Understanding the Reasons and Traditions of Tu B'Shvat

Tu B'Shvat 2016 - The 'why' and the 'how'

Tu B'Shvat is a small, but important holiday, for those of the Jewish faith. On a kibbutz this day is celebrated as an agricultural based festival, but in other areas the holiday may be honored in other ways as well.

This is the date that symbolizes a "New Year of Trees". The Tu B'Shvat was designated in the Mishnah as being one of the 4 New Year holidays for the Jewish people. The Hebrew names are Rosh Hashanah or Ilanot'La. The celebration of Tu B'Shvat occurs on the 15th day of Shvat (Shevat) which is one of the original months on the Jewish calendar.

The Flowering Almond Trees

In Jerusalem and other parts of Israel the wild almond trees burst into flower during the Tu B'Shvat holiday season. It is these beautiful buds and flowers that create a wondrous landscape over much of the arid land in Israel and enables people to rejoice in the natural rejuvenation that occurs each and every year.

The Naming of the Tu B'Shvat Holiday

The name for this holiday is also the date of Tu B'Shvat. The word ‘Tu' represents the numbers 9 and 6 in the Hebrew language (tet, vav). There is an interesting story that explains why this is done. The rabbinical rules do not allow the actual numbers 10 and 5 to be represented with Hebrew letters.

This is because 10 is symbolized by yud or y and 5 is symbolized by hey, or h. If the number 15 were actually written correctly it would create an abbreviation which is literally translated to be the name of God. (YHVH). This is why the numbers 9 and 6 are always used in the Hebrew language to symbolize the number or date ‘15'.

Deciding on the Date

According to tradition and biblical documentation there are a total of 4 New Year holidays and festivals. The first day of the month of Nisan is the time when the Jewish population toasts a New Year that celebrates festivals and kings.

The New Year for animal tithing occurs on the first day of the month of Elul; and and when the first day of Tishrei arrives there is a New Year celebration that honors planting and the growing of crops.

Even though the mentioning of Tu B'Shvat is documented in the Rosh Hashanah Tractate in the Mishnah there was much debate about when the date for this New Year would actually take place.

The first day of Shevat is the New Year for Trees in keeping with the Jewish Shamai school of thought. According to Hillel tradition the New Year of Trees occurs on Rosh Hashana, which is the 15th day of Shevat.

When the debate needed to be settled over which date for Tu B'Shvat should be considered correct the Talmud sided with the school of Hillel. This is how the date for the New Year of the Trees was decided. This important day of the year also became the official time when people would figure the cycles needed for their crop production, begin sabbaticals or deliver their biblically dictated acts of tithing with trees and fruit.

Explaining Biblical Directives for Tu B'Shvat

In strict accordance with the Jewish Bible there is a prohibition or Orlah that forbids anyone to eat the fruit of any tree that is produced within the first 3 years of planting.

The Neta Reva'i is considered the Old Testament commandment that commands people to deliver fruit as an act of faith and tithing. The fruit produced on trees during their 4th year of planting is required to be delivered to the Holy City of Jerusalem. Today this tithing act is more symbolic as opposed to a literal and actual ritual.

During Tu B'Shvat there are two directives that are taken from the book of Deuteronomy. These are referred to as the Maaser Ani and the Maaser Sheni and are tithing acts done for the good of the poor. These tithes were all calculated according to the time when the fruit from the trees had ripened.

The Orlah directive is essentially unchanged from those early, ancient years. Tu B'Shvat is designated as the date on the Hebrew calendar for determining the proper age of trees bearing fruit or nuts.

For those who follow the teachings and traditions of the Orthodox Jewish faith the directives involving Tu B'Shvat are strictly observed. In fact these traditions are regarded as an important part of the Biblically based Halacha.

Fruit produced during those 1st three years following the planting of the trees are not kosher. During the 4th year of planting any fruit that ripens prior to Tu B'Shvat is still to be regarded as Orlah and should not be eaten. Only the fruit that has ripened on the date of Tu B'Shvat, or after this date, is regarded as kosher.

The tithing of Maaser Ani and Maaser Sheni are ceremonially observed with coins in almost all instances. Although some people do still offer some fruit, the age and ripening time for the fruits are insignificant for these tithes today.

Facts to Note

The date of the annual Tu B'Shvat holiday usually will occur during the second full moon just prior to the observance of Passover. If it is a leap year then Tu B'Shvat will occur during the 3rd full moon cycle that takes place just prior to Passover.

In accordance with Jewish custom regarding minor holidays the penitent prayer known as Tachanun will not be spoken during the synagogue services held on Tu B'Shvat. This pray of penitence is also left out of the synagogue services that are held the afternoon prior to the Tu B'Shvat holiday.

Establishing the Tu B'Shvat Seder

Many centuries ago the celebration of Tu B'Shvat included fruits and nuts. It was during the 1600s that Rabbi Luria of Safed designated which fruits and trees had special, symbolic meaning to be honored during this festival of the trees.

Tu B'Shvat seder was established and certain Israeli fruits and trees were honored with special significance at this time. It was determined that observers would eat 10 fruits and drink 4 glasses of wine during the Tu B'Shvat celebration. These would be handled in a specific manner, and certain blessings were designated to be spoken during the ceremonial meal. This was a way that the rabbi and his followers hoped to help people achieve a more perfect spiritual connection with those around them.

Customs of Tu B'Shvat

Among the customs that honor Tu B'Shvat are the planting of trees. Figs, dates and almonds are some of the most popular trees that people will plant during this Jewish New Year celebration. Another popular tradition is to eat a variety of dried nuts and fruits or to use these as ingredients in recipes. Gifts of dried nuts and fruits are also commonly presented to friends, neighbors and families during Tu B'Shvat.

Dried fruits, figs, raisins, dates, carob and almonds are the most common foods enjoyed during Tu B'Shvat. Chassidic Jews may eat pickled or candied citron and eat this food in honor of the Tu Bishvat holiday.

Since the late 1800s many Jewish individuals observe Tu B'Shvat by planting trees to honor their harmony with nature. In Israel there are a number of tree-planting events and other activities that are scheduled for Tu B'Shvat. To many people it could be considered an Israeli Arbor Day, and the fact that Jews as well as people of other faiths in all parts of the world honor this earth friendly holiday is an added blessing.

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