New Year of the Trees

January 27, 2021

New Year of the Trees

Tu B’shevat or the "New Year of the Trees" is Jewish Arbor Day. The holiday is observed on the 15th (tu) of the Hebrew month of Shevat. This year, the holiday beings on the evening of January 27. Scholars believe that originally Tu B’shevat was an agricultural festival, marking the emergence of spring. In the 17th century, Kabbalists created a ritual for Tu B’shevat that is similar to a Passover seder. Today, it has become a common practice to hold a modern version of the Tu B’shevat seder each year. This holiday also has become a tree-planting festival in Israel, in which Israelis and Jews around the world plant trees in honor or in memory of loved ones and friends.

The theme most commonly associated with the holiday is the environment, our sacred obligation to care for the world and our responsibility to share the fruits of the earth with everyone. Additionally, Tu B’shevat is a festival of nature, full of wonder, joy, and thankfulness for creation in anticipation of the renewal of the upcoming spring.

Tu B’shevat​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ falls at the beginning of spring in Israel, when the winter rains subside and the pink and white blossoms of the almond trees begin to bud. For this reason, almonds and other fruits and nuts native to the Land of Israel – barley, dates, figs, grapes, pomegranates, olives, and wheat – are commonly eaten on the holiday, particularly during a Tu B’shevat seder.

For those of us living outside the land of Israel, particularly in places where winter is harsh, dark and cold, Tu B’shevat arrives with a dose of unreality. It’s hard to welcome the ‘harbinger of spring’ when we are huddled by the fireplace drinking hot tea. And yet we know, every year, that no matter how long or arduous the winter, spring will eventually come. Tu B’shevat reminds us of that inevitability in the universe; that we can rely on the cycles of nature. Spring (and summer) will come.

Having lived through almost a year with the pandemic, many have experienced great losses, loneliness and even despair, so much so that it’s hard to imagine how we will resume any kind of normalcy with positivity. And yet, in the same way that Tu B’shevat heralds the re-birth of our natural world, I’d like to suggest that our celebrations allow us to look forward – to that time when the vaccinations will take hold and the infection rates will decrease, and those parts of our lives which have been dormant will be revived.

A message for Tu B'shevat is to not let the dark times in our lives define us. Just as the moon waxes and wanes, we too live according to cycles in which our lives move from challenge to success, from darkness to light. As we celebrate the holiday, may we affirm our connections with the natural world, eagerly anticipating the coming of spring, and a renewal of goodness and light in our lives.

- Rabbi Beiner, JF&CS Community Chaplain