Tu B’Shvat: A holiday with a history—Thursday January 28

January 21, 2021

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We sometimes fall into the understandable error of thinking that tradition is the opposite of having a history. We think that history is about change, whereas tradition is about resistance to change.

That’s true some of the time, but not always. A deeper understanding reveals that tradition itself is developmental, not static.

The holiday of Tu B’Shvat (the 15th day of the month of Shevat, i.e. late January or early February) is a good example of this truth. It’s not now what it was 50 years ago. Fifty years ago, it wasn’t what it had been 500 years ago. Five hundred years ago, it wasn’t what it originally had been.

Originally, Tu B’Shvat was not a holiday at all, but a calendar convention related to an important aspect of Jewish ritual. Hillel the Elder, one of the most important Sages in the formative period of Rabbinic Judaism, 2000 years ago, identified that day as the New Year for Trees.

Why do trees need a new year? Because the fruit of any tree was not considered suitable to eat for the first three years of that tree’s life. (Leviticus 19:23-24; Mishnah Orlah 3:1, Talmud Yerushalmi, Orlah, 20b; Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 294) In the fourth year, the crop was considered “first fruits” and was to be donated to the sanctuary. In the fifth year, the crop was available for regular consumption, once the proper tithes were removed. (It’s actually more complicated, because for certain purposes, the 15th of Shevat is treated as the New Year for trees, and for other purposes, the 1st of Tishre is the calendar marker.)

With the rise of Jewish mysticism in the 16th century, our tradition expanded in mind-bending ways. The kabbalistic masters of the era, especially Rabbi Isaac Luria, found ways to infuse our everyday rituals, as well as our sacred texts, with new levels of significance. By the performance of our religious responsibilities, with proper mindfulness, we could actually help heal the fractured cosmos and advance the goal of Redemption. Rabbi Luria was the creator of the “Seder for Tu B’Shvat.” In this ceremony, the various colors of beverage—clear water, white wine, blush wine, red wine—and the various kinds of fruit—with edible skin, without edible skin, with a large central pit, without one—all symbolize deep, mystical truths. The seder that your children attend in Religious School is the descendant of that mystical innovation.

Early 20th-century Zionism gave the holiday an additional nuance. Since the laws regulating when fruit could be consumed were specifically related to the Land of Israel, Zionists connected Tu B’Shvat to the sacred task of reclaiming the soil of the Holy Land and advancing the cause of regaining independence for the Jewish State. Plant a tree in Israel! Here was a new custom that raised our level of consciousness of the holiday and renewed our observance.

“Consciousness-Raising” will call to mind the 1960’s. Our contemporary environmentalist movement dates to Rachel Carson’s publication of Silent Spring in 1962. Within a decade, Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson inaugurated “Earth Day,” first observed on April 22, 1970. Environmentalism resonated among Jews, especially younger Jews of that generation. In those circles, Tu B’Shvat became a “Jewish Earth Day.” It still is, for a significant portion of our Jewish community.

So, which is it? “All of the Above.” The development of Tu B’Shvat has only added layer after layer of loveliness to it.

Observe; Enjoy; Be Inspired!

Happy Tu B’Shvat!

- Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel

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