Tu Bishvat is a late addition to the Hebrew calendar. The holiday is nowhere in the Bible and first appears in the Mishna. We’re told that each year actually has four Rosh Hashanahs – four starts to the year.
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One is for measuring the reigns of kings and determining the holidays, one is for setting livestock tithes, one is for counting the years and religious regulations on plants, and one is the Rosh Hashanah of the Tree, which became what we call Tu Bishvat.
At this point, during the Second Temple period, the date on which the holiday fell was in dispute. According to the Mishna, the House of Shammai school of thought put the holiday on the first day of the month of Shevat, while the House of Hillel put it on the 15th of the month.
Actually, the word “holiday” is misleading – there was no celebration or tree planting. Fruit picking was the issue. The day merely determined whether the tithes were calculated as tithes of one year or the next, with the border being either the 15th or the first day of Shevat. It was simply a technical and legalistic matter.
The House of Hillel won most debates with the House of Shammai, so the holiday falls on the 15th of Shevat. This is what gives the holiday its name. Hebrew letters began to be used to represent numbers, and 15 was represented by the letters tet (9) and vav (6), which are read as tu.
By the High Middle Ages, 1100 to 1300, Tu Bishvat was no longer a pure legalistic matter. It became something of a holiday, though just barely. The main change was that the Tachanun (Supplication) prayer was not recited in synagogues. In 17th-century Europe it became a tradition for schools to close on Tu Bishvat.
The main innovation that turned Tu Bishvat into a holiday was accomplished in Safed in the 16th century by Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, the father of contemporary kabbala. He and his disciples enacted a tikkun (correction) that made Tu Bishvat a day of celebrating and eating fruit. A book by an anonymous disciple took things further, adding a ceremony resembling the Passover seder.
These traditions spread to neighboring countries and slowly were adopted by most Sephardi communities, as well as some Ashkenazi communities. Under the new tradition, people met at a synagogue or at the home of a community dignitary. The tables were covered with white tablecloths adorned by candles, myrtle, fruit and plants, as well as pitchers of red and white wine.
Thirteen biblical passages on growing plants were read, agriculture-related Talmudic passages were studied, a special prayer was recited and four glasses of wine were drunk. Each was accompanied by a different fruit, nut or other bounty of the land.
This was the case with Sephardi Jews; Ashkenazi Jews did things differently. Only a shadow of the merriment made its way to the north. During the 19th century it became tradition in many Ashkenazi communities to eat dried fruit sent from the Holy Land. At heder, where Jewish boys received their education, the days leading up to Tu Bishvat were often dedicated to fanciful teachings on the great bounty of the Land of Israel.
These traditions continued into the 20th century, when the rise of Zionism and the founding of the Jewish National Fund gave the holiday a new twist. Jews in the Diaspora – especially in North America – were encouraged to donate money for the planting of trees in Israel, and in Israel trees are still planted across the country, usually by schoolchildren.
The tradition to eat fruit took an ironic turn over the years. The dried fruit eaten by Israelis during, before and after Tu Bishvat is almost always imported from abroad, usually from Turkey. So in recent years religious groups have called for another correction. They want the dried fruit to be thrown out so that Israel’s wonderful fruit can be eaten fresh.