A few weeks ago we talked about the amazing malleability of Channukah, which meant something different to each generation. Today we celebrate Tu Bishvat which is, if possible, even more malleable than Channukah!
Two nice explanations of this idea can be found here and here. In short, Tu Bishvat can be roughly divided into four historical periods:
- Rabbinic/Economic: Tu Bishvat was first mentioned in the Mishnah (Tractate Rosh Hashanah) as the New Year for Trees – one of several new years to do with tithes. The fifteenth of the month of Shvat was, quite simply, a tax day which marked “the end of the arboreal fiscal year: tithes on fruit after this date belonged to the next year,” fruit from before this date belonged to the previous one. As a side note, Shammai wanted the New Year for Trees to fall on the first of the month. Would the festival of Aleph Shvat have caught on as well??
- Mystical – After Israel’s exile tithing was no longer relevant and so the festival was neglected for a good 1,000 years. It only bloomed again (ahem) in sixteenth century Tzfat, where the Kabbalists, and in particular the AriZal (Rabbi Yitzhak Luria), resurrected it and gave it a new, cosmic face. The Ari was responsible for inventing the Tu Bishvat Seder and for initiating the custom of eating fruit on this day. The ceremony was imbued with Kabbalistic meaning – each fruit, each cup of wine etc. symbolised a Kabbalistic idea. In 1753 the Kabbalists produced a Tu Bishvat Haggadah called "Pri Etz Hadar" or "Fruit of the Goodly Tree."
- Zionist/National: Tu Bishvat received another boost in the late nineteenth century when the Zionists connected it to the ideas of reforestation of the land of Israel and to the reblooming of the people of Israel in their land. To this day, Israeli school children plant trees on Tu Bishvat – a more recent phenomenon than they may realize. Incidentally, the Knesset held its first ever meeting on Tu Bishvat (1949), at the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem.
- Ecological – In the 1960s, environmental activists began to use Tu Bishvat as a day to remember and promote universal ecological issues. This is more of a Diaspora/American face of Tu Bishvat, however….
Wishing you a multi-layered Tu Bishvat!