Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish Arbor Day that falls this year on January 17, marks the traditional new year for trees. Celebrated annually on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat, Tu B’Shevat is held in the season when the earliest-blooming trees in Israel emerge from winter’s hibernation and start to bud.
Customarily the day is observed by eating fruit, especially the kinds that are singled out by the Torah in its praise of the bounty of the Holy Land: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.
But in fact this plant-based holiday takes place in the middle of winter. Particularly this year, with much of the northern hemisphere still battling a bitterly cold winter and tree branches buckling under snow, Tu B’Shevat appears rather untimely. Considering that the fruits of the trees haven’t yet begun to grow, why celebrate the occasion by eating them?
So much of our traditions are symbolic, and this one is too. But Tu B’Shvat is unique in that it asks us to imagine and celebrate inherent potential.
It is about reflecting on “the importance and the possibilities for great achievements that we all have potentially,” said the Rebbe in a 1981 Tu B’Shevat address. Such awareness, he explained, motivates us to “care for the tree, and perform all of the chores and great effort necessary to ensure that its potential is realized.” Significantly, the resulting fruit supply is affected by how well we nurture the tree through spring and summer.
Call to Action
Not for tree-huggers alone, Tu B’Shevat’s import is significant to humans.
“Man is like a tree in the field,” says the Torah. Understood by rabbis to mean that every person should produce sweet fruit through good deeds and acts of loving kindness, Tu B’Shevat represents a call to action, requiring us to relate to the individual with regard and respect for the nascent potential within.
On the secular calendar, the month of January brings a sense of renewal, with personal resolutions to enhance and enrich oneself through healthy habits and greater fiscal responsibility, among other things. But Tu B’Shevat, a small holiday that often flies under the radar, lends a fresh outlook on how to actually achieve results. The holiday’s message encourages us to make lasting changes, and not to give in to despair if fruit is yet to be seen. A tree doesn’t bear fruit in a day.
Worldwide, Jewish communities mark Tu B’Shevat with fun, plant-based events for all ages. Many participate at Tu B’Shevat sit down feasts in which fruits with symbolic meaning are eaten. Tasting and reciting blessings on unusual fruit, even eating pickled Esrog from the holiday of Sukkot are a few of the unique Tu B’Shevat customs celebrated by different communities across the globe.