Holidays change. Halloween wasn’t always about getting candy and the first Thanksgiving probably didn’t involve watching football. Saturday is Tu B’shvat, or ‘New Year for the Trees,’a minor Jewish holiday that’s changed at least three times.
Rabbi Harvey Spivak of the Congregation of Moses in Kalamazoo says at first, Tu B’shvat was just a date in the month of Shevat.
“It was an accounting deadline concerning tithing," he says. "Almost everybody was a farmer in those days and they would support the temple through their tithes. And for trees, and for fruit that came from trees, that would be part of the tithe. And fruit harvested before the 15th day of Shevat would be part of the tithe for the past year and any fruit harvested after that date would be part of the tithe for the following year. And that’s all there was to it.”
But hundreds of years later, Spivak says Tu B’shvat evolved into something bigger.
“Especially after the destruction of the second temple, the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century, and Jews were scattered to many countries around the world—it became a way of keeping a connection with the land of Israel," says Spivak. "And so the custom grew of eating fruits that are particularly connected with the land of Israel. Fruits like figs, dates, pomegranates, grapes, olives. And sometimes people would make a ceremony out of it.”
And then, around the end of the First World War, the holiday went through another stage.
“The land of Israel was part of the Ottoman Empire and many Jews—from Europe in particular at that moment—were going back to the ancestral homeland, the biblical homeland. And they found that the land was devastated, it had been very poorly taken care of. The soil was in terrible condition. There used to be forests but there were no forests. It was really a very desolate landscape. And other people found that too, there’s a famous passage from Mark Twain when he traveled through that land. And he described the desolation of the land, it was really in awful shape. Well the Jews who began to settle there tried to build up the land. And they used various practices to build up the soil, and one of the things they did was planting trees. And they actually planted—over time, over a period of many years—entire forests of trees in where there’d been no trees in more recent times. Suddenly—not suddenly—gradually I should say, forests were built up one tree at a time. So, Tu B’shvat became a time for Jews around the world to think about that in addition to the other meaning, the earlier meaning.”
Spivak says since the modern environmental movement began in the 1970s, Tu B’shvat has become something of a “Jewish Earth Day.” Some Jews celebrate by holding a Seder with food, prayers, and readings that have to do with the many meanings of Tu B’shvat.
“It’s not the most ‘spiritual’ of holidays, but we can invest it with spirituality in various ways," says Spivack. "For one thing, the Jewish connection with the land goes all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And it’s part of Jewish peoplehood to be connected to the land of Israel, and it’s part of the Jewish history and Jewish destiny. And Judaism in various ways teaches that we are obliged to respect God’s creation, to love and appreciate as well as respect the beautiful Earth that God gave us.”