The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) teaches:

There are four new years:
On the first of Nisan it is the new year for the kings and festivals.
On the first of Elul is is the new year for animal tithing.
On the first of Tishrei it is the new year for the sabbatical and jubilee years, for the tithing of plants and vegetables.
On the first of Shevat it is the new year for trees, according to the ruling of the House of Shammai; Beit Hillel, however, places it on the 15th of that month.

During this month of Shevat we celebrate the new year of the trees, the fourth of the new years mentioned in the Mishnah. The view of the House of Hillel was adopted, i.e., that the new year for the fruit crop would begin on the 15th of Shevat (Tu bi-Shevat; Tu is the numerical equivalent of 15) For hundreds of years, this midwinter day was marked as a minor holiday; it was customary among East European Jews to eat 15 different kinds of fruit, especially those from the Land of Israel mentioned in the Torah: olives, dates, grapes, fig and pomegranates. The eating of fruits was accompanied by the recitation of Psalm 104 (glorifying the wonder of God's creation) and the fifteen Psalms of Ascent (120-134; which may have been recited while going up into the Temple compound or sung by the Levites on the steps as part of a musical rendition).

Since the 17th century, partly under the influence of the Kabbalists of Safed (who saw profound esoteric meaning in the verse in Deut. 20:19: "For man is like the tree of the field"), a special seder (order service) was developed. Modeled on the Passover seder, the Tu bi-Shevat seder included drinking four cups of wine with varying percentages of red and white wine, representing perhaps the shifting of yearly seasons. The seder also included readings on trees and fruit from a range of Jewish literature. The new form of celebration spread from Safed to Sephardi communities in Turkey, Italy and Greece, and later in Europe, Asia and North Africa.

Additional poems and readings from Torah and Mishnah were added to the Tu bi-Shevat seder; in 1753 they were collected and published under the name Peri Ez Hadar (Fruit of the Goodly Tree). The name of the book is based on the verse (Leviticus 23:40) in which the Israelites are commanded to celebrate the harvest by taking the "product of hadar [goodly] trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook." Peri Ez Hadar brought the custom to wide use, particularly among European Hasidim and Sephardi Jews. The latter call this day The Feast of Fruits and refer to the special poems as complas.

Meanings for today

Since the establishment of agricultural settlements in Palestine in the late 19th century, Tu bi-Shevat has come to symbolize the revival and redemption of the land by conquering the desert. In the modern state of Israel Tu bi-Shevat is marked by the ceremonial planting of trees by schoolchildren, under the auspices of the afforestation department of the Jewish National Fund. Diaspora Jews participate in the collection of funds for the planting of trees through JNF, and many schools mark the occasion with ceremonies and the eating of fruits from Israel.

In recent years many Jews have chosen Tu bi-Shevat as a day of ecological awareness, a day to teach the ethic of protecting our natural world and the products of human labor.

SHEVAT Table of Contents





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