What is Tu BiShvat? Everything to know about the Jewish holiday that celebrates nature

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It may be winter in the U.S., but in Israel, spring is just beginning. The annual Jewish holiday Tu BiShvat honors this moment in time.

It’s “become for many an environmental holiday, a reminder that we need to care for the earth and nature,” says Rabbi Hara Person, chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

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The holiday celebrates the annual new year of trees. Think of it “like a Jewish Arbor Day,” Pearson says. You may also see it written as Tu B’Shevat.

“‘Tu’ stands for the Hebrew letters Tet and Vav,”says Rabbi Josh Weinberg of the Union for Reform Judaism. The letters Tet and Vav together can be pronounced as “Tu” and signify the number 15 while Shevat is the name of the current month on the Hebrew calendar. So directly translated, Tu B’Shevat simply means it is the 15th day in the month of Shevat.

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“For Jews outside of Israel, Tu B’Shevat is a celebration of the renewal of vision and awareness, a celebration of connections and connectedness,” according to Hillel International.

What is Tu BiShvat? Everything to know about the Jewish holiday that celebrates nature

When is Tu BiShvat?

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Typically January or February. The Hebrew and Gregorian calendars don’t align, hence the date fluctuations for all Jewish holidays in the U.S. This year Tu BiShvat begins the evening of Jan. 16 and ends the evening of Jan. 17.

How significant is Tu BiShvat, compared to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and more?

No offense to trees, but the holiday doesn’t land high in terms of religious or spiritual importance for Jews. It’s not mentioned in the Torah.

“It is not considered a major holiday,” Pearson says. “The High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), as well as the pilgrimage holidays of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot are much more significant theologically and liturgically. But it is a fun and meaningful holiday.”

Weinberg adds: “Some in the Orthodox world add in additional pieces of liturgy to supplement their prayers on that day, but it is not a day off of work (or) school and there are no main prohibitions to the holiday.”

What should you say to someone celebrating?

Keep it simple. Happy Tu BiShvat works, or in Hebrew “chag sameach.”

What is Tu BiShvat? Everything to know about the Jewish holiday that celebrates nature

How do people typically celebrate?

A number of different ways. You can plant trees or clean up a local park, for example. Since many have off on Jan. 17 this year for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, local volunteer opportunities should be plentiful.

Why trees, exactly? “In Israel as the State was being developed, the holiday became very strongly associated with planting trees as part of the campaign of the Jewish National Fund,” Weinberg says. “From that the holiday came to take on an environmental or ecological meaning and association.”

If you’re thinking about what to eat, “there is also a tradition from the 17th century of holding a Tu BiShevat seder, or special meal, in which different kinds of fruits and nuts from trees are eaten, along with cups of wine or grape juice of different colors,” Pearson says. “Seder” means order; the term is usually associated with the Jewish holiday of Passover which recognizes when Jews fled Egypt. The “Tu BiShevat” seder is modeled after Passover’s, according to Hillel.

“This custom spread primarily in Sephardic communities, but in contemporary times it has been getting more attention among Jewish communities around the world,” Weinberg says.

Speaking of food, what can I eat?

Anything that grows on trees. Kind of.

Typical holiday fare includes seven foods that grew in ancient Israel as mentioned in the Bible – figs, dates, olives, barley, grapes, wheat and pomegranates.

“Today these might include dates, figs, carob, apricots, olives, almonds, pomegranate or oranges, but could include others as well,” Pearson says. “People might also eat food made with tree fruits and nuts, like banana bread, or persimmon cake, almond cookies, or anything that features products from trees.”

Those looking for recipes can scour the internet for creative ideas, including persimmon-pomegranate salsa, frozen yogurt grapes and an almond smoothie.

Wait, isn’t there another Jewish holiday that also recognizes nature?

Yes, Sukkot, where Jews gather in huts called “sukkahs.” It’s been referred to as the “Jewish Thanksgiving.”

“Both are part of the ancient agricultural cycle,” Pearson says. “Sukkot celebrates the end of the annual harvest, whereas Tu BiShvat celebrates the very beginning, basically the hope of the next harvest. In Israel, the holiday usually occurs at the same time that the almond trees begin to blossom, a sign that winter will end, spring will come, a new harvest cycle will begin.”

Weinberg recognizes the “overlapping themes,” though says “Sukkot’s ritual is all about going outside and living in nature for the week, while Tu BiShvat is seen more of a reminder to us of our obligations for stewardship of the earth.”

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