The customs and traditions of Tu Bishvat

There are many customs that have arisen to remind us of the meaning of this day.

Overflowing bounty at Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Overflowing bounty at Jerusalem's Mahaneh Yehuda market.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tu Bishvat, which falls this year on February 10, heralds the end of the rainy season in Israel. Buds are beginning to appear on the trees, and the blossoming almond trees, the harbinger of spring, have begun to dot the landscape.
So on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat we celebrate the yearly cycle for the growth of trees in Eretz Israel. According to our Jewish mystic tradition, Tu Bishvat is the day when God renews sustenance and the life cycle of the trees, when the sap starts to rise.
There are many customs that have arisen to remind us of the meaning of this day. We eat fruits and nuts, especially the fruits for which the Torah praises the Land of Israel, which is a land of grapevines, figs and pomegranates, olives and sweet dates.
Many pious Jews hold a Tu Bishvat Seder, not unlike the meal we have on Passover. This ancient tradition was upheld in Safed, the seat of Kabbalistic studies in the 16th century.
This Seder became a new way to reaffirm the spiritual bond with the land, in celebration of the approach of spring and the fruit of the earth. Sometimes, the Hebrew newspaper Yediot Aharonot distributes a Tu Bishvat “Haggadah” in time for the holiday. It was devised by Dr. Joel Rappel of Bar-Ilan University.
There is a snowy white tablecloth, candles, copious amounts of fruit and nuts; prayers, readings and songs. There are also four cups of wine accompanied by fruit divided into levels of “ascending spirituality.” The first cup is chilled white wine, symbolizing winter, accompanied by the lowest level of fruit, which needs a protective covering, such as oranges or almonds.
The second cup is white wine mixed with a small amount of red, signifying spring, the budding of new life, and this is served with olives, apples, peaches and dates (the outer layer is eaten, yet the heart is protected and has within it the seed of new life.)
The third cup is red wine with a small amount of white. This is the symbol of summer and a perfect world in which nothing is wasted. With this, the highest level of fruit is eaten, such as figs, grapes and berries.
The fourth cup is just red wine, representing fertility and the bounty of autumnal crops waiting to be harvested.
What else happens on Tu Bishvat? Very little religiously, but a lovely ritual has arisen in Israel that’s been adopted all over the Jewish world. It is a popular observance to plant trees, one of the greatest “mitzvot” you can do. Trees have great significance in Judaism.
It is written in Deuteronomy: “When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to seize it, don’t destroy its trees....” In Midrash Shmuel on Pirkei Avot 3:24, it is written than man is like a tree in that his good deeds are his produce, his “fruits,” and his arms and legs the branches which bear these fruits. He is, however, an “upside-down tree,” for his head is rooted in the heavens, nestled in the spiritual soils of the Eternal, nourished by his connection to his Creator.
At the end of the Hasmonean dynasty, there lived a holy man named Honi, known as the circle drawer, and we read his story in Ta’anit 23a. One day Honi saw a man planting a carob tree and asked him: “How many years does it take for the carob tree to bear fruit?” The reply was “Seventy years.” Honi asked: “Do you think you will live another 70 years and reap its fruit?” The simple man responded: “I am planting the tree not for myself but for my grandchildren.”
Although the world has never regarded Jews as being tied closely to the land, the truth is that no religion has closer ties to agriculture and ecology. The Midrash teaches us that man’s life depends on the tree, and we are forbidden to live in a city that has no gardens and trees. They are so important to us that Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakai declared: “If you hold a sapling in your hand and are told: ‘Come look, the Messiah has arrived,’ plant the sapling first and only then go and greet the Messiah.”
Happy Tu Bishvat!
The writer, who has lived in Jerusalem for 48 years, is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is
Searching for Sarah.