Tu B'Shevat, or the "birthday" of all fruit trees, is a minor festival seemingly tailor-made for today’s Jewish environmentalists. In fact, there is an ancient midrash (rabbinic teaching) that states, “When God led Adam around the Garden of Eden, God said, ‘Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world–for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you'” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13).
But it was not always this way. In ancient times, it was merely a date on the calendar that helped Jewish farmers establish exactly when they should bring their fourth-year produce of fruit from recently planted trees to the Temple as first-fruit offerings. After this, all subsequent fruit produced from these trees could be eaten or sold as desired.
Tu B'Shevat could easily have faded away after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, since there was no longer a system of fruit offerings or Temple priests to receive them. However, the kabbalists (mystics) of Tzfat (the city of Safed) in the Land of Israel in the 16th century created a new ritual to celebrate Tu B'Shevat called the Feast of Fruits.
Modeled on the Passover seder, participants would read selections from the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature, and eat fruits and nuts traditionally associated with the land of Israel. According to Deuteronomy 8:8, there are five fruits and two grains associated with Israel as a “land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees, and [date] honey.” The kabbalists also gave a prominent place to almonds in the Tu B'Shevat seder, since the almond trees were believed to be the first of all trees in Israel to blossom. Carob, also known as bokser or St. John’s bread, became another popular fruit to eat on Tu B'Shevat, since it could survive the long trip from Israel to Jewish communities in Europe.
Participants in the kabbalistic seder would also drink four cups of wine: white wine (to symbolize winter), white with some red (a harbinger of the coming of spring); red with some white (early spring) and finally all red (spring and summer).
Complete with biblical and rabbinic readings, these kabbalists produced a Tu B'Shevat Haggadah in 1753 called “Pri Etz Hadar” or “Fruit of the Goodly Tree.”
When Zionist pioneers began returning to the land of Israel in the late 19th century, Tu B'Shevat became an opportunity for these ardent agrarians to celebrate the bounty of a restored ecology in Israel. In ancient times, the land of Israel was once fertile and well forested. Over centuries of repeated conquest, destructions, and desertification, Israel was denuded of trees. The early Zionists seized upon Tu B'Shevat as an opportunity to celebrate their tree-planting efforts to restore the ecology of ancient Israel and as a symbol of renewed growth and flowering of the Jewish people returning to their ancestral homeland.
In modern times, Tu B'Shevat continues to be an opportunity for planting trees—in Israel and elsewhere, wherever Jews live. Many American and European Jews observe Tu B'Shevat by contributing money to the Jewish National Fund, an organization devoted to reforesting Israel (the purchase of trees in JNF forests is also customary to commemorate a celebration such as a bar or bat mitzvah). Many parents donate to the JNF every year on Tu B'Shevat in honor of their children.
For environmentalists, Tu B'Shevat is an ancient and authentic Jewish connection to contemporary ecological issues. The holiday is viewed as an appropriate occasion to educate Jews about their tradition’s advocacy of responsible stewardship of God’s creation, manifested in ecological activism. Tu B'Shevat is an opportunity to raise awareness about and to care for the environment through the teaching of Jewish sources celebrating nature. It is also a day to focus on the environmental sensitivity of the Jewish tradition by planting trees wherever Jews may live.
The Tu B'Shevat seder has increased in popularity in recent years. Celebrated as a congregational event, the modern Tu B'Shevat seder is multi-purpose. While retaining some kabbalistic elements–and still very much a ritual that connects participant to the land of Israel–the seder today is often imbued with an ecological message as well. One new custom often found at such seders uses Tu B'Shevat as a preparation for the Passover seder. In climates where tree planting is not feasible, participants will plant parsley seeds; the parsley will be used on the Passover seder plate.