What is Tu B’Shvat and Why Do We Celebrate It?

by Nigel Savage

Introduction to the new Hazon Tu B’Shvat Haggadah

You can trace the recent history of  Tu B’Shvat seders like branches on a tree. The first one I went to, in London in 1986, was hosted by Bonna Haberman z”l and Shmuel Browns, mentors to me and many others in the renewal of Jewish ritual.

I made my own seder the following  Tu B’Shvat, and I’ve made or attended one every year since. Seders, like trees, grow branches, and the branches sprout fruit in all directions.

Historical Roots

The roots of Tu B’Shvat stretch back to the beginnings of organized Jewish life. We learn from the Mishnah (Tractate Rosh Hashanah) that “the New Year of the Trees” divided the tithing of one year’s crop from the next – the end and start of the tax year, so to speak. After the expulsion from the Land of Israel, Tu B’Shvat went underground, like a seed, ungerminated, lying beneath the soil of Jewish thought and life.

The expulsion from Spain in 1492 scattered Jews in many directions, and some landed in Tzfat. Like a forest fire that cracks open seeds dormant for decades, Tzfat’s kabbalists rediscovered Tu B’Shvat and began a period of mystical celebration of the festival. The idea and structure of Tu B’Shvat seders traces back to them.

Among early Zionists, Tu B’Shvat became the day to celebrate their reconnection to the land. As a kid in Manchester, I got JNF tree certificates at Tu B’Shvat and Israeli school kids to this day celebrate it by planting trees.

The fourth phase of Tu B’Shvat’s flowering was pollinated by the first Earth Day in 1970 and by growing alarm at the degradation of the planet’s resources. Its ground was fertilized by the countercultural havurah movement, and the beginnings of an upsurge in Jewish renewal and creativity.

The Modern Seder

Each of us can draw upon these roots to sprout our own branches, seeds, and fruits.

The origins of Tu B’Shvat remind us that we are the descendants of an indigenous people, heirs to an ancient wisdom whose echoes can inform our choices today on subjects like how to eat in a manner that is healthy for us and sustainable for the whole planet, or how to rest in a 24/7 world.

The kabbalistic Tu B’Shvat of Tzfat encourages us to open ourselves to mystery, wonder, creativity, and celebration; this is an oral wisdom, something learned from others, rather than from books. Naomi Shemer’s contemporary song, “Shirat Ha’Asavim,” is based on a Reb Nachman story about angels encouraging each blade of grass simply to grow. The spreading in many parts of the Jewish world of drums, yoga, and meditation is part of this phenomenon.

So, too, is the way that “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” written originally by the Israeli band Sheva, has become this generation’s anthem. The peaceful and the joyous in Jewish life are being rediscovered. Tu B’Shvat is a moment to celebrate new life and new beginnings, physical and cultural.

The Zionists’ Tu B’Shvat prompts us to think afresh about the assumption that the era when Jews were connected physically to the land is over, with Israel now a country of venture capitalists and MBAs. Kibbutzim like Lotan and Ketura, among others, are renewing that connection with the land, and although agriculture is shrinking, there is growing awareness of the need to preserve the environment.

Kosher organic farms and educational gardens are spreading across North America, and there is a deepening move in American Jewish life toward reconnecting with the land in a variety of ways. Tu B’Shvat is a fine time to think about creating a community garden at your synagogue – or exploring Israel on a bike or by foot rather than by car.

Tu B’Shvat today helps us see in miniature the broader shape of contemporary Jewish renewal. It is one of the clearest examples of the rebirth of rooted Jewish life after the Shoah. The charred site of a forest fire slowly gives birth to new growth, and 40 or 50 years later a new forest stands in its place. Each of the elements of that forest grows literally from seeds that survived the fire, yet the forest itself has its own unique characteristics.

Today’s Tu B’Shvat seders grow organically from more than 2,000 years of Jewish tradition; yet the vital elements of them are new and reflect the world we live in. The encounter of post-modern urban life with contemporary environmental challenges is renewing Jewish life in unanticipated ways. It is an opportunity to deepen our roots, and to branch out afresh to engage the world.

Tu B’Shvat Today

In 2019, Tu B’Shvat falls over Martin Luther King Weekend. It is an opportunity for us to turn Tu B’Shvat outwards. Tu B’Shvat is not just for kids. It is a time for us all to speak up and speak out.

We’re dealing right now with immense global and civilizational challenges. Ten of the hottest years in human history happened in the last fifteen years. We’re suffering extreme weather events with increasing frequency, and the human toll is considerable, including the record number of deaths and the four Jewish camps that burned down in the recent California fires. And the future toll may be far, far worse. Species extinction is at record levels. The icecaps are melting. Asthma rates are going up very sharply. Industrial meat production is inhumane to animals, unhealthy for humans, and a huge contributor to anthropogenic climate change.

We’re physically abusing the world that sustains us, and every country, every human culture, and every religion now needs to address these issues. We have a clear moral obligation to address these issues. Tu B’Shvat comes to remind us to do so.