Tu BiShvat — The New Year of the Trees

Posted on January 29, 2023 by Cantor Risa Wallach

What is the meaning of the word ‘Tu’, in Tu BiShvat? The birthday of the trees, or Tu BiShvat, falls on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat.

In the Hebrew numbering system, letters are used to denote numerical values, with Aleph equal to 1, Bet equal to 2, etc. The teen numbers over 10 are written with a yud, the 10th letter, plus the ordinal 1, 2, etc. So for 11 and 12 we write יא and יב, etc.

But what happens when you get to the number 15? The 5th letter in the aleph bet is Hey. If we wrote the number 15 as Yud Hey, it would spell one of the names of God, Yah. Rather than confusing a mere number with a sacred name for the Divine, the number 15 was written as Tet Vav; the 9th letter of the aleph bet plus the 6th letter, and thus 9 + 6 = 15, טו. What a clever way to avoid profaning the sacred name of the ineffable!

Tu BiShvat, a comparatively minor Jewish holiday, is also known as Chag Ha Ilanot, or Jewish Arbor Day. It doesn’t hold the same status as a festival on which work and lighting fire was traditionally prohibited. For centuries while the Jews were exiled from the Holy Land, Tu BiShvat was hardly observed. In ancient times, it had been a kind of tithing or tax collection date for the fruit harvest of farmers in the land of Israel to offer produce to the priests in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.

The Kabbalists in the land of Israel seized upon a mystical interpretation of Tu BiShvat which evolved into consumption of four symbolic kinds of fruits of trees. Verses from Torah related to trees were recited in a Tu BiShvat Seder, as well as passages from the primary Jewish mystical text, the Zohar.

This Seder consists of drinking four cups of wine ranging in differing symbolic hues from dark red, to pure white. Each cup corresponds to one of the four mystical worlds: Atzilut, the soul level or world of emanation, Briyah, the world of creation, or the thought level, Yetzirah, or formation, or emotion, the world of Assiyah or action, or physical world.

In contemporary times, Tu BiShvat has gained renewed prominence as an environmental holiday for Jews, with beautiful and more elaborate celebrations created by environmental organizations like Hazon and Urban Adamah in the Bay Area. On Tu BiShvat we appreciate the gifts of trees, the role they play in preserving human life, our air, and animals, insects and organisms that use trees for a habitat. Trees are vital to the well-being of our entire planet.

This year Tu BiShvat begins at sundown on February 5. We will be celebrating the holiday on Saturday, February 4. In keeping with the ecological theme, our Green Team will host a Tu BiShvat Seder after Shabbat morning services, with a light pot-luck lunch, at TBE. The Green Team led by Dave Cohen has chosen the fascinating and vital topic of pollinators and pollinator-friendly plants for the discussion and teaching at the TBE Tu BiShvat Seder this year. Their revamped name for Tu BiShvat is Tu BeeShvat! Please join us for this beautiful and sense-pleasing experience.