How did an arcane tax day for agrarian tithing become a festive birthday of the trees? The history of Tu B’Shvat reveals how 
this malleable holiday has been adapted by Jewish tradition in different eras for different purposes.

Tu B’Shvat first appears in Jewish literature in the Mishnah, where it is mentioned (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1) in a list of four separate new year’s festivals as the new year for the trees, to take place on the fifteenth day of the month of Shvat. Its significance stemmed from clarifying, for an agrarian society, when the tax year began and ended so that tithes to the Temple for the annual harvest could be contributed appropriately. Jewish tradition, of course, is not only practical but also steeped in meaning-making. So when the Second Temple—the locus of tithing—was destroyed in 70 C.E. and the Jewish people lost sovereignty over the land of Israel, one of many questions that arose was: what now is Tu B’Shvat?

The answer to that question remained dormant, as did Tu B’Shvat as a holiday, until the mystic Kabbalists of Tzvat revivified the holiday some 1500 years later. Under the leadership of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), the kabbalists created a new Tu B’Shvat tradition with the multi-sensory seder we will experience today. (We will elaborate more on this seder and its mystical meaning later, in the section entitled “How to Use This Haggadah”.)

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, Tu B’Shvat was adopted by early Zionists as a day to celebrate Jewish connection to our ancestral homeland. JNF (Jewish National Fund) pushkes encouraged Jews across the globe to donate money for planting trees in Israel, and to this day, American and Israeli school kids celebrate Tu B’Shvat by planting trees. The environmental movement of the 1960s-70s provided yet another context for understanding Tu B’Shvat, emphasizing the natural connections between “the birthday of the trees,” conservation, and environmental stewardship.

These multiple interpretations of the meaning of Tu B’Shvat give us, today, encouragement to continue shaping its connection with our contemporary context. 

Service Section: Introduction
Source: Hazon 2021 Tu B'Shvat Haggadah