Meaning of Tu b’Shevat

From: Michael in Chicago

Dear Rabbi,

I saw an ad on campus about a Tu b’Shevat celebration. What is Tu b’Shevat and what is its significance? Thank you.

Dear Michael,

“Tu” is the word formed by the Hebrew letters ‘tet’ and ‘vav’. Since in the mystical tradition each Hebrew letter also has a numerical value, the combination of these two letters (9 and 6, respectively) equals fifteen. “Shevat” is the name of the month that, in the Jewish calendar, occurs towards the end of a winter. Tu b’Shevat, then, refers to the 15th day of the month of Shevat.

The day is significant because by this time, most of the winter rains have fallen in the Land of Israel, hopefully providing a summer of luscious, delicious fruits for which Israel is praised. For this reason, Tu b’Shvat is also considered Rosh Hashana (the New Year) for fruit trees regarding certain laws of agriculture such as orlah, the first three years during which fruits are forbidden; and reckoning the years for various ma’aser tithes.

The Torah likens a person to a tree, “For man is a tree of the field” (Deut. 20:19). A person is like a tree in that his head is rooted in the heavens, nestled in the spiritual soils of the Eternal, and nourished by his connection to his Creator. His arms and legs are like branches, through which he accrues good deeds, and upon which the “fruits” of his labor are laden. Therefore on Tu b’Shevat, one must revitalize his connection to G‑d, and rejuvenate his commitment to keep the mitzvot (Midrash Shemuel on Pirkei Avot 3:24).

It is the custom on Tu b’Shevat to eat from the seven species for which G‑d praised the Land of Israel: “a land of wheat and barley and [grapes] and figs and pomegranates, a land of olives and [dates]” (Deut. 8). According to the Kabbalists, the custom in the Land of Israel is to eat fifteen different types of fruits, corresponding to the 15th of Shevat. By increasing the blessings we pronounce over G‑d’s produce, we become more aware of His providential role in Creation. Not by our toil alone does the land bear fruit – without G‑d’s providing rain and sustenance, the farmer’s efforts would be worthless.

One of the great Chassidic leaders, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech of Dinov, in his classic work “Bnei Yissachar” notes that our sources refer to Tu b’Shevat as the “New Year of the Tree”, in the singular. This suggests that while Tu b’Shevat is the New Year of all trees, we are to focus on one tree in particular, the one that provides the etrog for the mitzva of taking the four species on Succot. There is a tradition, he notes, to pray on this day to have the privilege of acquiring not only a kosher etrog, but a beautiful one as well. Another beautiful custom is to preserve the etrog from Succot in a jam, and to eat it for the first time on Tu b’Shevat.

The Kabbalists also made a sort of “Seder” on Tu b’Shevat, over four cups of wine. The first cup is of white wine, symbolizing the pale slumber of winter. For the second cup, red wine is added to the white – symbolizing Creation’s stirring from winter’s slumber. The third is of more red wine than white, heralding the gentle warmth of spring. The fourth cup is completely red, representing the strength of the coming summer’s sun. On a personal level, this expresses our desire to rekindle our spirituality. It also represents the transition between this world of relative spiritual darkness, and the World to Come of great spiritual light. On a collective level, it represents the cold darkness of exile that contains within it the seed of redemption and the blossom of Mashiach.

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