Tu B’shvat is similar to Arbor Day. It is the Jewish holiday during which the age of trees is determined. It is celebrated during the month called Shvat, on the 15th day, which is in either late January or the beginning of February. The next Tu B’shvat will be celebrated on January 20, 2011. Tu is Hebrew for the number fifteen, hence the name Tu B’shvat. It is also known as the New Year for Trees, and one of the four different Jewish new years.
During this holiday, the age of trees is estimated for tithing. Jewish tithing works on a scale of seven years, and each year calls for a specific tithe. Fruit from one year can only be used to pay a tithe from that year. It is also when the trees in Israel which bloom early in the year begin a new cycle of growing and bearing fruit. On the 15th day of Shvat, the fruit of the tree belongs to the next year’s tithe. This dates back to the time of the Bait Hamikdash, or Holy Temple, when farmers had to pay tax on the crops they produced. This is still done in Israel.
In ancient times, while the Jews were in exile, Israel’s forests were stripped and the land turned into desert. With the beginning of Zionism in the late 1800’s, they began returning to their homeland. Planting trees and reforesting the land was a priority, and many eucalyptus trees were planted. In 1884, the first Tu B’shvat ceremony was held in Galilee, and several hundred citrus trees were planted.
The custom of this holiday comes from Leviticus 19:23-25, where is specifically states that fruit may not be eaten during the first year of a plant or tree’s life. It also states that the fourth year’s fruit was to go to the Temple, when it existed.
According to Jewish law, a tree may still not be harvested during it’s first three years of life. The fruit harvested during the fourth year is said to be for G-d, and the fruit grown the following years can be eaten. Fruit grown during the first three years is orlah. This means eating it is forbidden.
While there are not many customs or traditions related to Tu B’shvat, some honor the day by eating a new fruit. Others eat each of the Seven Species named in the Bible as being the most abundant fruits and grains in Israel. These are olives, grapes, wheat, dates, pomegranates, figs and barley. It is also common to collect money to have trees planted in Israel, or to have a Tu B’shvat Seder.
The Tu B’shvat Seder began way back in the Middle Ages. It was celebrated then much as it is now, with a feast of fruits and wine. Eating and drinking with special blessings, was thought to bring the world closer to perfection.