Tu Bishvat - The holiday that deserves an upgrade

Tu Bishvat is a somewhat subdued day of note relative to the other celebratory days of the Jewish calendar, and is not a festival that too many eagerly prepare for or look forward to.

ALMOND TREES blossom on the Golan Heights (photo credit: MAOR KINSBURSKY/FLASH90)
ALMOND TREES blossom on the Golan Heights
(photo credit: MAOR KINSBURSKY/FLASH90)
Not too long after the hanukkiot have been returned to their honored though somewhat less conspicuous locations in the display cabinet and our stomachs have finally settled down from the infusion of latka oil and the rush from sufganiot sugar (although, to be honest, some of us, in addition, still have to work out how to recoup the losses resulting from several ill-fated spins of the dreidel), we can expect to see advertisements for Purim costumes and accessories and pastry counters displaying a wide variety of hamantashen.
I’m not unaware, of course, that between the two festivals commemorating the victory of oppressed and outnumbered Jews against the Greeks on one hand the Persians on the other there is a birthday celebration for trees and the annual welcoming of spring. The trouble is, though, Tu Bishvat is a somewhat subdued day of note relative to the other celebratory days of the Jewish calendar, and is not a festival that too many eagerly prepare for or look forward to. Dried fruits and nuts, tasty as they may be, are nonetheless commonplace and noshed on throughout the year, so they are hardly something to enthusiastically anticipate. In addition, fun centering around the exchange of gifts and treats is not among the customs of Tu Bishvat. And even the synagogue service does not involve additional verses or prayers in observance of the day but rather the omission of several typically said on festive days. A somewhat roundabout way of celebrating.
Indeed, having spent just about the first half of my life in New York, more or less, I often wondered if God was using Tu Bishvat to play a little joke on his Chosen People. He has commanded us to celebrate Passover in the spring but makes no such demand for the month of Shvat, the month in which the New Year for the Trees is to be observed. So rather than associating Tu Bishvat with balmy breezes and swaying sycamores, to this day I associate what should be the beginning of the year’s most pleasant season with bellowing blizzards and treacherous black ice. And while Shvat, here, is somewhat more comfortable than in most of the northern hemisphere, it still, nonetheless, falls in the middle of Israel’s typically rainy and cold winter.
THAT ASIDE, it seems strange that over the last several millennia the rabbis did not recognize a need to give Tu Bishvat a bit more pizzazz, something similar to the excitement of an epic saga involving a courageous Jewish heroine or a suspenseful narrative of how natural law was suspended for seven days, or the haunting blasts of a rudimentary, nature-sourced wind instrument. Granted, the Tu Bishvat seder is a nice reminder of the gifts and bounty that come from the land of Israel and provides an opportunity to express the gratitude we owe God for His succor, but, really, does it even come close to the other, more extravagant, symbol-filled seder we all participate in and look forward to? And while there is always national pride in having school children engaged in tree planting and other nature-related activities, plans for the day are dependent on the weather and are generally cobbled together at the last minute; as a consequence, few memories of Tu Bishvat linger, particularly since the excitement and energy of Purim is only a month (or in some years, two) away.
One of the problems, no doubt, is that Tu Bishvat is regarded as a minor festival at best. The day itself is not mentioned in the Torah; rather, it is first encountered in the Mishna, where it is defined as one of the four New Years of the Jewish calendar. The date in Shvat on which the celebration is to take place, moreover, was not even cited, and was determined in a debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, with the former’s opinion that it should be observed on the 15th of the month taking preference. Tu Bishvat, in other words, suffers from a lack of supreme authority and specificity.
Which is too bad, since the mandate to observe the New Year of the Trees is actually way ahead of its time. The now universally adopted idea of appreciating and protecting the environment is relatively new, and an increasingly number of nations are enacting legislation to prevent the abuse of natural surroundings. Jewish law, on the other hand, recognized from the moment of Creation the symbiotic relationship between man and nature, and included more than few mitzvot devoted to land preservation, agricultural practices and husbandry. Tu Bishvat, though not associated with any specific mitzva, is nonetheless part of that big picture, and deserves a more appreciative and structured means of observance.
JUST AS our rabbis found justification to enhance the sanctity of Israel Independence Day, so should they explore ways to bring a greater awareness of what Tu Bishvat is all about. It would not hurt, for example, to be reminded that in the early chapters of Genesis a tree played a key role in the development of the human race, and was instrumental in introducing the concepts of reward and punishment. A summary of the obligations to prevent the destruction of trees can easily be compiled together with specific tree-related citations that are found throughout Tanach. And no supplemental reading would be complete without including the Midrashic teaching of how our ancestors planted saplings when they arrived in Egypt, and when they began their journey toward Israel how those saplings, now full-grown trees, were overjoyed to be used in the building of God’s sanctuary.
Not that Tu Bishvat has gone completely ignored, of course. There are a number of scholarly books that have been published over the years that focus on the source material, customs and traditions of this specific festival. And, yes, Tu Bishvat activities are not infrequently held in synagogues and community centers. But they are, for most part, motions rather than meaningful. An upgrade is sorely called for.
The Torah has been called the Tree of Life and, in turn, has likened man to a tree in the field. High time we explore these concepts in greater detail and make Tu Bishvat into something more than a mere opportunity to munch on almonds and dried apricots.