Tu B’shvat is a holiday that developed into the modern period.

The holiday is first closely described in tractate Rosh Hashanah with the following verses.

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“The four new years are: On the first of Nisan the new year for the kings and for the festivals. On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals. Rabbi Eliazer and Rabbi Shimon say, on the first of Tishrai, the new year for years, for the sabbatical years and for jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables. On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees according to the words of the house of shammai. The house of Hillel says, on the fifteenth there of."

The house of Hillel becomes the ruling body that we rely upon for most rabbinical decisions. We celebrate Tu Bishvat on the fifteenth of Shevat.


However, the holiday and celebration originate from biblical sources:

“When you come to the Land and you plant any food tree, you shall surely block its fruit [from use]; it shall be blocked from you for three years, not to be eaten. And in the fourth year, all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to the L‑rd. And in the fifth year, you may eat its fruit.” (Leviticus 19:23-25)

The fruit of the fourth year on a tree grown in Israel was brought to Jerusalem to be eaten there by its owner. The owner was permitted to do as he pleased with the fruit of the fifth year. Later, halakhic sources identifies that these laws only apply to vineyard crops outside the land of Israel. The beginning of the yearly cycle for agricultural produce begins today, not on the exact date when the tree was planted. Cycling the latter would be extraneous.

A deep concern for ecological and ethical matters are rooted in this holiday. Judaism upholds a holy covenant with nature.  The Bible points this out not only in Leviticus but also in Deuteronomy 20:19:

“When you siege a city many days to wage war against it, to seize it, do not destroy its trees – by swinging an ax against them – because from them you will eat. And you should not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a person that it will enter into siege before you?” 

The destruction of trees during warfare was a common battle tactic adopted in Near Eastern warfare. The biblical verses here appear to suggest there are ethical and unethical war tactics. Burning down trees, which provide agricultural yields, actually starves opposing armies as well as civilian populations. It was a tactic of warfare that was an indiscriminate killer. Furthermore, the tactic also destroyed the land. It was unethical because it not only killed indiscriminately but also destroyed the natural environment.

Mishnah Peah elaborates on ecological concerns related to the need to reserve the first fruits of the harvests for the Temple and reserve corners of agricultural fields for the poor and other concerns related to prohibitions regarding activities that exhaust the agricultural land.

Midrashic sources, however, elaborate further on the holiday. According to Ecclesiastes Rabbah, kabbalists like Isaac Luria were responsible for the holiday’s popularity among first Chassidic and then modern Jewish communities.

The past few years have brought immense ecological and natural disasters to the planet. In the midst of these alarming facts, the United States has introduced a 30% tariff on solar panel production; has already removed climate change as a national security threat, a position denounced by the Jim Mattis of the DOD; and has begun removing mentions of climate change and global warming from umbrella websites of the current administration. At the same time, the United States has recently stepped out of several international organizations protecting the environment.

Climate change has affected me along with everyone here today. I have seen the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee slowly begin to disappear in the short 10 years in which I have traveled to and from Israel. Cities I have visited in the East—such as Shanghai, Ho Chi Min, and Hanoi—are literally choking in their own smog. The developing nations’ output of toxic waste into the air, water, and land is alarming. Ecological and natural disasters, such as famines and droughts, cause geopolitical relations to deteriorate into conflicts over scarce resources.

I have cousins who live in Houston, Texas. Last year, their house suffered flood damages for the second time. Natural disasters are becoming more severe every year. Global warming is an undeniable fact. It is undeniable that human interaction has negatively impacted global warming. We are responsible. If we do not change, the planet we will leave our children will simply be uninhabitable. What can the aforementioned sources and this holiday teach us about our responsibility to the planet? It is an abrogation to misappropriate, prey upon, exterminate, and murder nature. It is our sacred duty to protect nature.

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