Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
You may think we are done celebrating the New Year. Think again. For those practicing Judaism, February 3rd marks the minor holiday Tu Bishvat (or Tu B'Shevat) that is essentially the "New Year for Trees". This day is one of four 'New Years' that occur in the Jewish calendar.
Though it is a 'New Year', it might be more appropriate to discuss this holiday around April 15th, considering its origins. Tu Bishvat literally translates to the 15th of the month of Shevat, a month in the Jewish calendar. This day was used as the 'New Year' for trees for the purpose of calculating the tithe, sometimes called taxes, for the year.
Fruit produced before Tu Bishvat was from the previous year and fruit produced after Tu Bishvat belonged to the current year. Effectively Tu Bishvat served as the end of the fiscal year for trees and their fruit.
What began as a very practical way to sort out the harvest into separate years began to be considered a celebration sometime in or around the Middle Ages. Different groups within the Jewish community celebrate the holiday to different extents.
Some of the most symbolic celebrations came out of the Kabbalistic traditions, a mystical interpretation of Judaism. One was created during the 1600's by a rabbi in Israel. He fashioned a celebration much like the Passover Seder commemorating Tu Bishvat using mystical images.
During the Tu Bishvat Seder, eating fruit takes on a hugely symbolic meaning. Particularly important is consuming those fruits traditionally considered to be "native to Israel". These are: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. Wheat and barley are also important, because they have been commonly grown in Israel.
The specific ceremony surrounding the meal varies widely among those who celebrate. Interpretation of the symbolic nature of this ceremony varies as well–those described here are very basic ones. All interpretation aside, the Tu Bishvat Seder revolves around consuming specific fruits alternating with four different glasses of wine. First white wine served alone symbolizes the barren winter, and with each subsequent glass red wine is mixed with the white wine to represents life, spring, and renewal.
The first fruit consumed is hard on the outside, and soft on the inside. This would include coconut, or nuts like almonds and walnuts. The hard shell symbolizes protection that the earth provides, and reminds those present to take care of and nourish themselves and others.
The second fruit has a soft outside, but a hard pit inside. Olives, dates, Peaches, cherries or plums and others are in this group. The hard pit reminds participants of the life coming from the hard earth, and more personally of the strength each person holds within them.
The third fruit is totally edible. Grapes, figs, strawberries, blueberries are all in this group. This fruit symbolizes God's ever-presence and humankind's ties to the earth.
The fourth fruit has a tough skin on the outside, but is sweet and delicious inside. Bananas, mangoes, pomegranates, all fit in this group. They symbolize the mysteries of the earth and God that the faithful pray they will someday know.
A very mystical interpretation of the Tu Bishvat Seder is that eating the fruits in the ceremony connects a person to God through the Tree of Life.
Some have adopted the more concrete practice of planting trees to celebrate Tu Bishvat. This was made popular as early as 1890, and grew to be a large-scale movement to plant trees across Israel. In modern times many consider Tu Bishvat a celebration commemorating both the Holy Land of Israel, and the sanctity of Earth's environment, both created by God. Trees are planted both in Israel and local communities to celebrate.
Regardless of your religious views, Tu Bishvat's underlying theme celebrating Spring's renewal of the environment and life gives us some hope that even as snow piles outside our homes, someday soon Spring's new life will emerge.