We first hear about Tu b’Shvat — the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat — in the Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 1:1) as one of the four days that start the year. Tu b’Shvat (it falls on Feb. 4) was not then considered a holy day. It was simply the legal date marking the new year for fruit trees. As a date noted only for practical purposes, it had little significance in other areas.
In the course of the centuries, most of the Jews went into exile, and Tu b’Shvat became important on an emotional level. Since the date was connected with life in the Holy Land and with its trees, it became a “memorial day” for Eretz Yisrael. Tu b’Shvat became the day for remembering when the Jewish people lived in its Land and ate the fruit of its trees and the produce of the earth. In many places, the day became a minor festival, marked by eating fruit that came from the Holy Land — mainly carob, and later on also oranges.
With time, the meaning of Tu b’Shvat deepened and broadened. It transformed into a celebration of the bounty of the land and, in particular, our yearning for those elements of life that were so lacking in exile.
Several books have been written on the festive eating of fruits on Tu b’Shvat, explaining their scriptural and other meanings. There are kabbalistic interpretations of the different types of fruits (with a shell, with a pit, with both shell and pit or without either) and what they mean about our lives.
For some people, it became a day of profound personal significance; one man used to work all year long in order to collect a hundred different kinds of fruits for Tu b’Shvat. In our time, Tu b’Shvat has acquired an even broader meaning — as the day that highlights the relationship between human beings and the trees and flora of the world.
Despite the return of so many Jews to the Holy Land, most of us are city dwellers. Urban life is based mainly on inanimate objects: buildings, machines, technology. Yet, we still need the deeper emotional connection with the living world: the plants, the trees, and the earth.
Living things are not only our main source of life: they are also connected with our own individual beings, as the prophet Isaiah tells us (65:22): “for as the days of the tree shall be the days of My people,” as well as other verses. Throughout the scriptures, plants serve as symbols for our national entity. In the Psalms, the Jewish nation is likened to a grapevine, with its growth, the spread of its branches and its fruits depicting our lives.
In ancient times, it was a widespread custom to plant a tree whenever a child was born, thus connecting the life of a person with the life of the tree. (This was so much so that according to one opinion, the cutting down of such a tree ignited the great rebellion of the Jews against the Romans — see Tractate Gittin 57a.) We have a special relationship with plants and trees, and it is our duty to maintain and sustain them and not to cut them down in vain. The Torah even says (Deuteronomy 20:19): “for is the tree of the field like a man?” — thus establishing a direct connection between man and tree.
This connection is not merely utilitarian: it also says that all living creatures — plants included — have a connection with the human spirit, a common bond of life. It means that all the forms of life around us are not only meant to furnish us with materials for our subsistence. They actually share a definition of life with us, of growth, or bearing fruit.
In our times, people have a keener awareness of ecology, of the interconnection of the various forms of life, of the global unity of life. Even though humanity is becoming more complex — and using increasingly sophisticated technologies — we are beginning to understand that our existence depends on the viability of all living things. We have a growing understanding both of nature’s sentimental value and of the practical need for maintaining the diversity of life. This is true even when it interferes with immediate needs and uses.
Thus Tu b’Shvat, which began as a mere date, has become more and more a day of thinking about the living world around us, of seeking ways to take better care of it, and of taking more steps so as not to harm and destroy it. For us, it has become a day of ecology, the day in which we try to re-establish our bond with the fields, the plants, the trees. Even if there is not very much we can do about global changes, we can still think about the unity of living things, their interdependence, and the ways in which they flower and give fruit. When we make the blessings over fruits, we can also admire both their taste and their beauty like the plants that God put in the Garden of Eden.
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Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is a leading Jewish scholar and author of an acclaimed commentary on the Talmud.