Four Types of Tu Bishvat

How the holiday developed.

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In contrast to the mishnaic Sages' social tikkun, the emphasis of the kabbalistic Fifteenth of Shvat is on theo-cosmic tikkun. The world was devastated as a result of the taste from the Tree of Knowledge and by the resultant expulsion from the Garden of Eden [as recounted in the book of Genesis]. The kabbalists (the students of the AR"I) took it upon themselves to repair this devastation by means of numerous rituals spread about the calendar (tikkunei hatzot--midnightvigils, tikkun leil Shavuot--midnight study session for Shavuot, and the like).

The Fifteenth of Shvat is a day on which many kabbalists try to get as close as possible to the Garden of Eden, to taste of its fruit, and to heal its damaged trees. They do this with a long, drawn-out Tu Bishvat seder, at whose center they taste the fruits of this world and say blessings over them using techniques of special mystical meditations directed toward the fruits of the heavenly worlds.

The custom of eating fruit on the Fifteenth of Shvat is absolutely novel relative to the Mishnah and to the rest of the known rabbinic literature (halakhah--Jewish law--and aggadah, rabbinic narrative). The Tu Bishvat seder, with its extended ritual of mystical meditations, is an absolute innovation relative not only to rabbinic Judaism, but also relative to earlier Kabbalah. (Neither the Zohar nor any of the Kabbalah prior to the AR"I relates at all to the Fifteenth of Shvat.)…

The Tu Bishvat of the Zionists

The Zionist Fifteenth of Shvat is a day of national-historical tikkun, ofhealing from the devastations of the exile, whether these resulted from external causes, such as oppression and anti-Semitism, or from internal causes, such as the religious, halakhic leadership. More than any other day, this day symbolized the longing of the Zionists to be healed of their Diaspora characteristics, to be joined anew to a patch of earth, of land. On this day, the Zionists taught themselves and their children to color the Land of Israel green with the planting of thousands of trees. They would thus--so they believed--again take possession of their homeland by making the desert bloom. Likewise--so they hoped--they would teach themselves and their children to stop their exilic floating and finally land on solid ground.

The rebellious nature of the Zionist Tu Bishvat relative to the prior biblical, halakhic, and kabbalistic perspectives is patently obvious. The planting ceremony (ritual?) is a definite innovation in the landscape of Jewish ritual. As we will see below, it was imported at the end of the last century from rites celebrating spring and May Day and "slipped" into the traditional Fifteenth of Shvat.

The Tu Bishvat of the Environmentalists

The environmentalist Fifteenth of Shvat is a day of ecological tikkun olam, of repairing the planet, which has been appallingly devastated over the course of the last century by the human race. Beginning in the 1970s, environmentalists started to cry out and warn us against cutting off the branches that we were sitting on. Some of the Jews among those who sounded that alarm felt a need to express themselves in the terminology of their own culture. That is how Tu Bishvat became more and more the central day of environmental awareness in the Jewish year. More and more Tu Bishvat seders began to take on an environmental character, and recently, Tu Bishvat has even been declared "officially" to be the Jewish Earth Day.

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Ari Elon

Ari Elon has served as the director of the Rabbinic Texts Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and is the author of From Jerusalem to the Edge of Heaven.