By Alan Lucas
Excerpted from The Observant Life
While most Jews associate the beginning of a new year with Rosh Hashanah, the Mishnah informs us at M Rosh Ha-shanah 1:1 that there are actually four New Years, each with its own purpose, its own accounting, and its own role in demonstrating that life, as exemplified by the calendar, is a constant parade of new beginnings. The fifteenth of the month of Sh'vat (called ט"ו בשבט in Hebrew) was, at least according to the view of the school of Hillel, the New Year for agricultural purposes, and specifically for paying the annual tithes due on fruit. (The Talmud, at BT Rosh Ha-shanah 14a, explains that, as the majority of the winter season’s rainfall has already fallen by this date, fruit trees that only blossom later on are considered part of the following year’s crop.) Also, the law that prohibits eating the fruit of trees for the first three years they produce fruit requires a specific date after which the fruit may be eaten in the fourth year, and that too was the fifteenth of Sh'vat (Leviticus 19:23–25; cf. MT Hilkhot T’rumot 5:11 and Hilkhot Ma·aseir Sheini V’neta Reva·i 9:9–10).
Later, when the original meaning of Tu Bish'vat became less important to Jews in the Diaspora, it became customary to enjoy fruit from the Land of Israel on Tu Bish'vat, as a way of strengthening the bond between a people scattered around the globe and the Holy Land. One of the most popular of these fruits was (and is) the fruit of the carob tree, called bokser in Yiddish and also occasionally referred to in English as St. John’s bread. In the sixteenth century, the mystics of Safed found especially profound meaning in Tu Bish'vat and created an elaborate liturgy for this day modeled on the Passover seder.
With the founding of the modern State of Israel, there has been a revival of interest in Tu Bish'vat. In Israel, for example, it is customary for schoolchildren to go out on that day to plant saplings, thus transforming the day into a kind of Jewish Arbor Day. Many contemporary synagogues have revived the Tu Bish'vat seder as well, as a means both of deepening the spiritual connection between the Jews of the Diaspora and the Land of Israel.
Also, Tu Bish'vat has been given an environmental spin in some circles in recent years. When viewed in this light, Tu Bish'vat can serve to remind us that the world is God’s sacred gift to humanity, a precious legacy entrusted to our care.