Tu B’Shvat is first mentioned in the Mishnah where it is listed as one of the four New Years in the Jewish calendar (Rosh HaShanah 1:1). Specifically, it relates to the mitzvah of tithing produce. According to the Torah, before the fruits of our labors can be enjoyed, certain gifts have to be given and shared with the Kohanim, (priests) Levi’im (Levites) and the poor. Each year requires particular gifts and since different fruits blossom and produce at varying times of the year, Tu B’Shvat marks the New Year for trees in regard to which year the fruit is considered.
Over the years, Tu B’Shvat became the traditional day to show our appreciation and love of the land of Israel in particular and the beautiful natural world in general. It is an ancient custom to eat fruit on this day, especially the fruits of the land of Israel. According to tradition it is on this day that the sap, or life force, begins to rise in the tree as it begins to prepare to bring forth new leaves, buds and fruit.
In the 1500’s, the city of Safed became a magnet for Torah scholars and Kabbalists. It was during this time that a ritual Seder of Tu B’Shvat was created. Modeled after the Seder of Pesach, it became a potent vehicle for understanding the holiness of the land of Israel and our deep connection to the land. This Seder, which was known till recently only to Kabbalists, has become very popular in our generation and is the inspirational basis of a wide range of Tu B’Shvat Seders formulated by Jews of all backgrounds.
In modern times, this date has become a traditional day to plant trees in the land of Israel. In the Diaspora it is a time to collect money for trees to be planted in Israel. With an increasing level of understanding as to the importance of ecology and the environment, Tu B’Shvat also serves as the Jewish “earth day.”
When looking at various sources in the Torah, Midrash, Talmud and Maimonides, one is struck by how much is recorded as law in our tradition regarding protecting the land, regulating its use, preserving the earth and animal species from wanton destruction, and people from the hazards of water, air and noise pollution. Along with these laws is imparted an overall world view of love and reverence for the earth in general and the land of Israel in particular. This day can be used to deepen our knowledge of what the written and oral Torah reveal regarding these very vital and contemporary issues.
Tu B’Shvat, which literally means the 15th day of the month of Shvat, is a full moon. One month later on the full moon is Purim (Shushan Purim) and exactly one month later on the full moon is the holiday of Pesach. These holidays coming one after the other on three successive full moons symbolize both the very beginning of spring, as well as the welling up of the forces of redemption. Coming out of Egypt and slavery to a state of freedom is intimately connected to the transition of nature from a state of hibernation and inaction to one of rebirth and rejuvenation. The sap rising in the tree on Tu B’Shvat represents the initial point of the process, climaxing in our personal and national redemption from the narrow confines of Egypt on Pesach.
“Who is the wise one – he who sees the nolad.“ The word nolad comes from the root “to be born” and alludes to the sliver of the new moon. The wise one is he or she who sees in the initial appearance of a situation that which will ultimately transpire. Just as one cannot detect from the exterior the sap rising from the roots to the trunk of a tree, so too, for the individual, the arousal of new spiritual energy on Tu B’Shvat begins from the deepest point of pure potential in the soul and slowly rises up till fully revealed as new spiritual energy ready for actualization on Pesach.
In this light I can personally reveal one more monumental event that occurred on this day – my wife Rachel and I met in 1975 at a Tu B’Shvat Seder in Jerusalem. I proposed on Pesach and we were married two months later!! This is truly a case of a Torah realization, actualizing itself in reality, which I only came to understand many years later,.
From the above explanation we can understand an answer to the age old question as to why the reading of the weekly portion of the Torah relating to the exodus from Egypt is not read in the spring time at the time of Pesach, as might be expected, but rather in January or February, depending on the year. On closer inspection though we see that the portion in which Israel crosses the Sea and the pursuing Egyptians are drowned, the culminating act of the liberation from Egypt, always comes out the week of Tu B’Shvat!! This alludes to the essential connection between these two holidays.
Another association between the three successive full moon holidays is that of wine. Central to the Tu B’Shvat Seder is drinking four cups of wine (or grape juice). We begin with white wine representing winter, hibernation and exile and add increasing amounts of red wine each succeeding cup till spring, rebirth and redemption are represented by red wine. On Purim, of course, we drink wine (and lots of it) to celebrate our deliverance from the evil designs of Haman and then culminate the process with the four cups of wine on Pesach when we celebrate our redemption from Egypt.
The Talmud teaches: “wine goes in and the secret comes out” (Eruvin 65a). In a certain sense we can relate to the wine of these three holidays as the “sap” of new spiritual energy rising from the most hidden secret level of our souls, until its full potential is revealed in our truly feeling we are personally coming out of our own Egypt, our own narrow psychological and spiritual straits. We are taught that there are “seventy faces to the Torah” ( Zohar 3:249b).The word for wine in Hebrew, yayin, equals seventy, as does the word sod, “secret.” The statement – “wine goes in and the secret comes out,” – can be understood to mean that the proper consumption of wine with the right spiritual intentions draws forth from within us new and inspirational insights into the seventy face of Torah, the inner, secret dimensions of the Torah.
The comparisons we have been making between the process of personal renewal, the rebirth of nature and new insights of Torah is explained beautifully by Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh, who points out that both man and the Torah are compared to a tree. The Torah (Deuteronomy 20:19) compares a man to the tree of the field and in our prayers when returning the Torah to the Ark, where we refer to the Torah as “a tree of life for all those who grasp on to it” (Proverbs 3:18). He continues by explaining that just as a tree is comprised of roots, trunk, branches and fruit, so too does man and Torah conceptually have these same components. The roots of man (here we refer to Israel as the archetypal “man” as taught by our Sages) refers to our Fathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and our Mothers: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. They rooted us as a people deeply in the land of Israel. The trunk corresponds to the full body of all the archetypal souls of Israel who left Egypt, received the Torah and entered the land of Israel. The branches represent the tribes and the individual tribe members as they spread out from each other in the land and even more so during the Diaspora. The fruits are the mitzvot and good deeds performed by each Jew.
The roots of the Torah are the inner, hidden secrets of the Torah concealed below the surface. The trunk of the Torah relates to the main body of written and oral Torah as revealed at Sinai, while the branches relate to the different and diverse methods and schools of interpretation, along with each individual’s unique perspective of Torah. The fruits are new insights, sweet and nourishing, which are revealed to those who devote themselves to the study of Torah.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, in reference to the hidden potential and holiness of each Jew used to say: “What do we know, what do we know.” He once taught that the “headquarters” of this concept is Tu B’shvat, where a tree the day after Tu B’Shvat looks just like it did the day before – we don’t see anything perceptibly different. But what do we know of what is moving deep within the heart and mind of an individual, unrevealed to our critical eyes?
We should all be blessed to go deep within ourselves on Tu B’Shvat and rediscover all our potential for holiness and let it flow once again. May we hold on to our Torah which is truly a tree of life and recognize our deep roots in the holy land and our eternal connection to God and the Jewish people.