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Tu B’Shvat: A Celebration of Spirit, Trees, and Righteousness

1080 almond blossom in Israel by Izhar Laufer

Blossoms in Israel.  (Photo by Izhar Laufer)

Today is an exciting New Year’s Day in Judaism:  Tu B’Shvat (15th of Shevat), also known as Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot (New Year for Trees).

One way in which this day is celebrated around the world, but especially here in Israel, is through heightened ecological awareness.

We see the earliest blooming of trees at this time of the year, so it is fitting that school children throughout the country will be planting trees today.

Israeli children plant trees on Tu B'Shvat.

Israeli children plant trees on Tu B’Shvat.

Tithing Trees in the Torah

“When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, regard its fruit as forbidden [orlah / foreskin].  For three years you are to consider it forbidden [arelim / having a foreskin or uncirmumcised]; it must not be eaten.  In the fourth year all its fruit will be holy, an offering of praise to the LORD.”  (Leviticus 19:23–24)

In the Torah, tithes were offered in accordance with the written laws, and they did not only involve money.  Tithes also included such commodities as cattle, the “five grains,” wine, olive oil, and the fruit of the trees (Leviticus 27:30–33).

However, Leviticus 19:23 forbids the eating of fruit from any tree during the first three years of its growth.  The first Hebrew word translated in most English Bibles as forbidden is orlah, which literally means foreskin.

The second is the masculine version of this word:  arelim.  It means having a foreskin or uncircumcised, which best describes something that has not yet been sanctified or made holy.

In the fourth year, however, all of the fruit becomes holy by offering it to the Lord; that is, all of it is tithed as an offering of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Clementine-Israel-citrus-Tu B'Shvat

Clementine in an Israeli citrus grove.  (Photo by Ary B)

Only in the fifth year may the fruit be eaten, so it is important to establish a date on which the year of tithing begins.  For much of ancient Israel, it generally depended on the particular crop with land crops beginning their tithe year on the 1st of Tishrei, which is the calendar year’s Rosh Hashanah or New Year.  

However, Rabbi Hillel (c. 110–10 BC) set the tithe year for fruit trees beginning on the 15th of Shevat (today).

On his tithing calendar, which is still accepted by the Jewish community, even if a tree were planted yesterday, it celebrates its second birthday today.  (Judaism 101)

Traditionally, Tu B’Shvat, then, is the day that the age of a tree is taken into consideration for the purpose of tithing.

Israeli children water a tree they just planted in honor of Tu B'Shvat.

Israeli children water a tree they just planted in honor of Tu B’Shvat.

The Feast of Tu B’Shvat

“I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it.  They will be yours for food.”  (Genesis 1:29)

This is a holiday about rebirth, renewal, and conservation; it is about giving, and it is about enjoying the fruit God has blessed us with.

Though businesses are open as usual, we commemorate the day by eating the fruit given to us on the land and, in particular, the seven species that are mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8, which are considered the most abundant produce of the Land of Israel:

  • Wheat (chitah)
  • Barley (se’orah)
  • Grapes (gefen), usually consumed as wine
  • Figs (te’enah)
  • Pomegranates (rimon)
  • Olives (zayit), usually consumed in oil form
  • Dates (tamar or d’vash)

Because of their significance in the Land, these seven species also became the traditional produce offering called the bikkurim (firstfruits), which the Jewish People first brought to the Levites and later to the priests who served at the Temple and who didn’t own land of their own.

We find this law of tithing in Deuteronomy 26:1–2:

“When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket.  Then go to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for His Name.”

The bikkurim offering ended when the Temple was destroyed in AD 70.  Today, Tu B’Shvat has come to symbolize and celebrate the spiritual and physical connection to God as well as to the Land of Israel.

logo of the Volcani Institute (Agricultural Research Organization) in Ben Shemen, Israel reflects the Seven Species and their centrality to Israel and the Jewish People.

This logo of the Volcani Institute (Agricultural Research Organization) in Ben Shemen, Israel reflects the Seven Species and their centrality to Israel and the Jewish People.  (Photo by צילום:ד”ר אבישי טייכר)

Starting in the Middle Ages, the holiday of Tu B’Shvat was celebrated as a festive occasion in line with the 3rd century writings of the Mishnah (book of rabbinic discussions), which first called it Rosh Hashanah or New Year.

Beginning in the 16th century in the Land of Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed celebrated it as a seder similar to the Passover seder.  This seder, though, honored the Tree of Life (the Kabbalistic diagram of the Sephirot or ten spheres, each one representing a realm of the spiritual universe).

The seder is called in Hebrew P’ri Etz Hadar, which means The Fruit of the Beautiful Tree.

Incorporated in the seder are blessings designed to strengthen the Tree of Life.  It also references the “Four Worlds” or emanations that are linked with the roots, trunk, branches, and leaves of a tree.

Traditionally the Tu B’Shvat seder would end with a prayer that states in part,

“May all the sparks scattered by our hands, or by the hands of our ancestors, or by the sin of the first human against the fruit of the tree, be returned and included in the majestic might of the Tree of Life.”

