Tu B’Shevat (literally the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat) has a long history. During the Temple period (until 70 CE), farmers of fruit were taxed in the form of tithes. Tu B’Shevat was likely a tax collection day for fruit, whereupon it was agreed that the tax year would begin and end. Thus, Tu B’Shevat become the “new year for trees.” It is unknown whether other festivities accompanied the tithing.
After the destruction of the Temple (70 CE), when tithing was no longer possible, little is known of how the day was recognized, except that in Ashkenazi synagogues special Psalms were added to the liturgy. The idea that Tu B’Shevat was something more than a simple legal requirement, that it marks the end of the heavy rain season in the land of Israel when the sap starts to rise in the trees and the earth begins its slow emergence from deep winter, may account for why the festival stayed in existence among the Jewish folk.
Since the rise of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Tu B’Shevat also has come to be associated with planting trees in Israel. Like the mystical rebirth of earth celebrated in the most ancient roots of the holiday, Tu B’Shevat is now associated with the birth of the Jewish state. Most recently, as awareness of the environment has become a more pressing concern for many people, Tu Bi’Shevat has become a “Jewish Arbor Day,”a day on which we recognize our ethical obligations to care for the planet and its inhabitants. The theme of a new year for trees, a time of recognizing our connection to the earth, is a most popular Tu Bi’Shevat theme today.
All these themes — fertility, trees, rebirth and renewal, obligation to heal the world, earth-awareness and the interconnected web of life — are included in the seder, just as on Passover all the symbols have many layers of meaning created from the most ancient times to the present. Tu B’Shevat is a wonderful family holiday on which to gather, sing, dance, eat and celebrate the earth and our connection to it.