Reprinted with permission from Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology, edited by Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman, and Arthur Waskow (Jewish Publication Society).
One can speak in general of four revealed, historical manifestations of this day:
1. The Fifteenth of Shvat of the Sages (which we first read about in the Mishnah, which may be ascribed to the second century).
2. The Fifteenth of Shvat of the kabbalists (the students of Isaac Luria, known as the AR”I–end of the 16th century).
3. The Tu Bishvat of the Zionists (end of the 19th century).
4. The Tu Bishvat of the environmentalists (end of the 20th century).
The first three of these were born in the Land of Israel. The last incarnation was born in the United States.
Each of the four incarnations contains a fundamental innovation relative to the previous traditions. Each of these innovations emphasizes a different tikkun, a different repair/remedy/healing.
The Fifteenth of Shvat of the Sages
The emphasis of the Fifteenth of Shvat in the Mishnah (or the First of Shvat, according to the House of Shammai) is on social tikkun olam [repairing/perfecting the world]. There exists a fundamental injustice, which indeed has no complete solution (“the poor shall never cease out of the land”–Deuteronomy 15: 11), but allows for the possibility of much tikkun.
The sages of the Mishnah suggest effecting this tikkun through the imposition of taxes in the form of tithes, terumot [free-will offerings], corner gleanings, and the like. The Fifteenth of Shvat is one of the most important days for reminding society to take a frank reckoning of itself. On this day, all who have gardens are supposed to go down to their garden to count up all the fruits and profits that were gathered in the course of the year, and to reserve the required portion for the benefit of those who have neither garden nor fruit to eat from it.
The sudden appearance of the idea of a “New Year for the tithing of trees” on the mishnaic landscape is sufficient in itself to teach about the social revolution that the sages of the Mishnah effect through their relationship to the priestly monarchic conception of tithes and terumot. In the Bible there is no mention of such a day, and the fact of its establishment testifies to a need to give more force to social and religious taxes that will improve the situation of those in need.