Voices from the field

Tu b'Shvat: Imagining Ourselves Into Israel

By Josh Feigelson

Tu b’Shvat has become so synonymous with environmentalism these days that we can forget the origins of the holiday. The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) tells us that there are four “new years:”

  • The first of Tishrei, which marks the new year for produce from regular plants;
  • The first of Nisan, which marks the beginning of the reign of a king of Israel and the cycle of pilgrimage festivals;
  • The first of Elul, for the tithing of animals;
  • And the first (according to Beit Shammai) or the fifteenth (according to Beit Hillel) of Shevat, for the tithing of fruits.

This is a rather mundane list to look at. Like the other dates listed here, the significance of Tu b’Shvat for the ancient Rabbis was not necessarily its mystical significance or its message of environmental awareness and stewardship. Rather, Tu b’Shvat, like the other dates in this list, is basically like July 1 is to many companies an organizations. It marks the beginning of a new fiscal year. It is a beancounter’s observance, and not much more.

For those of us outside the land of Israel, and for most of the people who live in Israel but whose lives don’t intersect with Biblical agricultural laws, Tu b’Shvat doesn’t mean much in this scheme. But thanks to the Kabbalists of Tzfat, and more recently to Jewish activists of the 1960s, the date has become imbued with significance as a holiday for Jewish environmentalism, for spiritual reflection on the wonders of the natural world.

And yet, for those of us who live in northern climates, the date is always out of place. Even in the midst of a warmer than normal winter, we are long weeks away from visible signs of spring. To celebrate a new year of the trees in Canada or the northern United States in the middle of February is anything but intuitive.

And yet we do it. And as we do it, we most often focus on the true center of the holiday: the land of Israel. Whatever else its significance may be, Tu b’Shvat has become one of our prime moments for tasting zimrat ha-Aretz (Genesis 43:11): dates, figs, almonds and the rest. This marks an important moment of integration: here we are in cold, snowy Chicago, eating out-of-season fruits that may have been grown in California, and doing so because we’re imagining ourselves into the rhythms of Israel’s horticultural calendar.

Jewish educators, particularly those who work with younger children, have long realized the potential of Tu b’Shevat as a moment of Israel engagement. Aside from its multi-sensory possibilities, Tu b’Shvat inevitably provokes a moment of Israel-consciousness precisely because of its out-of-placeness: Why would we be celebrating a holiday of springtime in the middle of winter? Because in Israel, it’s the beginning of spring.

Tu b’Shvat is a vivid moment when we experience the reality that Jewish education and Israel education are not really separate spheres at all. They are bound together and mutually reinforcing. That’s true throughout the year. But we especially realize it when we’re chewing on dried figs while the snow is falling outside.