Called the “Birthday,” “New Year of the Trees” and “Jewish Earth Day,” this minor holiday started as a date for farmers to record the age of their trees. Tu Bishvat has become a time to connect traditional Jewish values of taking care of the Earth with modern environmental values.
What do the words “Tu Bishvat” mean? Every letter in the Hebrew alphabet is also a number, and “Tu” is 15. “Shvat” is the name of a winter month in the Jewish lunar calendar.
So when you put it together, Tu Bishvat is the 15th of the month of Shvat. It’s both a date and the name of a holiday, like the Fourth of July in America.
The Torah says not to eat fruit from trees that are less than four years old. Tu Bishvat was the day established for determining the age of trees and when the fruit from those trees could first be eaten.
In Israel, Tu Bishvat falls during the rainy reason. Jewish traditions often connect back to the land of Israel and the Hebrew calendar. That’s why the holiday is celebrated on the same date everywhere, regardless of the season.
In the Middle Ages, Jewish mystics called Kabbalists revived the holiday and added new dimensions to it. This group created a Tu Bishvat seder to connect the agricultural parts of the holiday with spiritual and mystical teachings.
The Torah is often called “a tree of life,” and asks readers in its first few verses to be caretakers of the Earth and all God’s creations. The Torah and other Jewish texts teach that the Earth is holy and needs to be protected.
Trees are especially meaningful in Judaism, and it is a Jewish practice to incorporate messages of respecting the earth into our daily lives and at all times of the year—not just on Tu Bishvat.
From volunteering to cleaning up trash for a community mitzvah day, to finding ways to reduce waste at Shabbat meals, to engaging youth groups in climate change advocacy, there are endless ways to care for our planet.
In the late 19th Century, Zionists used Tu Bishvat to encourage planting trees across what would become the modern state of Israel. The holiday has gotten another boost in popularity with modern environmental protection movements and people focusing on nature and climate change.
In the 16th Century, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria and the Kabbalists in the town of Safed in northern Israel wanted to make Tu Bishvat into a joyous holiday with its own special traditions. The word “seder” in Hebrew means order. The Kabbalists used the idea of a Passover seder with its specific steps, particular foods (find recipes here) and four cups of wine to create a Tu Bishvat seder focused on nature.
Many Jewish communities today celebrate Tu Bishvat with seders, which often include readings about trees and discussions on how to create spiritual connections with the environment. Most Tu Bishvat seders are organized around four cups of wine or grape juice and four types of fruits. The wine/juice are a combination of red and white to symbolize the changing seasons. The fruits symbolize the four worlds of Kabbalah, four types of people and the four seasons.
This holiday celebrating nature is tailor-made for getting kids involved.
Here are some ideas for how:
Throw a party for the birthday of the trees! Here’s how:
Tu Bishvat is a great chance to explore DIY holiday activities, since you literally can’t do anything wrong. With no theology or required rituals, Tu Bishvat is an incredibly accessible experience for people of all backgrounds. Its universal values provide an opportunity to connect Jewish teachings on the Earth to contemporary issues such as climate change, renewable energy and plant-based diets. Get outside, contemplate the changing of the seasons and say happy birthday to the trees!