Tu Bishvat / The Festival of Love - the Celebration of Nature

The 'new year of the trees' holiday shares many idea and customs with Tu B'Av, the summer holiday of love.

Gilad Kariv
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

As in the calendars of other ancient cultures, the traces of two astronomic and climatic time axes can be found in the Hebrew calendar: the axis of Equinoxes, which connects the Vernal equinox, March 21, and the Autumnal equinox, September 21; and the axis of the Solstices, which connects the shortest day, December 21, and the longest day, June 21. The intersection of the two axes dissects the calendar year into three-month quarters.

As is typical of agricultural societies, the Hebrew calendar attributes greater importance to the Vernol equinox, which stresses the intermediate seasons. The two main festivals of the Hebrew biblical calendar, Passover and Sukkot, are situated around this axis, and both share many of the same ideas and customs, along with the same number of days.

The axis of Solstice also finds expression in the Hebrew calendar, despite its secondary importance. On the winter side of the axis, there is the holiday of Hanukkah, a festival of amplified light, which also lasts eight days. There is a great deal of testimony in the Bible to indicate the existence of a summer festival worshiping the sun god Tammuz. This festival was pushed out of the ancient Hebrew calendar because of its pagan character.

At a time when the pagan elements of Sukkot, Passover and Hanukkah were successfully replaced by monotheistic and nationalistic elements, the Biblical tradition chose to drive the summer festival out of Judaism altogether. With the approach of the New Year of the Trees, which like Sukkot and Passover falls in the middle of the Hebrew month, it is fitting to take a glance at the secondary axis of time which connects between two ancient holidays, which are also located opposite each other on the face of the Hebrew calendar: Tu Bishvat and Tu B'Av.

Just as Passover and Sukkot are connected in spirit and practice, so it is with the two minor single-day holidays. The first takes place in the middle of the days of sunshine and the other in the middle of the days of rain.

Beyond the fact that Tu B'Av was celebrated in ancient times in nature, in the vineyards, the Tractate of Ta'anit in the Babylonian Talmud teaches us that, like Tu Bishvat, Tu B'Av was also a festival of trees. On that day, the Babylonian rabbi, Raba, and Babylonian sage, Yosef, teach us it was customary to abstain from chopping down trees for the fire on the altar of the Temple. Their friend, Rabbi Mansi, even gave a special nickname to that day, the day of Tavar Magal, or as Rashi interpreted it, the "day when the axe was destroyed." By using this nickname, Rabbi Mansi tried to direct our attention not to the romantic and familial aspects of the day but rather to a change in of people's attitude to nature.

The Talmud sages explained that the Hebrew man stopping because, starting in the middle of the Hebrew month of Av, the strength of the sun had started to wane, and water, the life force that motivated the growth of the tree like the growth of man, made the wood too damp to light. It is no trivial matter that the sages chose to use the calendar to note the period when the Hebrew man stopped logging trees, out of recognition of the life force that was flowing in the roots and trunks of trees.

Exploiting nature

It is true that when spring approached, the chopping of trees started anew and the exploitation of natural resources by man did not stop, but turning the spotlight on to the cessation of logging established in the ancient calendar a mark of respect toward the life force that was hidden in the tree and an expression of the fact that wielding an axe was not something to be taken for granted.

The ancient day of Tu Bishvat signified the beginning of the taxation year (the counting of fruit crop for tithe), but it was Tu B'Av, the festival of destroying the axe, that signified the real holiday of the trees. In fact, Tu Bishvat symbolized the fact that the tree was only a resource for man to use.

The fact that both holidays were connected to man's relations to the tree - a relationship that oscillated between exploitation and respect - can help offer a new dimension to the day of Tu Bishvat, the day we know as the New Year of Trees, and especially in view of the challenges that human society must confront in its attitude to nature.

The origin of Tu Bishvat lies in the ancient Hebrew taxation system, which was based mainly on the tithe of every farmer: The first tax was dedicated to the Levites, the men of sanctity and education; the second tithe was a means of securing the pilgrimage and strengthening national solidarity; and the tax of the poor was meant to safeguard, together with numerous other precepts (mitzvot), the social support system for the indigent of the land.

The day of Tu Bishvat was fixed, consequently, as the administrative holiday which marked the end of one tax year and the start of a new one. In this respect, the ancient festival symbolized man's economic and commercial use of the tree.

With the disintegration of the ancient taxation system in the Land of Israel, during the first centuries of the Christian era, Tu Bishvat became the day when Jews' attention turned toward the produce of the trees, hoping and praying it would provide enough to satisfy man's needs. The Zionist revolution added new meaning to the ancient day, harnessing the tree for human ends to renew a nation's independence and conquer the desert. The planted tree was converted into a symbol of and instrument used by the Jewish man to awaken a nation. Diaspora traditions connected the holiday with the memory of the Land of Israel, so the Zionist movement converted the blooming tree into a proverb for the Jewish yishuv.

Just like other Jewish holidays, Tu Bishvat underwent changes over the centuries. In recent years, people of our generation began to think about new meaning in the festival of trees. Many believe the relations between man and nature have reached a crisis which jeopardizes man's existence together with the existence of his other partners of creation. It seems people ought to turn their attention to the ancient idea latent in Tu Bishvat's twin - Tu B'Av, the day when the axe is destroyed.

On Tu Bishvat, people also ought to remember the place of nature in ensuring the material welfare of man, and the place of nature in the Land of Israel in strengthening the roots of the people to the land. It appears now that the time has come, even more than ever before, to mark anew on the Hebrew calendar the imprint of the broken axe which reminds man to treat nature with humility, with wisdom and in the spirit of the 10th commandment: "Thou shall not covet," which is always read on Shabbat after Tu Bishvat as part of the portion on Jethro - the portion on the granting of the Torah. If the Hebrew calendar year was intended to reflect the nation's traditions and beliefs, then the time has come for the festival to place relations of partnership and respect alongside relations of exploitation by man of his natural surroundings. A festival in the spirit of the day of Tu B'Av, would be a festival of love of nature.

The writer is a Reform rabbi and deputy head of the Israel Religious Action Center, the center for Jewish pluralism.