By Rebbetzen Lisa Levene, Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue
Tu B’Shevat (literally ‘the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat’) is the New Year for the Trees (see Mishna Rosh Hashanah 2a). Although not cited in the Torah, the day carries festival status and has a number of fascinating customs, some of which have deep mystical roots.
One popular custom is to eat fruit, which God so generously provides, especially fruits for which Eretz Yisrael is praised in the Torah, namely pomegranates, figs, dates, olives and grapes (see Devarim 8:8).
Tu B’Shevat also offers an opportunity for personal growth. One interesting point to reflect upon is the Torah’s comparison of a person to “a tree of the field” (ibid. 20:19). Comparing a person to a tree hints that, just as a tree needs four basic elements in order to survive – soil, water, air and fire (sun) – we also require the same basic elements. For example, soil is not merely the source from which nourishment is absorbed; it also provides room for the roots to grow. So too, people require a strong home base, where values and morals are absorbed and which provides a supportive growth environment. In a society often rife with negativity, we need a filter, a safe haven to return and refresh. A community can provide this – the soil where we can be ourselves, make our mistakes, and still be accepted, loved and nourished.
The metaphor of a person being a tree goes further. The Midrash Shmuel (a commentary to Pirkei Avot) writes on Chapter 3, Mishna 22, that tzaddikim (righteous people) are comparable to upside down trees. The root of their souls, their core identity, is attached to the heavens. Their ‘fruit’ – the teachings and deeds that give their lives meaning – are directed downwards, which in turn causes other fruit-producing trees to grow. Similarly, we should strive to exceed our own ‘growth’, through learning Torah and performing good deeds. We must try to ‘produce fruits with seeds for new trees and new fruits’, exerting a positive influence upon our environment and in our relationships, so that others also produce ‘fruits’.
Another aspect of Tu Bishvat is tzedakah (charity). 15th Shevat marks the renewal of the tithing cycle. These tithes are taken from crops that are grown in the Land of Israel. Prior to the destruction of the Temple, Terumah was given to the Kohanim, Ma’aser Rishon to the Levi’im and Ma’aser Ani to the poor. The obligation to separate these tithes, which still applies today, reminds us that it is God Who has bestowed prosperity upon us. We have been entrusted as guardians and His rules dictate what we are allowed to keep and what we have to give away.
It is also interesting to note the timing of Tu B’Shevat, when most of the year’s rainfall has already fallen in Israel. The trees are bare, but the sap has started to form, which will allow the fruit eventually to blossom. This reminds us that when times are bleak, they will get better. We are all created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God, and our unique neshama (soul) is waiting to burst forth.