Tu Bishvat

January-February Illustration: Masha Manapov

What is Tu Bishvat?

Tu Bishvat (a Jewish holiday named for its date – Shvat is the fifth month; “tu” is a Hebrew acronym for 15) is a Jewish Arbor Day.  The date, in the exact middle of winter, was chosen as the end of the arboreal "fiscal year," meaning the taxes (tithes) on fruit that ripened after this date belonged to next year's cycle. Thus it became labeled as rosh hashanah la-ilanot, “the new year of the trees.”

The holiday is nowhere in the Bible and first appears in the Mishna.

Tu Bishvat was transformed from a mere fiscal marker to real holiday in the 16th century, when the mystics of Safed made it a day of celebration and eating fruit, especially from among the seven species indigenous to Israel. The Kabbalists even instituted a “Tu Bishvat Seder” complete with mystical teachings and a service parallel to Passover, including four cups of wine.

When is Tu Bishvat?

Tu Bishvat, as its name indicates, is celebrated on the 15 day of the Hebrew month of Shvat (usually corresponding to February). Like all Jewish holidays, it runs from sundown to sunset.

Tu Bishvat 2015 – February 4

Tu Bishvat 2016 – January 25

Tu Bishvat 2017 – February 11

Tu Bishvat 2018 – January 31

Tu Bishvat 2019 – January 21

How do we observe Tu Bishvat?

Traditions for observing Tu Bishvat vary among different communities. Many Sephardi communities have traditionally held a communal Tu Bishvat Seder featuring fruit, nuts, and both red and white wine. Biblical and Talmudic passages on the laws of agriculture are studied amid a holiday atmosphere.

Ashkenazi communities have traditionally confined the celebrations to the eating of dried fruit sent from the Holy Land, however, the Sephardi-style Tu Bishvat Seder is catching on among Ashkenazim as well.

In Israel, Tu Bishvat is the occasion for planting trees across the country, usually by schoolchildren.

What do we eat on Tu Bishvat?

The quintessential food of Tu Bishvat are fruits, nuts, and berries — all symbolic of the bounty of the Land of Israel. While in the Diaspora, the holiday has been associated with dried fruit, this was only because fresh fruit was scarce in mid-winter in Europe. Fresh produce is much to be preferred.

Many families have a tradition of drinking four cups of wine to represent the seasons: a glass of white for autumn; a second glass of white wine with just a little red wine mixed in to stand for the winter; a third glass of half red and half white for spring; and a full glass of red wine for summer.

Tu Bishvat