Tu B'Shvat: What Is A Birthday For Trees?
What Is Tu B'Shvat And Why Do We Celebrate?
Every year, we celebrate the strange Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat. According to the Talmud, Tu B'Shvat is a "birthday" for all of the trees born in the previous year. And not just a birthday – it is really a “new year” for the trees. How odd is that?
Many people celebrate it by gathering together for a Tu B'Shvat seder with figs, dates, and other delicious Israeli fruits. That stuff is all fun – don't get us wrong – but what does it have to do with Judaism or God? It doesn't sound particularly spiritual... What sets Tu B'Shvat apart from Arbor Day?
If you want to know how to connect meaningfully to God on Tu B'Shvat, watch this video and find out for yourself. In this video, Imu Shalev breaks down this strange holiday to uncover what Tu B’Shvat really means to us today, and how it's about showing gratitude to our Creator for the fruits of the trees.
Hi everyone, and Happy Tu B'Shvat!
The Jewish Birthday Holiday... for Trees?
To start things off, I'm going ask you a bit of a strange question: imagine a world where we celebrated everyone's birthday on the same day. Every year, let's say on October 18th – because that's my birthday – it was National Birthday Day, and everyone threw parties and it was super fun, and then there were no birthday celebrations for the whole rest of the year. Woo.
It sounds like something out of a creepy dystopian novel, right? Like "1984" or "Brave New World." No one is an individual, independence is suppressed, everyone is just a cog in the greater machine of society. We wouldn't want to do that, right?
Well, then why do we do that for fruit?
What Is Tu B'Shvat?
Let me explain. See, most of us are used to thinking of Tu B'Shvat as a day to celebrate trees, or nature overall. We eat Israeli figs and dates, we make fancy salads, or meditate on the mystical symbolism of trees and fruit at a Tu B'Shvat seder. But originally, this holiday was just the designated day for the birth of fruits and was used to calculate taxes.
There's a Biblical law called Ma'aser, or tithes, which is like a religious tax on produce. If I own a fruit tree, every year I total up how much fruit grew, and then I set aside a percentage of it to give away.
Now, determining how much I owe each year should be simple. If my fruit grew before Rosh Hashanah, back in 5777, I include it in last year's total; and if it grew after Rosh Hashanah, in 5778, I include it in this year's total. And yet, that's not how we do it.
Instead of using the date a fruit actually grew, we pretend allllll of the fruit shares a birthday: the most recent Tu B'Shvat. We count everything from before Tu B'Shvat as being part of last year's total; and everything from after Tu B'Shvat as being part of next year's total!
It seems really odd; why are all the trees sharing a birthday? And what's so special about this particular date, Tu B'Shvat, that it's somehow more important than Rosh Hashanah?
Why can't we just decide when a fruit grew based on... when it actually grew? Is there any special meaning or significance to Tu B'Shvat, or is it just arbitrary date that relates to tax law?
Why Do We Celebrate Tu B'Shvat as a Birthday for Trees?
So the truth is, the date really is logical and significant. Bear with me, here's the logic the Talmud offers us: in Israel, the rainy season mostly ends right before Tu B'Shvat. That means that by Tu B'Shvat, the soil is wet, and the trees have everything they need to eat and grow strong in the coming year. So, basically, Tu B'Shvat marks the day that the nourishment the trees need in order to bear fruit is in place.
So it's like... instead of celebrating the day your mother gave birth to you, let's celebrate the day the local pharmacy got restocked with prenatal vitamins. Happy Folic Acid Day, everyone!
But remember, Tu B'Shvat is essentially a tax law, so maybe the key to understanding this strange birthday lies in a deeper understanding of religious taxes. Yay, taxes!
The Spiritual Meaning Behind Tu B'Shvat Taxes
See, when I pay tax to the US government, it's almost like a business arrangement: I expect paved roads, safe neighborhoods, protected freedoms, a justice system... you get the point.
When I pay tax to God, though, it's not because I expect something back. I give Ma'aser because God is the Creator of my fruit, my trees, my land, everything – and so it all actually belongs to Him. So when He tells me to give Ma'aser, He can do that because the produce is really just His anyway.
The truth is, though, that if I had an orchard where I grew fruit trees, I might not find it so easy to remember that it's really God's orchard and I'm just His steward.
I mean, I probably paid for the land with money that I worked hard for, I put a lot of effort into planting the trees and tending to them, and spent hours climbing up and down ladders in the heat of the sun to gather my fruit. I know everyone in all the orange juice commercials looks blissfully happy picking fruit, as if it's as relaxing as getting a massage, but I'm pretty sure there's hard labor involved.
If I'm putting in all that effort, subconsciously, I probably kinda believe that I'm the master of my orchard, I'm the guy that gets it done. And when tax season rolls around, maybe I start thinking, "I don't want to give my hard-earned produce away. I earned it, I worked for it, and I don't really want to be told what to do with it."
But something busts this illusion: Rain. Rain is the one part of the growth of my trees I have absolutely no control over. Despite all the other things I can do for my trees, the nourishment that rain provides is just completely out of my hands. Rain is the ultimate reminder that no matter what I think I can do, in the end I always come back to relying on God.
What Tu B'Shvat Really Means
So when a new fruit comes in the day after Rosh Hashanah, we don't look at it as a newborn, a happy gift of the new year – we look at who's ultimately responsible for this fruit.
This fruit is here, not only because of my hard work, it's here, primarily, because of God, and the rain He blessed us with. And when did that rain fall? Last year, in the rainy season, before Tu B'Shvat.
Tu B'Shvat is the day when God's role in the growth of the trees is most clear: the day the trees have gotten all their nutritious, God-given rain. The day comes around, and it hits you: you can't pretend you made it all happen by yourself. And so, of course, you humbly and gratefully go and take care of your Ma'aser.
How to Celebrate Tu B'Shvat in a Modern World
This Tu B'Shvat, as you try to bite into some dried buxar, or perhaps, more deliciously, some dates or figs, take a minute to think about where it all comes from.
Remind yourself that fruits don't actually grow inside plastic packaging in supermarkets, and wine doesn't just materialize on the shelves of liquor stores. They're all gifts of the land, lovingly nourished by God.
And even the figurative fruits of our labor, our personal successes and accomplishments, and our collective achievements as a community, they all come back to God.
Tap into that today, embrace it. Maybe think about how you're going to pay it forward, who might benefit from a little Ma'aser. As you lean back and savor your fruit today, let the gratitude wash over you.
Happy birthday. To the trees! You guys know what I meant.