The Jewish birthday for the trees has gone through several phases of historical development.
One can speak in general of four revealed, historical manifestations of this day:
• The 15th of Shvat of the sages (which we first read about in the Mishnah, which may be ascribed to the second century).
• The 15th of Shvat of the kabbalists (the students of Isaac Luria, known as the Ari—end of the 16th century).
• The Tu Bishvat of the Zionists (end of the 19th century).
• 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 Tu Bishvat 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.
The Tu Bishvat of the Kabbalists
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 Ari) took it upon themselves to repair this devastation by means of numerous rituals spread about the calendar (tikkunei hatzot–midnight vigils, 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 (halachah, 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 Ari 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, of healing 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, halachic 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, halachic 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.
The environmentalist Tu Bishvat, in my opinion, gives us a picture of a rooted Jewish paradigm in conflict with both Zionist Judaism and halachic Judaism. The conflict with Zionism is expressed, to take one example, in the change of Tu Bishvat into a universal Earth Day, rather than a day only for the earth of the Land of Israel.
Similarly, the environmentalist Tu Bishvat is in direct confrontation with halachic Judaism because the environmentalist Tu Bishvat understands the halachic essence of the holiday to be mitzvot [commandments]that apply to the world as a whole and not only to the Land of Israel. The message of the environmentalist Tu Bishvat is that one must interpret the word “land” not just as the Land of Israel, but as Earth, as the world.
This, of course, is in direct conflict with the traditional, halachic viewpoint. For the groups behind the environmentalist Tu Bishvat, this conflict is part of the attempt to fashion an entire system of alternative halachah, which is expressed, for example, by the ethical claims for all eco-kashrut that goes beyond food to other “fruit of the earth” that we consume, like coal and oil and paper.
We have before us, then, four different types of tikkun: social, theological, national-historical, and ecological. These four types of tikkun signify not only four different Tu Bishvats, but also four different world views. Every one of these four viewpoints constitutes a revolutionary change relative to the views that preceded it. Within each of these revolutionary changes is a veiled or open rebellion. The change and the rebellion become expressed in a characteristic ritual, which is innovative in comparison with the previous incarnations of this day.
It is possible, therefore, to see in each of the four different Tu Bishvats a weaving of rebellion and continuity. I personally have a problem with that pair, “rebellion and continuity.” It’s too black-and-white and has the stale taste of Modernism. However, I am interested not in doing away with it, but rather in adding to it the pair “dismantling (peruk)-repairing (tikkun).”
Based on the above clarifications, I would like to make the following claims: (1) Each of the four Tu Bishvats described above is a tikkun (reconstruction) of one (or more) of the prior Tu Bishvats. (2) A necessary condition for each of those tikkunim is the dismantling (deconstruction) of the conceptual universe out of which one (or more) of the previous Tu Bishvats was built. In other words, we’re not speaking of only remodeling the past, but of also dismantling the entire structure. Often the dismantling is liable (likely?) to end up destroying the ceremony or occasion; just as often it is likely to end up transforming and renewing it. In the case of Tu Bishvat, we are witness to a series of transformations that spreads out over nearly 2,000 years (or more).
Reprinted with permission from Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu Bishvat Anthology, edited by Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman, and Arthur Waskow (Jewish Publication Society).
Ari Elon is a contributing writer to My Jewish Learning and Kiddish magazine.