Tu Bishvat in Israel and the Diaspora
Traditionally, in Israel, Tu Bishvat is a day for planting trees. Not a religiously ordained holiday, it can be more than just a time to plant trees. It can be a time for reflection. I will tell you a bit about the holiday and its potential spiritual meaning and then I will provide some practical suggestions for how to mark this day, whether you are in Israel or the Diaspora. Activities for kids are included.
Tu Bishvat is Not a Religious Holiday
There is no Tu Bishvat, per se, in the Torah. It is the Hebrew date (“Tu” is 15 in Hebrew) for counting the age of trees, whereby trees planted before Tu Bishvat are considered to be one year old on that date even if only planted the day before. The fruit of the tree is not eaten for the first three years and is tithed to the temple when the tree is four years old; thereafter, it can be eaten freely. As it says in Leviticus 19: 23-25:
And when you shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then you shall reckon their fruit as uncircumcised: three years shall it be as uncircumcised unto you: it shall not be eaten. But in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy for praisegiving to the Lord. And in the fifth year shall you eat of its fruit, that it may yield to you its increase: I am the Lord your God. [translation by Harold Fisch in my copy of the Torah]
The Importance of Trees to Israel
Jews returning to the land of their forefathers took upon themselves the mission of reforestation of the woodlands decimated by occupying forces throughout history and healing the soil of the ravages of centuries of neglect. Many of us from the Diaspora remember putting coins into a Keren Kayemet box that would go toward buying trees to be planted in Israel. I remember collecting the stamps to get a certificate saying that I had planted a tree there. It was once also customary to gift friends or relatives with certificates showing that trees in Israel had been planted in their name.
The news site, Israel 21c, gave a brief review of the history of Tu Bishvat celebrations in the State of Israel:
The modern custom of planting trees to celebrate Tu B’Shvat originated with the early Zionist pioneers. The first ceremony was held in 1884 at the agricultural community of Yesod HaMaaleh. Educator and historian Rabbi Ze’ev (Wolf) Yavetz is credited with holding the first school tree-planting ceremony in 1890 at the Zichron Yaakov agricultural school.
According to Israel 21c, the urban tradition of planting trees was begun by the Teachers’ Association in 1904, after which schools typically engage in tree-planting with pupils.
Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the very first meeting of the Constituent Assembly, precursor to the Knesset (so named two days later), took place on 14 February 1949 (15 Shvat):
Most of the MKs, on their way to Jerusalem from the coastal area, stopped at Sha’ar HaGai (Bab el Waad) for what was to be the first annual Knesset tree-planting ceremony, led by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
and thus began the Knesset tradition of planting trees on what is also its anniversary.
Marking Tu Bishvat
Of course, in Israel, you can plant a tree in your own garden or in a community ceremony, or for those in Diaspora, you can donate a tree to any of the growing forests in the country. But if we go back farther in history, we can find the spiritual roots of what is an increasingly practised tradition – the Tu Bishvat Seder. Israel21c writes that with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the Kabbalist center moved to Tsfat and
… students of the famous mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria created the Tu B’Shvat Seder. This was a festive meal celebrating the Tree of Life — the central mystical symbol of the kabbalah — through eating fruit of the Land of Israel, drinking four cups of wine, prayers and readings.
You can see a copy of the seder in English on the Aish HaTorah website. The website describes the significance of the seven species (sheva minim: wheat, barley, olives, figs, dates, pomegranates and grapes, as well as for the four cups of wine to be drunk. Did you know that you are supposed to start with white wine and finish with red wine? Everything has a spiritual connection and you can find some discussion of this on the website above.
You do not need to conduct an entire seder to mark the holiday. Perhaps you only want to prepare a special meal for your family. That would include dishes made using the seven species. Here are links to a few recipes I found particularly appealing:
And a selection of recipes found on Pinterest.
Here is my own recipe for fruit salad: (1) cut up in small cubes fresh apples, pears, apricots, figs, dates, grapes, strawberries, bananas, peaches, plums where apples and pears make up the largest proportion of fruit; (2) add sesame seeds, chopped walnuts/almonds, dried blueberries, coconut and/or pine nuts; (3) add enough sugar to add a bit of sweetness; alternatively, you could use honey; (4) add a creamy yogurt, sour cream or sweet cream; (5) after mixing thoroughly, sprinkle on top with homemade or purchased granola.
Activities for Kids
You might want to keep kids busy while the adults are talking. They can do some colouring, either on individual pages that you print for them, or on a paper placemat that doubles as a colouring page.
Other tree drawings can be printed from here, here and here. And directly below is a pad of tearaway paper placemats with a design that can be coloured by the kids to keep them from getting bored trying to behave themselves at the table.
You can find other crafts ideas for kids here.
And perhaps you would like to buy a book to read to them.
Setting the Table for Tu Bishvat Seder
Click over to my other article to see a selection of tables cloths, placemats, dishes and serving plates in designs special for Tu Bishvat.