Tu B’Shvat: A Birthday for the Trees

By | Jan 23, 2024
Arts & Culture, Jewish World, Latest
Stamps in values of 50, 60, 160, 300 issued in Israel in 1958-9 featuring the seven species

A new Gregorian year is upon us, and it’s a new year for the trees as well. Sometimes called “Jewish Earth Day,” the celebration of Tu B’Shvat generally falls in late January—this year, January 24-25—and is a celebration of the Earth, the trees and the abundance of spring. Originally, the day was an important marker in a Jewish farmer’s year based on the rules of the Torah, which state that farmers could not eat fruit from their trees until the 5th year after the tree began to bear fruit. Because tracking the exact anniversary of the flowering of every individual tree was impractical, farmers had to decide how to determine the 5-year mark. Their solution: a birthday for the trees! 

The first mention of Tu B’Shvat comes from the Mishnah, but scholars and rabbis agree that the traditions at the heart of the holiday date to biblical times. Since then, Tu B’Shvat—literally meaning the 15th of the month of Shvat— has become a widely celebrated holiday and is often associated with Zionism and a love for the land. Many people celebrate by planting trees or by donating to organizations that focus on Israel’s ecology and environment. Another significant celebration beginning around the 16th century is the Tu B’Shvat seder, which honors the “Seven Species” of Israel as well as other fruits, nuts and wines. The Seven Species (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates) were first mentioned in Deuteronomy, and refer to the foods that Israelis in biblical times attached significant meaning to. 

There are a number of ways to perform the Tu B’Shvat seder, but a traditional order of events begins with a cup of wine accompanied by a fruit, usually a fruit that is hard on the outside and soft on the inside, such as a coconut. This is followed by two more rounds of wine and more fruit—first a soft fruit with a pit and then an entirely soft and edible fruit. Then comes a vegetarian dinner, a final cup of wine and a final fruit, this one soft and sweet with a tough skin, such as a mango or a banana. With each course comes a prayer and a recognition of the Seven Species’ importance in Israel. 

Below are the Seven Species of Israel and their meanings, plus a few extra foods associated with the birthday of the trees. Whether you hold a seder this Tu B’Shvat or not, take a second to look outside, find a tree, and wish it a happy birthday. 

The Seven Species

Pomegranates—Pomegranates symbolize righteousness in Judaism, as they supposedly contain 613 seeds that correspond with the 613 commandments of the Torah. The pomegranate is also a symbol of fertility and love. According to the National Library of Medicine, which honored the pomegranate in 2000, images of the fruit were used to decorate “the pillars of King Solomon’s temple and the robes and regalia of Jewish kings and priests.” Pomegranate motifs also decorated some ancient Jewish coins and rimonim, ancient Torah scroll covers. Pomegranates are a common feature of Rosh Hashanah meals, usually eaten on the second night, or incorporated into a variety of dishes throughout the celebration. 

Olives—The olive is understood to signify the “continuity between the biblical land of Israel and the modern state,” according to the Jewish Virtual Library. The olive tree is also understood as a symbol of “putting down roots” in Israel and thus has a strong connection to the land itself. “My Olive Tree,” an organization working to plant more olive trees in Israel, notes that the olive is considered a symbol of peace, love and celebration, and life and vitality. According to Chabad.org, “olives are a metaphor for the Jewish people. In the words of our sages, just as oil is extracted when the olive is compressed, so does the Jew reveal his oil when he is oppressed. Oil refers to the inner resolve of our neshama (soul) that emerges in times of challenge.” And according to Aish.com, “Olive Street” (hazait) is the most popular street name in Israel, reminding Israelis around the country of its symbolism. 

Dates—The history of the date in Israel goes back to ancient times, and many scholars believe that the honey mentioned in biblical references to “a land flowing with milk and honey” is actually date honey, not bee honey. This date honey or syrup, called silan, has gained prominence in Israeli cooking in recent years. Additionally, writes Joel Haber of My Jewish Learning, date palm fronds are waved on Sukkot, and dates are also often part of a Rosh Hashanah meal. Dates slowly lost popularity in Israel during the medieval period and Ottoman rule, but they became commonplace once more in the late 19th century after a significant effort from Israeli agriculturists. In 2005, Dr. Elaine Solowey, California-born but living on Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel, was able to bring an ancient and extinct species of date back to life—its seed had been excavated in Masada in the 1960s, and is now a massive date palm tree named Methuselah. At the time, this was “the oldest seed ever brought to life,” writes Sue Surkes of The Times of Israel

Figs—In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve supposedly covered themselves with fig leaves after they ate fruit from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge (which may itself have been a fig or pomegranate, not an apple tree). According to David Wilson and Anna Wilson of the journal Human Ecology, “King Shlomo (Solomon) compared the Torah to the fig tree because ‘just as one constantly finds ripe figs on a fig tree, so too will one always find a new taste in the Torah he is studying.” Fig motifs are often seen in Israeli art and architecture, and even some Israeli town names (e.g. Te’enat Shiloh and Beit Te’enah) include the word for fig (te’ena) within them.  An important trading product around the Mediterranean, figs were a symbol of prosperity, a method of survival, and fig trees were even a safe haven under which to take shelter.

Grapes—Grapes and grapevines have been a part of Jewish history since biblical times. Reba Wulkens of Yeshiva University writes, “a magnificent golden vine that hung over the inner portal of the Second Temple was described by Josephus and the Mishnah. The Hasmoneans and Bar Kochba followers struck a cluster of grapes on their victory coins as a symbol of the fertility of the country. This same emblem appears slightly later as a decoration in the mosaic floors of synagogues.” She goes on to quote Isaiah, who “likens God to the owner of a vineyard and Israel is the vineyard.” The wine made from grapes is also an intrinsic component of holy days, Shabbat rituals, and, of course, the Tu B’shvat seder.  

In dried form, grapes take on slightly different meanings. Raisins are often associated with sweetness and prosperity, particularly when celebrating a new year or a wedding. “Sprinkling raisins and nuts over the groom during Shabbat services before an Ashkenazi wedding became a custom meant to encourage fertility and sweetness in the marriage,” notes Liza Schoenfein of The Texas Jewish Post. Raisins can be found in dozens of Jewish dishes, including tzimmes, kugel, rugelach and challah, and they can be used to create a unique raisin wine, which was popular among American Jews in the 19th century. 

Wheat—Wheat symbolizes kindness (chesed) in the Jewish tradition, and is among the oldest grains (more than 10,000 years old) that we still cultivate and consume today. Michelle Kobernick of The Jewish News writes, “once our ancestors ground it into flour, the harvest became shelf stable and portable. The ability to travel with a secure source of food gave rise to migration and the expansion of agricultural practices into new geographic locations.” Wheat, which remains a primary food staple in many cultures (and which is grown in 128 countries), is representative of kindness and nourishment in Jewish tradition, according to My Jewish Learning. In a story from Genesis, Abraham famously serves three angels a meal without knowing who these guests are. Abraham instructs Sarah to make bread using “choice flour,” meaning wheat, for the guests as opposed to barley flour, which was the more common, less expensive option. The Book of Hebrews 13:2 says “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”  

Barley—Barley is the oldest of Israel’s “Seven Species,” and is the first grain to ripen in the spring. Were it not for the easier-to-harvest wheat, barley would have likely remained the primary grain consumed in ancient times because of its affordability and hardiness. Barley is well known for its role in the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. Historically, the Omer has aligned with the harvesting of the barley crop in Israel, notes The Jerusalem Post, and thus became intertwined with the rituals of the Omer. The Omer refers to a measure of grain in ancient times (the word itself means sheaf)—a measure that had to be given to the Temple on the second day of Passover. According to ReformJudaism.org, “biblical law forbade any use of the new barley crop until an omer was brought as an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem.” On the morning of the second day of Passover, a kohen or priest would “wave this barley offering…at the same time offering a prayer to God for rain and dew in the appropriate times and to bless the harvest.” Each night between Passover and Shavuot, those counting the Omer recite a prayer after their meal. Additionally, though it originated in the Middle East, barley can survive and thrive nearly anywhere, allowing for great geographic diversity—an aspect of the grain that resonates with the vast history of the Jewish people. 

Two more species

Almonds—According to Tablet Magazine, ancient Israelites referred to almonds as shaked, meaning the “awakened one.” The almond tree blooms early in the growing season, around the time of Tu B’shvat, marking an important guidepost in the year, and also, allegedly wrote Maimonides, “signifying the end of the fiscal year” for arborists and orchardists (there was great debate concerning tithing and Tu B’Shvat in the Talmud). Additionally, writes Margi Lenga Kahn of The St. Louis Jewish Light, pistachios and almonds are the only nuts mentioned in the Torah, lending them even more weight in Jewish tradition. Kahn also writes that “almonds are a symbol of hope, happiness, and renewal. For example, at many Jewish weddings, newlyweds are showered with almonds as they leave the chuppah.” Of course, almonds are also a key ingredient in marzipan, which has a fascinating Jewish history

Carob—Carob, which is often used as a “healthier” alternative to chocolate, represents patience and foresight in the Jewish tradition because of the 70 years that the carob tree supposedly takes to bear fruit: In the Babylonian Talmud, Honi HaMe’agel, a righteous man, came across another man planting a carob tree. Honi was surprised that this man would plant a tree whose fruit he would never even see. When Honi asked the man why he would plant this particular tree, the man replied “just as my ancestors planted for me, I too am planting for my descendants.” The carob, native to Israel, has a strong association with great rabbis, such as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, both of whom, tradition says, survived off little else for long periods of time. From a religious perspective, writes Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of Yeshiva University, “the carob has longer roots than most other Israelite trees; to eat its fruits was thus, for Jews in the Diaspora, to link themselves with a land and a heritage far away.” On a more practical level, carobs were popular and widely used because they are easy to store in their dried-out state and thus were also easy to transport and ship. While perhaps less delicious when dried, this form of carob was always available around Tu B’Shvat. 

Top image: Stamps issued in 1958-9 by the Post Office of Israel featuring the seven species. Designed by Zvi Narkiss.

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