Jewish New Year of the Trees

Many Jewish families celebrated a minor holiday this past weekend – Tu B’Shevat or Las Frutas – a spring celebration that falls on the 15th of the month of Shevat. It is also known as the New Year or Birthday of the Trees and marks when trees in Israel were determined to be mature enough for their fruit to be harvested and the beginning of the planting season. The origins of this celebration are found in the Talmud in relationship with the agricultural cycle and tithes brought to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Tu B’Shevat was not practiced after the destruction of the Second Temple. It was revived by kabbalists in Safed in the 16th century. They celebrated the holiday with a meal, a Tu B’Shevat seder, at which biblical foods were eaten. The kabbalists connected Tu B’Shevat to creation and drew an analogy between different types of food and the spiritual/material nature of the world.

Tu B’shevat has emerged as an ecological holiday, based on Jewish tradition and ideas of tikkun olam, the concept of healing the world. It is considered a festival of nature as the renewal of the natural world is anticipated. This is a time when money is donated to plant trees in Israel or locally. As early as 1913, school children in Jerusalem celebrated Tu B’Shevat as “Jewish Arbor Day” and planted trees.

Celebrating Tu Bishvat in a camp for new immigrants in Rosh Ayin, Israel in the late 1940s or early ’50s. (Israeli GPO)

The holiday took on new significance throughout the Jewish world with the establishment of agricultural settlements in Israel and the need to rebuild the land and plant trees. The blue pishke (charity) boxes for Jewish National Fund, which raises money for tree planting, are associated with the holiday.

In Judeo-Spanish-speaking communities, the holiday is called Frutas/Fruticas (“festival of fruits”). The Jews from Arab countries called it Tafkia el Sgar (”the day of the blooming of trees” in Arabic).

Customs. The New Year of Trees is more significant in Sephardic communities than Ashkenazi. It was not as significant a celebration among Ashkenazi Jews, especially because of a lack of fresh fruit mid-winter.

To celebrate Las Fruticas, Sephardic families visited relatives where they are offered a feast of fruits and nuts. In some communities, children were given embroidered bags filled with fruits, bolsas de frutas (“bags of fruit,”) to take home. Or they went house to house collecting dried fruits and nut in their pretty sacks. In Salonica, children dressed up as trees presented special plays in Ladino.

Food.  The Diet Guide to the Jewish Holidays (see September 20 post) designates Tu B’Shevat as a time to Feast.

The Tu B’Shvat Seder started by the kabbalists included at least 12 fruits and nuts and 4 glasses of wine served, each wine a different type. For the kabbalists, trees were a symbol of human beings, as Scripture says, “For a human is like the tree of the field” (Deut.20:19). Among their many beliefs was that trees were symbolic of the “Tree of Life,” a visual representation of the flow of divine energy that carries goodness and blessing into the world.

Others serve as many as fifteen foods, corresponding to the numerical value of Tu. Iraqi Jews went even further; they served a minimum of 100 fruits, nuts, grains, and vegetables.

At the very least, seven biblical species of five fruits and two grains were on the table: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates – “A land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey (from dates)” (Deuteronomy 8:8). In addition, many people ate other fruits and nuts mentioned in the Torah or associated with Israel. This includes bokser (carob) and almond, the first tree to bloom in the spring, as well as raisins, apples, quinces, walnuts, and pistachios. Carob, also known as St. John’s bread, was a popular fruit at this season because it could survive the long trip from Israel to Jewish communities in Europe.

Carob tree
Almond tree

Some popular Tu B’Shvat dishes include: Ashkenazic barley with mushrooms (gersht un shveml), Hungarian wine soup (borleves), dried fruit strudels and kugels are a popular Ashkenazic treat. German enjoyed fried dumplings with fruit (schnitzelkloese).

Foods across the Sephardic world and in communities of Jews in Arab lands included: Turkish Jews – prehito/moostrahana, a dish of sweetened cracked wheat, or kofyas, a dish of sweetened wheat berries, called assurei or koliva by the Greeks; Moroccan – orange salad (salata latsheen); Middle Eastern – bulgur-stuffed cabbage (malfoof mahshee) and wheat berry pudding (ashure), Syrians – fruit and nut pastries such as ma’amoul (nut pastries) and ras ib adjweh (date pastries), Bukharan – vegetable and fruit stew (dimlama), Persian – carrot omelets (havij edjeh). In some communities, the etrogim (citrons) art saved from the fall holiday Sukkot and made into a preserve for Tu B’Shevat.

Al Maimon with his family on Tu BiShevat


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