There is the suggestion here of repairing the environment, which has led some ecologically-minded Jews living in Israel to re-establish the Tu B’Shvat seder and to use it to promote present-day ecological issues.

Children enjoy the fruit of the Tu B'Shvat seder.

Children enjoy the fruit of the Tu B’Shvat seder.

People Can Be Like Trees

“Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him.  They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.  It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.  It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”  (Jeremiah 17:7–8)

This day has spiritual relevance to us because the Bible often associates people with trees and their fruit.  

But why does the Bible relate man to a tree?

The Talmud (Taanit 5b) tells of a man who was traveling through the desert when he came across a beautiful tree with luscious fruit planted by a flowing stream. After filling himself with its bounty he asked the tree:

“‘Tree, O tree, with what should I bless you? Should I bless you that your fruit be sweet? Your fruit is already sweet.

‘Should I bless you that your shade be plentiful? Your shade is plentiful.  That a spring of water should run beneath you? A spring of water runs beneath you.

‘There is one thing with which I can bless you: May it be God’s will that all the trees planted from your seeds should be like you.’”

Like this tree that soaked up the nourishment available to it and blossomed to bear sweet fruit and provide bountiful shade, a righteous person soaks up what is good (things of God) and, in turn, does good while asking nothing in return.

We who are blessed by this generosity naturally wish that God would bless this person’s offspring (physical and spiritual) so they would be like them.  (Chabad)

Harvesting pomegranates in Israel

Harvesting pomegranates in the Holy Land.

Oaks of Righteousness

“Whoever believes in Me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”  (John 7:38)

In infancy, the root of a tree soaks in and sends out nourishment that eventually develops into a sturdy freestanding trunk that produces healthy fruit or lush foliage.  Our own roots draw from hidden resources that nourish us so that we become healthy, independent individuals impacting our communities for good.

In the same way that a malnourished root will affect the health of the entire tree, the abuse or mistreatment of a child can ultimately affect the quality of fruit he or she bears.

Because of malnourishment during various stages of our lives, we often think that we are too weak, too brokenhearted, or too oppressed to stand tall and bear righteous fruit.  We tend to delegate that task to “other righteous people.”

But the Lord made a promise that through the power of His Anointed One, even the most wounded person can be become an “oak of righteousness” who bears bountiful fruit.

Isaiah proclaimed this promise when he prophesied the words of the Anointed One to come:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

“They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor.”   (Isaiah 61:1–3)

An Israel Defense Forces solder helps a child plant a tree for Tu B'Shvat.

An Israel Defense Forces solder helps a child plant a tree for Tu B’Shvat.

The Good News is that the Lord’s Anointed One has come and He is the hidden Anointed Spring nourishing us.

Yet, unlike a tree, we must choose to tap into this nourishment so that it can run through us and transform us into prophesied oaks of righteousness.

This Spring has been available for nearly 2,000 years when a newly immersed rabbi read the above words of Isaiah, closed the scroll, and declared, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”  (Luke 4:21)

That rabbi is Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus, the Anointed One — the Messiah), and He declared, “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.  Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)

As others see our transformation, from ashes to beauty, from mourning to joy, they will come to know the glory and splendor of our Lord and His Anointed One and becomes oaks themselves.

An Israel family plants a tree on Tu B'Shvat.

An Israel family plants a tree on Tu B’Shvat.

Tu B’Shvat Celebrates the Environment

“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. …“  (Genesis 1:28)

In modern times, especially here in Israel, the holiday of Tu B’Shvat has become associated with a concern for the environment.

Israel is a small country and much of it is arid desert.  It cannot afford to waste what resources it has; as a result of God’s prophetic timing, personal ingenuity, and necessity, Israel has shown itself to be a leader in preserving the environment.

For instance, Israel is able to reclaim sewage for agricultural uses and turn billions of gallons of seawater into fresh drinkable water, which has been used to replace and replenish diminished water tables and resources.  Israel can even extract water from the air.

Like an oak of righteousness, Israel has been sharing its ingenuity with the world, such as in San Diego where a desalination venture helped relieve California’s extended drought.

Drip irrigation lines water young orange trees.

Drip irrigation lines water young orange trees.

Tu B’Shvat is not just about celebrating trees or conservation.

It is a celebration of all God’s creation and, most importantly, it reminds us of our ability to tap into the anointing waters of Yeshua HaMashiach for our spiritual nourishment and growth.

Today, on Tu B’Shvat, we have an opportunity to consider our rootedness.

Are we receiving proper spiritual nourishment from HaShem (The Name/ YHVH) and His Anointed One?  Are we connected to a healthy, spiritually supportive community and, if not, what can we do to change and improve that?

Let us all be good stewards of the physical and spiritual resources that the Lord has provided to us for His splendor, so we may yield bountiful fruit that continues to be a blessing from generation to generation.

“Blessed is the one … whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night.  That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.”  (Psalm 1:1–3)