Tu B’Shvat – A Time to Give Thanks for God’s Creation
Jan 27, 2016
Dear Friend of The Fellowship,
This past week, Jews around the world observed the holiday of Tu B’Shvat. Tu B’Shvat occurs on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shvat (“Tu,” by the way, indicates the number “15” in Hebrew). It is also known as “The New Year of the Trees.”
Before you ask, I know what you’re thinking – that sounds strange. Why do trees have their own new year on the Jewish calendar? Well, as so many things in Judaism do, it all points back to the Bible. In Leviticus 19:23-25, God gives the following command: “When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, regard its fruit as forbidden. For three years you are to consider it forbidden; it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit will be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat its fruit.” Thus, Tu B’Shvat is the New Year for the purpose of calculating the age of trees in order to determine when their fruit may be eaten.
I have always been moved and inspired by Rabbi Heschel’s poetic description of what religion, faith, and Judaism really are. And the same thing is true with Dr. King and Christianity. These were people who, as the expression goes, “gave feet to their faith” (quite literally, when they marched together for equal rights for African-Americans). They didn’t stay in an ivory tower or in the pulpit or in the university. They went among their people like Moses did. He grew up in the palace of Pharaoh. But when he saw the oppression of his people, the Jewish people, he came down from that “throne,” if you will, and helped deliver them from bondage.
There are several observances associated with this relatively minor Jewish festival. One custom is to eat a new fruit, particularly one associated with Israel and mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Some people plant parsley so that it will be ready in time for the seder, the ritual meal that takes place in the spring during the Passover holiday.
When Zionist pioneers began returning to the Holy Land in the late 19th century, Tu B’Shvat gained new prominence in Jewish life. In ancient times, the land of Israel was fertile and well forested. But over centuries of repeated conquest and destruction, Israel was stripped of its trees. These early Zionists seized upon Tu B’Shvat as an opportunity to renew the productivity and fertility of the Land of Israel.
Because of this, some people plant trees on this day, and many Jewish children collect money for planting trees in Israel. These efforts have helped restore Israel to the biblical vision that speaks of Israel as “a good land — a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing.” (Deuteronomy 8:8)
Tu B’Shvat is a time to celebrate and give thanks for the natural world – and, of course to sing praises to God, the source of all life, Who created it.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein