In Israel, the almond trees are in full bloom. Their beautiful blossoms are a symbol of the holiday of Tu B’Shvat. The fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, to which the name of the day refers, is known as the birthday of Israel’s trees.
Although this day is not specified in the Bible, Tu B’Shvat has been a key to agriculture in the land of Israel—both before and after the founding of the modern state—because it begins the year for fruit-bearing trees. Leviticus 19:23 states: “When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, regard its fruit as forbidden. For three years you are to consider it forbidden; it must not be eaten.” Only in the fourth year after planting, counting Tu B’Shvat as the day when the year turns, is the fruit allowed to be consumed.
But the three-year restriction isn’t solely for eating. Fruits grown in the land of Israel could not be tithed until the fourth year. They also had no place at the Holy Temple until they were considered “mature.” Only after the trees had come of age was their produce allowed to be part of a special offering of “first fruits.” The first fruits were brought to the priests of the Temple in a ritual described in Deuteronomy 26. The first fruits presentation applied only to the seven species mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8 (olive oil, pomegranates, date-honey and figs – wine, barley and wheat are not produced from trees and therefore exempt from this three-year restriction).
In modern Israel, the holiday of Tu B’Shvat is a national appreciation of the land’s bounty and protecting its future. Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL) and the Jewish National Fund (JNF) arrange tree plantings for thousands of people, many of them schoolchildren, during the week of the holiday, which this year falls of February 8. Careful stewardship of Israel’s natural forests, as well as cultivation of orchards for both local use and export, allowed the country to finish the enter the 21st century with more trees than existed here at the dawn of the 20th century. (Admittedly, this proud statistic has been “helped” by stone and concrete being far more popular than wood as a house-building material.)
Fruits associated with local trees are eaten on Tu B’Shvat, including almonds, walnuts, oranges and carob. Figs and dates are popular but are out of season in the late winter, so are eaten dried.
We are grateful to bask in the spring sunshine and watch the bees hard at work in the blossoms. As a popular Hebrew children’s’ song relates:
“The almond flower is blooming / the golden sun is shining / birds are atop every roof / passing the news that the holiday is coming / Tu B’Shvat is arriving / the holiday of trees.”