Deconstructing Tu Bishvat

The problem is that all ancient Jewish sources are silent regarding this holiday – at least as a holiday.

Tu Bishvat
The rabbis teach that everything is dependent upon mazal, or luck – even the Torah in the ark (Tikunei Zohar 99b). Apparently, Tu Bishvat has been the beneficiary of a great deal of luck; how else could one explain how a “non-holiday” grew in stature and became not just recognized as a holiday, but claimed by many as their own? Ask any schoolchild and he or she will tell you that Tu Bishvat is a holiday for the trees. There is even a popular song which will confirm this assertion.
The problem is that all ancient Jewish sources are silent regarding this holiday – at least as a holiday. The Mishna does list the first or the 15th of Shvat as a “new year’s day,” one of four that punctuate the Jewish calendar.
There are four New Years. On 1 Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. On 1 Elul is the new year for the tithe of cattle. On the first of Tishrei is the new year for years, for release and Jubilee years, for planting trees, and for (tithe of) vegetables. On 1 Shvat is the new year for trees, according to the ruling of Beit Shammai; Beit Hillel, however, place it on the 15th of that month (Mishna Rosh Hashana 1:1).
One of the four days listed is the actual Rosh Hashana, while the other two – the first of Elul and of Nisan – are not considered holidays, which should confirm our suspicion that we are not dealing with a bona fide holiday on Tu Bishvat.
The other intrigue is that despite the description of “new year for trees,” the actual meaning of the passage is that Tu Bishvat is the New Year for the fruit of the trees. The New Year for the planting of trees was actually the first day of Tishrei – Rosh Hashana. Confused? The fruit of a tree cannot be eaten in the first three years. Rosh Hashana marks the completion of a “year” (even if it is less than 365 or 354 days of the solar or lunar year). On the other hand tithes of fruits cannot be carried over and paid from one “year” to the next – the demarcation is Tu Bishvat, the New Year for (fruit) of Trees.
So why are we all so confused? Tu Bishvat has attracted all types of attention and has been co-opted by all kinds of causes.
When one looks in the works of the early post-talmudic authorities, the only significance to the day is the opinion that one should not fast on this day. In the Maharil, a collection of customs of Ashkenazi Jews, we find a debate whether the Tahanun prayer should be recited. Tahanun is a prayer not said on Shabbat or holidays, or other happy occasions – a brit or the presence of a groom would be reason not to say this prayer. It is in the laws of Tahanun that Tu Bishvat can be found in Jewish law books.
As we move through history, we find a custom to eat fruit on this day – or perhaps even fruit of the Land of Israel. This custom may dovetail with the time when Jews had returned to the Land of Israel, and an expression of thanks to God for the land was sought.
A full-fledged Tu Bishvat Seder is recorded in the 18th century.
Alas, the source is considered spurious, and there have been those who have denounced this custom as emanating from the followers of the false messiah Shabtai Zvi, who were often quick to cancel old holidays and create new ones; and if the custom did not originate in the Sabbetean “Beit Midrash,” it was apparently popularized there.
In 1887 (or 1890) Ze’ev Yavetz took his students out on an excursion to plant trees to mark the day (though he may have not have been the originator of planting trees on Tu Bishvat). This “custom” was adopted by the Jewish Teachers Union and later by the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, and it continues today – effectively confusing one and all into thinking that Tu Bishvat is a day connected with planting trees – instead of marking tithes and fruits.
Environmentalists and ecologists have followed suit and decided that Tu Bishvat is a holiday that celebrates the environment and/ or ecology.
A minor holiday, pulled in many directions and claimed by many, a day whose origin was in the realm of accounting, Tu Bishvat became the poster child for God’s planet – a pretty lucky holiday.