What brings the festival of Tu B’Shvat and the holy city of Tzfat together?
For thousands of years, Jews have been paying special attention to this day, Tu B’Shvat, the fifteenth of day of the Hebrew month of Shvat (bonus point, the Hebrew letters Tet-Vav which combined have the value of 15, are pronounced Tu). What’s so special about this day? So special in fact, that our ancestors have given it the privilege of being one of the four Jewish new year’s. This one is the new year of the tree.
The celebration of this holiday originates in one of the four holy cities of Judaism, the mystical hillside town of Tzfat (or Safed, or Tsfat, or Zefat…there’s a few ways to spell it) over five hundred years ago. The reason for celebrating the new year of the tree is to connect Judaism with nature, one of the key understandings that the Kabbalists of Tzfat brought to the Jewish world. Our Sages were inspired by nature. They used it to reveal often hidden wisdom, and that’s exactly what we can do on Tu B’Shvat.
In the Tzfat of the Kabbalists, the amount of time they spent in the Beit Midrash studying Torah was not less than the time that they spent out in nature. They paid attention to the natural world around them, and founded this holiday based on their surroundings. It’s not a holiday that comes from the Torah, but its essence is deeply connected to Jewish wisdom.
Our Sages understood that the essence of Torah is to internalise the wisdom we were taught so that it becomes an integral part of ourselves. One of our great Sages, Hillel, understood the essence of the Torah and passed it on to a curious convert who wanted to learn the whole Torah while standing on one foot. “Whatever is hateful to you – don’t do to your fellow. Everything else is commentary, now go and learn.”
Tu B’Shvat developed as a product of our own spiritual growth and maturity, by internalising the ideas of the Torah and taking them one step further, out into the Creation that we are surrounded by. What’s so special about the tree? Why does it deserve a holiday all to itself?
Our Sages constantly likened humans to trees. King David opened his book of Psalms with the following words:
“The praises of a man are that he did not follow the counsel of the wicked…He shall be as a tree planted beside rivulets of water, which brings forth its fruit in its season, and its leaves do not wilt; and whatever he does prospers.” Psalms 1
Trees, like humans are not machines. You cannot just use them as you want. They have an independent existence which goes beyond just serving others. In Judaism, just as there are human rights and animal rights, there are tree rights. For instance, you can’t just wantonly chop down a tree. Every seventh year in the Land of Israel is a Sabbath (Hebrew: Shmittah) where it is forbidden to prune trees. New trees that are planted do not have their fruit eaten for the first three years. It was for these reasons that the great Kabbalists of Tzfat decided that trees need not just a vacation, but a birthday party too. Yet we celebrate Tu B’Shvat when most of the trees in Israel are still asleep, except the almond tree which begins to blossom into life.
But why do we celebrate all the trees in the middle of the winter months? Not everyone notices trees. Sometimes we can just take their fruit giving and oxygen making for granted. One has to be sensitive to these things. The same is true for humans. Some people are so wrapped up in their own affairs that they don’t notice other people, including those less fortunate than themselves. The Jewish tradition tries to sensitize us to the needs of others: other human beings and other living things.
“An olive tree that sheds its fruit is painted over with red and filled in with stones; the stones hold the tree in place, and the red color is so conspicuous that it attracts the attention of wayfarers and they ask for mercy upon it.” Talmud Hullin 77b
Doesn’t that sound a little farfetched? Asking for mercy, praying for a tree? It certainly didn’t seem silly to our ancestors…and perhaps this ancient idea can be relevant to our society too; if we can open our hearts to trees and pray for those trees that are less fortunate, perhaps we’ll be able to do the same for other human beings. Social justice can start with the trees.