The holiday of Tu B’Shvat takes place this week on Tuesday night and Wednesday. Why do we celebrate a new year for trees? Tu B’Shvat originated in ancient times as simply the date (the 15th of the month of Shvat) that began the calendar year for biblically mandated tithing of fruit. Similar to our American concepts of different “years” – such as the calendar year, the school year, the fiscal year – the rabbis ordained four new years on the Jewish calendar: the calendar year that starts on Rosh Hashana, the new year for kings, the new year for the tithing of animals, and the new year for the tithing of trees.
The holiday evolved over the generations. The mystics of 16th Century Sfat added a Tu B’Shvat seder for eating various fruits with special kavannot (intentions). With the founding of the State of Israel, planting trees in Israel became a new Tu B’Shvat ritual. With the growing ecological crisis of modern times, Tu B’Shvat has become a kind of Jewish Earth Day.
In honor of Tu B’Shvat, I want to share the famous Talmudic story of Honi the Circle Maker (Ta’anit 23a)
One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw an old man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied, “Seventy years.” Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?” The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my ancestors. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
How this ancient story resonates today with a message of how we – the recipients of gifts from past generations – have the responsibility to provide for the generations yet to come. May we celebrate Tu B’Shvat in the spirit of the man in Honi’s story, perhaps by planting trees, but certainly, by considering how we today can help create a sustainable earth for future generations.
Happy Tu B’Shvat!