August 7, 2018

The growth of Tu B’shvat

Tonight is Tu B’Shvat, and many Jews around the world will hold a Tu B’Shvat seder or eat some extra fruit. But what is the history of Tu B’Shvat and why have Tu B’Shvat seder’s become so popular?
As I shall explain, and like trees themselves, Tu B’shvat has developed over time, and it is therefore interesting to consider what Tu B’Shvat has meant to us over the centuries.

The first mention of Tu B’shvat is in Mishna Rosh Hashanah (written after the destruction of the Temple but reflecting a way of life as if it were still in existence), and here it is introduced as a legal birthday, functioning as a tax date for Ma’aser during the time of the Beit Hamikdash, and for determining the age of trees in terms of Orlah. This means that our first encounter with Tu B’shvat is legalistic and is rooted in the world of ‘issur v’heter’ – what we may and may not use. As a people who staunchly opposed idolatry – which often included the worship of trees – these laws helped us find a way to live with and appreciate trees and their bounty, while always placing divine worship in the Temple at the centre of our lives.

After the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people, the quest for signs of redemption began. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 98a) quotes the prophet Yechezkel (36:8) who spoke of the mountains of Israel shooting forth branches and yielding their fruit to the people, explaining that ‘there can be no more open sign of redemption than this’. So Jews yearned for a time when they would return to the land and enjoy its fruit. As we know some Jews returned to Israel, but as we find in the letter Ramban wrote to his son, the land remained desolate. Yet he too saw this as a sign, based on the curses in Vayikra Chapter 26, that as long as the people were not choosing to live in the land, it would not flourish. However, following the Spanish inquisition, things changed. There was an influx of Jews to Israel with a unique group of scholars converging on the city of Tzfat. The city was spiritually bountiful and the trees were bearing fruit. These leaders felt that the words of Yechezkel were being realized before their eyes and they chose to construct a Seder – modelled on the Pesach Seder and inspired by Jewish mysticism – to usher in a period of redemption.

But redemption did not come. In fact, while some Jews were able to return to countries from where they’d previously been expelled, the Jews in Eastern Europe suffered greatly, and they came to the realization that rather than searching for divine signs of redemption, redemption would only come if the people willed it to be so. Inspired by Vayikra 19:23 which speaks of a time ‘when you come into the land and plant’, the Vilna Gaon expressed his desire ‘to plant trees with my own hands in the environs of Jerusalem’ (quoted in R’ Yosef Rivlin’s Chazon Zion p. 139). While he was unable to reach Jerusalem, his students did, and a religious Zionist movement – and later still, a secular Zionist movement – focused their attention on returning to the land and building the land. This is because there is no greater sense of security than sowing seeds in your homeland.

Yet despite the development of the land, security didn’t come. Both outside of Israel and inside, the Jews remained under threat. It was around this time that Rav Kook wrote his entry in Meged Yerachim about the month of Shvat, where he expressed how ‘the planting of fruit trees on holy ground will sprout the hope for many generations.’ Rather than symbolising redemption or providing a sense of security, Rav Kook saw the planting of fruit trees as an act of hope towards a better future, and this message of hope was particularly powerful in the years following the first and second world wars. It is for this reason that the cornerstone-laying of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1918), the Technion in Haifa (1925) and the Knesset (1949) all took place on Tu B’shvat.

Today the land of Israel is bountiful. However, even for those who believe that redemption has begun, it has yet to fully flower. But, perhaps unexpectedly, rather than Tu B’Shvat becoming less relevant, interest in this minor festival continues to grow. Tu B’Shvat seders have increased in popularity and many schools dedicate time on Tu B’Shvat to discuss ways to care for the environment. Why? Because in an age of increasing speed & shallow media, Tu B’Shvat provides the opportunity for us to slow down, to reconnect with nature which symbolises authenticity, and to enjoy a Tu B’Shvat seder whose mystical overtones symbolise the fervent search for spirituality.

When the great Sages of Tzfat established the Tu B’Shvat seder, they saw the growth of trees as a sign of divine redemption. Today when we celebrate Tu B’Shvat we are expressing a different message, which is that redemption will only come when we reconnect with ourselves and when we allow ourselves to grow; because true redemption is self-redemption.

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