Also known as the “New Year of the Trees”, Tu B’Shevat is literally the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat. It is one of the four ‘New Years’ of the Jewish calendar, mentioned in the Talmud, along with the first day of Tishrei (the month in which we celebrate Rosh Hashana, the most well-known new year); the first day of Nissan (during which month we celebrate Passover), the first day of Elul (the month before the High Holy Days), and the fifteenth day of Shvat. This New Year of the Trees on the fifteenth day of Shvat generally occurs around the end of January or beginning of February, making it (at least in the northern hemisphere) an ironic time of year for the celebration of plants and new life.
Tu B’Shevat has significance in Jewish law because it is the cutoff date by which the age of a tree is calculated for the sake of orlah, a Biblical prohibition against eating the fruit of a tree in its first three years. (Most authorities say that this prohibition is only in effect within the Land of Israel.) After Tu B’Shevat of the tree’s third year, the fruit is permitted for consumption, provided that the relevant tithing has occurred.
Starting in the Middle Ages, in keeping with the Talmud’s description of this day as a holiday, Tu B’Shevat was celebrated with a feast; however, it is a minor holiday, instituted by the Rabbis, and unlike the major holidays mentioned in the Torah, there is no restriction of work on this day. Also unlike other holidays, the feast is not the usual Jewish feast of meat and fish and wine, but rather a feast of fruits such as dates, figs, pomegranates, grapes (all four of which have special significance in Israel and thus have special blessings), and any other available fruit. Chassidim will also eat the etrog from the previous Sukkot, and some will pray that they merit a good-quality etrog in the coming Sukkot. Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal, a 16th century kabbalist and predecessor of Chassidim, instituted a certain order of the fruits to be eaten and commentated upon their various symbolic meanings and significance.
In Israel, Tu B’Shevat is a day of ecological awareness – the Israeli version of America’s Arbor Day, so to speak. The Tu B’Shevat Seder is increasingly celebrated in one form or another by both secular and religious in both Israel and the Diaspora, generally with the above-mentioned feasts of fruit.
When is Tu B’Shevat?
Tu B’Shevat is observed on the 10th day of Shevat, the eleventh month of the Jewish Calendar. It is only a floating holiday in respect to the Gregorian Calendar.