and spiritual reflection. Though practices vary widely, Snyder also thought the holiday was an excellent opportunity for the discussion of contemporary environmental issues.
“Environmental issues can potentially be discussed, not the least of which is our consumption of water and how we use water and the difference between water being applied in beneficial ways and the potentially damaging effects of water, or a lack thereof,” Snyder said. “The idea of water and growth, of water and sustenance, are particularly important in the Jewish tradition and could be a topic of conversation for the entire Tu B’Shevat Seder.”
Rabbi Alicia Fleissig Magal, head rabbi of the Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley, pointed out that the current season in Israel is quite different from conditions throughout much of the U.S.
“Tu B’Shevat comes with the first full moon of the month in which the sap begins to rise and the new growth begins,” Magal said. “In the Torah, we’re reading about the Exodus and outside the trees are slowly beginning to bloom. This is an auspicious time to plant seeds — both outside and within. We plant in the garden, but we also plant in our own souls and hearts. Hopefully, that will give rise to new growth and new directions in our journey of expansion and freedom.” JN