Tu Bi’Shevat: Happy Birthday, Trees!

(CC image via Wikimedia)
An olive tree, “Olea europaea subsp europaea” (CC image via Wikimedia)

On February 4th of this year, Jews all over the world will eat fruit. Usually it is dried fruit, such as dried apples or pineapple, sometimes even dates, figs, or dried pear. Many purchase carob, known as bokser in Yiddish. My personal favorite was always the bright orange dried papaya. We didn’t really eat it otherwise and it tasted the best out of all the options in the little “pekeleh” (package) that we would get in school.  I never really liked the carob; it was always so dry and chewy, kind of like fruit jerky. But there we were, in the middle of winter, eating dried fruit to celebrate the birthday of the trees, as it says in the folk song we learned: “Tu B’Shevat Higiah, Chag La’Ilanot” (The fifteenth day of the month of Shevat has come, birthday (or holiday) of the trees). 

Dried carob (CC image via Flickr)
Dried carob (CC image via Flickr)

As a child I did not really understand this small holiday—why were we talking about trees in the middle of winter? There were no leaves on them and the fruit we were eating wasn’t even fresh fruit! Now that I am older (and have gained my MLS so I can do some research), I set out to learn more.

I began with Wikipedia (naturally) and discovered that “Tu BiShvat is a Jewish holiday occurring on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat (in 2015, Tu BiShvat begins at sunset on 3 February and ends at nightfall on 4 February). It is also called ‘Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot’, literally ‘New Year of the Trees.’ In contemporary Israel, the day is celebrated as an ecological awareness day, and trees are planted in celebration.”

This bit of information jogged my memory: I was once in Israel during the winter, and it was a Friday afternoon. My aunt, uncle and I had just returned from the open-air market, Mahane Yehuda, and were rushing down Ben-Yehuda Street on our way back to the hotel. But the street did not look like it usually did. Instead there were plants and flowers everywhere, with vines twined around lampposts and weaved into storefronts. The whole street was decked out and looked like a fantastical garden, complete with people dressed up in gorgeous approximations of flowers and foliage. There was singing and dancing, live performances and more flowers and potted plants I had ever seen this side of a botanical garden. As we walked down the street taking it all in, my aunt told me this is how they celebrate Tu Bi’Shevat in Israel. I wished we celebrated the holiday this way at home, too!

tu bi'shevat
On Ben-Yehuda Street, Jerusalem, during Tu Bi’Shevat 2010 (Photos by Toby Krausz)

When I went to Chabad.org, I was further enlightened: this is the day that marks the “new beginning” of the trees, when the trees that are earliest to bloom begin the new cycle of growth. The trees emerge from their winter hibernation to prepare to blossom in the year to come, particularly the fruit trees of Israel. Dried fruit is eaten to celebrate the fruits of Israel, including grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. In earlier times, these fruits would be impossible to obtain fresh during the winter; thus, the dried fruits. There are spiritual meanings behind the holiday as well, so if you’d like to look further into this, I’d recommend taking a look at some of these insightful essays or checking out the books we have here in the library:

A person is like a tree: A sourcebook for Tu BeShvat  by Yitzhak Buxbaum

The book of our heritage : the Jewish year and its days of significance, translated from the Hebrew Sefer ha-Todaʼah by Nachman Bulman; revised and adapted by Dovid Landesman and Joyce Bennett

Saplings: An anthology for Tu B’shvat,  edited by Yehuda Haezrahi

A carob-coated rice cake (Debbie McDuffee)

Now that I know more about this holiday, I will happily and more informatively eat my dried mango and try to find a fig or two. Perhaps instead of bokser, I will indulge in some tasty carob-coated treats instead!

Contributed by: Toby Krausz, Judaica Librarian, Midtown

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