Tu B’shevat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat) is a strange Jewish holiday.
It’s technically the New Year for Trees. But:
Truth be told, the origins of Tu B’shevat are rather obsolete today. It began nearly 2,500 years ago when priests served as the Jewish people’s religious leaders in the Jerusalem Temple. Because they exclusively worked by offering sacrifices and such, all day every day, it was up to the rest of the Israelites to feed and clothe them. There developed a neat tithing system, which included a one-tenth tax on fruit. In order to organize the tithe seamlessly, they created a tax year within the regular year to define and synchronize the fruit trees’ harvesting cycles. It was basically an agricultural tax day.
When the ancient Temple was destroyed and the priests were no longer employed, Tu B’shevat could have been forgotten from Jewish life. But, as you can guess, it stuck around.
For centuries, Jews observed Tu B’shevat by reciting special psalms or hymns which were sung by the priests and by eating fruits from Israel (particularly olives, dates, grapes, figs, and pomegranates) to connect them to the land as they were dispersed around the world. Many still observe the holiday just like this.
Others, inspired by a 16th century mystical tradition of viewing the inner workings of trees as a symbol for how God’s energy flows through the world, developed a tradition of hosting a Tu B’shevat seder. During this seder, participants consume several courses of symbolic dried fruit, nuts, and wines. Each course creates a moment for reflection about how to connect with the Divine though the earth and beyond. Although these seders can be really beautiful and creative, I don’t like dried fruit and I’m not a mystic.
So, what else can be done to bring Tu B’shevat back to life?
I think Tu B’shevat is still fascinating precisely because it’s set during the wintertime.
The winter is a rather precarious season for trees because they are much more susceptible to freezing, losing precious energy, and being beaten down by heavy winds and snow. When this happens, trees do what they can to survive. They lose their leaves and stop producing energy to save up what they have left. They also send all of their sap, their nutrient-rich water, down towards their roots for safe-keeping underground until it is safe to use again in the spring.
Clearly, there’s something much more intentional in celebrating trees this time of year than first meets the eye. This intention has something to do with the fact that there is a lot we can learn from our wise friends.
Trees are very realistic about getting through a time of year that is dark and cold. They don’t pretend that they aren’t impacted by the weather. They sustain themselves by turning inward and holding tightly onto the resources they need to get through it. As the days start to grow longer, even before it gets warmer out, the trees shift gears internally. They begin, slowly but surely, sending their sweet sap back up from underneath.
As human beings affected by our natural environment, we experience our own physical shift in the winter.
This season often forces us to spend more time inside. We may sense that life is moving more slowly than when it’s warmer out. For some, this is a great time to focus inward, to spend quality time alone or with fewer people than usual, and to replenish our souls with a cozy blanket, a good book, and tea (hygge night anyone?).
But, as winter goes on, we may feel more isolated, uninspired, and lonely. This is when we can turn towards the trees and remember that we can emerge from our funks well before spring officially begins.
We can intentionally shift gears and open ourselves back up to people, hobbies, and opportunities that bring us joy. We can begin to spend more time outdoors. And just as trees choose to grow in a forest, so that if one falters from a windy blow another is right there to prop it back up, we too can choose to rely on one another to help us get by during challenging times.
I’ve come to realize that this is why I love and need Tu B’shevat. (It also help that my name, Ilana, is the Hebrew word for tree!). Tu B’shevat gives us the prompting to come out of our emotional hybernation and curate a seasonal shift.
Every breathe we take can be a moment to remember that the very oxygen we breathe is from our world’s forests. We recognize the trees importance to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
We can say “thank you” to them with a Jewish blessing for trees every time we take a breath or visit a park;
“Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh Haolam, she’kacha lo b’olamo” – “Blessed are You, Source of Life, that there is such a thing in this world.”
We can do our share to return the favor and make the earth more habitable for trees and plants to live in (which, as we’ve seen in places like California and Australia, is increasingly difficult). There’s even a new Jewish initiative called JTree to raise funds for the National Forest Foundation and plant more trees in America’s National Parks and Grasslands. I just made my donation.
In the spirit of the Tu B’shevat seder, we can gather with friends to study Jewish environmental perspectives (including from my favorite book on the subject) and talk about how to be stewards of the earth.
What Tu B’shevat can still teach us is that new fruits don’t happen overnight, not for trees and not for us. Each of us harbors the potential to bring forth some incredible new fruits this year.
Let’s use this Jewish New Year for Trees to inspire us to move through the rest of this winter season – or any moment of long, daunting “lows” – to nurture ourselves and others. Let’s trust that in time, we’ll turn as the seasons do.
And if we need it, we can remember to take some advice from a tree:
Happy Tu B’shevat!
About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and creating real and meaningful connections with them. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!) and watching a lot of tv.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.