Monday, January 17 is both Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Tu Bishvat.
Tu Bishvat is the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which is a minor occasion (it’s a stretch to even call it a “holiday”) on the Jewish calendar. If I were to ask you what Tu BiShvat is, chances are you would say “the New Year of the Trees” because that’s what you, like I, were taught in Sunday School.
So now I would like to ask a further question: what does “New Year of the Trees” actually mean? Do the trees go around with noisemakers and bottles of champagne? Or since it is the Jewish New Year of the Trees, do they eat apples and honey and go to the tree synagogue?
In the Mishnah, the 15th of Shevat is established as essentially the start of the fiscal year for trees. Produce of fruit-bearing trees is prohibited to be consumed for its first three years and all of the fruit of the fourth year must be given to the Kohanim. From the fifth year on it may be consumed but is still subject to a ten percent tithe. The “year” of the tree begins on the 15th of Shevat, in the same way that racehorses all share the legal birthday of January 1 -- that is the day when they move from being two-year-olds to three-year-olds and so on.
That is the original significance of the day and in terms of the liturgy there are no additional prayers or readings, but Tachanun, the special penitential prayer, is not said at minchah on Sunday afternoon or shacharit Monday morning.
In 15th Century Tzfat, in the Land of Israel, the kabbalists developed a Tu BiShvat Seder which follows a similar pattern as the Passover Seder. Very few Jews observed this or any other rituals around Tu BiShvat until interest in Israel as well as the environment caused something of a resurgence of the observance in the 1960s and 70s.
Our religious school is not meeting on Sunday Jan. 16 due to the MLK holiday weekend so we will not be observing the day in our religious school but the Kehilat Shalom Sisterhood will be having a Chocolate Tu Bishvat Seder online only that afternoon at 2 pm. For details see the Kehilat Shalom weekly announcements.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. Although I am working primarily from home, I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian