The following message appeared in the January 2013 Bulletin of Congregation Sons of Israel of Amsterdam, NY.
Shalom Sons of Israel!
Only rarely do Jews gather to celebrate somebody else’s holiday. Being that Tu Bishvat (the 15th day of the Jewish month Shevat) is the trees’ New Year, why do we gather to celebrate it? The Mishnah (edited circa 200 CE) records no customs or laws connected to the joy of Tu Bishvat (Rosh Hashanah 1:1). In fact, Tu Bishvat remained so removed from Jewish life that, of the two major medieval collections of Jewish law—Maimonides’Mishneh Torah (1170-1180) and Jacob ben Asher’s Tur (circa 1340)—neither writes a full passage on Tu Bishvat. The day is mentioned in passing, regarding the legal status of different fruits. Only a few lesser-read Jewish codes touch upon Tu Bishvat’s joy.
In Sefer HaTaShBaTz Katan (The Small Book of Shimon ben Tzemach’s Responsa), Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Doran (1361-1444 C.E.) writes that it is “forbidden to fast or to give eulogies” on Tu Bishvat. Referring to some who fast on Mondays and Thursdays for six weeks, Doran says, if Tu Bishvat falls on the first of these Mondays, the fasting period is postponed a whole week (110).
We see Tu Bishvat pushing off solemn Jewish practices also in Leket Yosher (Collection of the Upright), the teachings of Rabbi Israel Iserlin (circa 1390-1460), edited by his student Rabbi Joseph ben Moses. We read that, when Shabbat and Tu Bishvat coincide, some omit a cryptic prayer alluding to God judging Moses’ death. (This prayer,Tzidkatekha, is in our Siddur Sim Shalom at the bottom of pages 584-585.) But, Leket Yosher then refers to Jews who, on the eve of Tu Bishvat, do recite Tahanun (pages 128-137 and 192-195), the prayers of Supplication that are omitted on the same days whenTzidkatekha also is omitted (such as the eve of almost all holidays, and on those holidays themselves) (I: Orah Hayyim, page 153, subject 4). Despite the dispute, Leket Yosher sees Tu Bishvat as too full of life for thinking of fate.
Yet, there is still nothing obviously Jewish about the joy of Tu Bishvat. It could be that Tu Bishvat started off as a local holiday in the Land of Israel as secular as Groundhog Day is in the United States. The annual sight of little white and pink flowers on growing almond trees at this time of year—without any religious undertones—may be reason enough for any admirer of nature to celebrate.
But, since the date of this yearly miracle of nature is unique to the Middle East, Tu Bishvat was only a sincerely happy day in the Land of Israel. Hence, Tu Bishvat was overlooked in Europe. But, when Rabbi Isaac Luria and his students came to the Land of Israel in the 16th century, these kabbalists saw the beauty of the almond trees, and they created a Tu Bishvat seder (like a Passover seder). Jewish mystics from then on preserved Tu Bishvat as a day for reflecting on trees, life, and the Tree of Life—the Torah (Proverbs 3:18).
Until Zionists, near the turn of the 20th Century, made Tu Bishvat a day for planting trees (especially in Israel), Tu Bishvat was mostly a detail in tithing laws and a forgotten ancient foreign celebration. The day’s joy was lost on all but mystics.
Rabbi Yitzchak Me’ir Alter (1799-1866), founder of the Gur Chasidic dynasty, once taught that—aside from a tree being symbolic of Torah—the words of Deuteronomy 20:19 teach us that a tree also symbolizes humanity (Hiddushey HaRYM). The joy of the trees should not be the trees’ alone. The New Year of the trees means that we Jews—the trees who cling to the Tree of Life—can celebrate too.