By Carole Stone
We all love to celebrate birthdays—our own as well as those of others. In Jewish tradition, we even get to celebrate the birthday of the trees!
The Birthday of the Trees, known more correctly as Tu B’Shevat, is the Israeli Arbor Day. It occurs on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat. This year, the holiday was celebrated on Monday, February 10.
The observance of the trees’ birthday originates in Talmud and serves to calculate the age of fruit-bearing trees. There is a proscription in Jewish law against using fruit from a tree younger than three years old. But it’s difficult to keep records on exactly when each tree’s birthday actually is. Therefore, the date of the 15th of Shevat has been chosen as the arbitrary birthday of all trees. Fruit that ripened on a three-year-old tree before Tu B’Shevat is considered forbidden to eat, while fruit ripening on or after Tu B’Shevat of the tree’s third year is permitted.
In the Middle Ages, Tu B’Shevat was celebrated with a feast of fruits based on the description of the holiday in the Mishnah, or Oral Torah, as a “New Year.” Who doesn’t like a New Year’s party? In the 16th century, the great Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed and his disciples instituted a Tu B’Shevat “seder,” a celebration in which the fruits of the Land of Israel were given symbolic meaning. The main idea was that eating 10 specific fruits and drinking four cups of wine while reciting the appropriate blessings would bring human beings, and the world, closer to spiritual perfection.
In the Chassidic community, some Jews pickle or candy the citron used in the celebration of the holiday of Sukkot (called etrog) and eat it on Tu B’Shevat. Some pray that they will be worthy of a beautiful etrog on the following Sukkot. In other communities, it is the custom to eat some new fruit on this day or to eat from the seven species described in the Bible as being abundant in the land of Israel. The seven species are wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranate, olive, and date. You can make a nice vegetarian pilaf from these foods: a bed of cooked bulgur wheat or wheat berries and barley, topped with figs, dates, raisins, and pomegranate seeds, served with a dressing of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and pomegranate juice!
Many people in the contemporary Jewish world plant trees on this day, either in their own gardens or by purchasing a tree (or several) to be planted in Israel through KKL, the Jewish National Fund. In contemporary Israel, the day is celebrated as an ecological awareness day, and trees are planted in celebration. Ecological organizations in Israel and the diaspora have adopted the holiday to further environmental awareness programs. As you plant the trees you bought in Candalaria this year, consider that each year it almost coincides with the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat! Chag Sameach (Happy Holiday)!