Almond tree blossoms in Kibbutz Magen. (Photo: Michael Casher)

Tu BiShvat: History, Horticulture, Minhag, and Halacha

BY HECHAVER YOSSI ARON OAM

“There are four dates known as Rosh Hashanah… on the first of Shevat is the new year for trees, these are the words of Beit Shammai; Beit Hillel says on the fifteenth” (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:1).

Tu BiShvat higia, chag la’ilanot, Tu BiShvat has arrived, the festival of the trees” (a popular Hebrew folk song dating back to the pre-State of Israel era).

Those who received their earliest Jewish education in Australia in the late 1940s and 1950s might well recall the many Israeli (or should one say Palestinian, for such was their nationality on their passports) Hebrew-speaking kindergarten teachers whose Zionist background led them to treat Tu BiShvat as one of the most significant of our holidays. We all received a good grounding regarding kibbutz and moshav life and the agricultural elements of the fledgling Israeli economy – especially oranges. We sang Tu BiShvat songs and together with those teachers or madrichim of the Zionist youth movements, some visited the hachshara farm in outer suburban Melbourne. And of course we planted trees in school and shul grounds – few of which, sadly, survived. In fact it would be some years before Yom HaAtzmaut overtook Tu BiShvat as the primary holiday for celebrating Israel.

But of course, Tu BiShvat, as per the above cited Mishnah, is essentially for halachic purposes the new year for trees. Given that it falls in the midst of the Northern winter when deciduous fruit-bearing trees are bare, it serves as an appropriate date for the division of seasons for halachic purposes, particularly those relating to tithing and the law of orla, the prohibition of eating the produce of a fruit tree during the first three years of its growth.

In that context, in the Diaspora where such laws (other than orla) hardly applied, and where agriculture was no longer the basis of most people’s livelihoods, minhag came to supplant halacha. To preserve the date’s significance, the custom of eating fruit, and particularly the fruit of Israel, was adopted. Emphasis was placed on fruits of Israel like figs, grapes, pomegranates, olives and dates, and Jews made a point of making their Sukkot etrog into preserves that would be eaten on Tu BiShvat. Where fresh fruit was not available, dried figs, dates and raisins filled the gap. That is the origin of the custom widely adopted even today to eat dried fruits, even when fresh fruits are now available.

More recently, the significance of Tu BiShvat has expanded beyond its halachic implications and ceremonies associated with eating fruit, becoming the festival of nature lovers and environmentalists – whose philosophies also have a place in our religious thought and practice. Interestingly, even the sages of the Talmud saw a connection between Tu BiShvat and the annual rainfall cycle; referring to Tu BiShvat being set at the time when “rov gishmei hashanah, most of the rainfall of the year” (that in Israel falls only in winter) has actually occurred. 

Tu BiShvat plays a critical role in another way as well. As indicated above, its origins relate to the agricultural halachot which comprise one sixth of the Mishnah – the Order of “Zera’im.” In modern times, we tend to forget the extent of the relationship between agriculture, the agricultural cycle and halacha. But this cycle is more significant than we realize.

In our time, we tend to emphasize the historical aspects of the shalosh regalim, the biblical pilgrimage festivals. But in fact the Torah primarily views these holidays through an agricultural lense. Pesach is the time of the barley harvest and the omer ceremony, Shavuot is the time of the wheat harvest and the shtei haLechem (two loaves) ceremony, and Sukkot, the Chag HaAsif, is the festival of ingathering at summer’s end. 

There is more to it than that. This year is a leap year, when we will have two months of Adar. Today, a leap year is part of the fixed calendric cycle, but it was originally up to the Sanhedrin to decide if a given year was to be a leap year. And if such was the case, Pesach was delayed by a month. Think about it! Pesach is the strictest festival in our calendar, with severe sanctions for consumption of chametz, to the extent that many people who are not careful about keeping kashrut during the rest of the year do so during Pesach. Yet the actual date of Pesach is at the mercy of the Sanhedrin. If they saw that as a result of the lunar/solar year discrepancy it was falling too close to winter and the barley would not be ripe in time for offering the omer, they delayed Pesach by a month! This decision would also determine when the other festivals would fall out in the coming year. Whether we realize it or not, agriculture is the key to our calendar and so many of our laws and customs.

The Mishnah cited above tells us that the actual date of the new year for trees is the subject of a debate between Hillel and Shammai. In this case – as in the case of the order of lighting Chanukah lights – the halacha follows the ruling of Beit Hillel. The ruling that the halacha almost always follows rulings of Beit Hillel has widespread ramifications that go far beyond the holiday of Tu BiShvat. 

Despite the ancient significance of agriculture to Jewish life – a significance reflected in the first of the six sections of the Mishnah, dedicated to agricultural laws – these laws became less relevant after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, when Jews primarily lived outside of the Land. Hence, later halachic codes including the Tur (c. 1300) and Shulchan Aruch (c. 1550) did not pay much attention to those laws (even the Babylonian Talmud generally does not address these laws).

However, even after the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, many of these halachot continue to apply to produce grown in Eretz Yisrael. There has been a renaissance in the study and implementation of these laws since the return of Jews to our Land and the reestablishment of Jewish agriculture across our homeland. In that context, Tu BiShvat has gained new meaning. That aside, Sephardic, Kabbalistic and more recently Chassidic circles have developed elaborate ceremonies to accompany the consumption of fruits – especially those referred to in the Torah as the blessing of our Land – all of which are designed to emphasize the significance of our biblical homeland and its produce. 

Here in Australia, we are in the midst of the summer, when stone fruits and many others are ripe for picking. That aside, modern preserving technology and ease of transport across the globe, let alone across different climatic regions within Australia, means that seasonal differences in the availability of fruit are nowhere near as pronounced as they once were. We are incredibly fortunate to have access to a variety of fresh fruit to celebrate Tu BiShvat.

But long before many of the varieties with which we are now familiar had even been thought of, availability of fruit at this time facilitated celebration of Tu BiShvat with a variety of fresh fruits. Years ago, I heard from a group of post-Holocaust refugees who happened to arrive here on Tu BiShvat how absolutely amazed they were to be greeted with a platter of so many varieties of fresh fruit of which they could not even have dreamed of in Europe, where shortages and rationing were still widespread.

I cannot conclude however without reference to the impact of October 7. When Israel was first founded over 75 years ago, we celebrated our return to our Land by honoring Jewish agricultural labor as a crucial element of the new Jewish era. Over time, things changed and we became dependent on foreign workers and Arabs to provide the agricultural labor that had been the forte of the pioneering generation. Since the attack of October 7, this dynamic has been called into question, as it is simply too dangerous to rely on Arab workers coming in from Gaza and the West Bank. This has led to an existential crisis for Israeli agriculture. Currently, volunteers are stepping in to harvest crops that would otherwise rot and be lost. But this is only a temporary solution. As we celebrate Tu BiShvat, we may need to mark the beginning of a new era in Israeli agriculture by returning to the celebration of agriculture and the values that underpinned the establishment of our State. 

 

Hechaver Yossi Aron OAM is the religious affairs editor of the Australian Jewish News.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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