Tu Bi’Shevat (literally the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat) has a long history. Some scholars believe that in its most ancient form, the holiday celebrated the Near Eastern goddess Asherah (also known as Astarte or Ishtar), whose symbol was a tree. Asherah was a popular fertility deity and consort of the Canaanite God El. Asherahs are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, though they are not described in detail, and were likely symbols, poles, or wooden objects made from trees.
During the Temple period (until 70 CE), farmers of fruit were taxed in the form of tithes. Tu Bi’Shevat was likely a tax collection day for fruit, whereupon it was agreed that the tax year would begin and end. Tu Bi’Shevat become the “new year for trees.” It is unknown whether other festivities accompanied the tithing. After the destruction of the Temple (70 CE), when tithing was no longer possible, little is known of how the day was recognized, except that in Ashkenazi synagogues special Psalms were added to the liturgy. The idea that Tu Bi’Shevat was something more than a simple legal requirement, that it marks the end of the heavy rain season in the land of Israel when the sap starts to rise in the trees and the earth begins its slow emergence from deep winter, may account for why the festival stayed in existence among the Jewish people.
It was during the flourishing era of Jewish mysticism, around the 16th century, that Tu Bi’Shevat re-emerged as a more popular and meaningful festival, first among Sephardi Jews. Mystical significance was attributed to ideas of the rebirth of the natural world in spring, and the Tu Bi’Shevat seder, a service of ingesting symbolic foods around a festive meal, was created. The symbolic cups of wine and food are associated with the mystical worlds of creation and the human personality types. (See below.) The festival gained popularity and spread throughout the Sephardi world and eventually became part of Ashkenazi custom as well.
Since the rise of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, Tu Bi’Shevat also has come to be associated with planting trees in Israel. Like the mystical rebirth of earth celebrated in the most ancient roots of the holiday, Tu Bi’Shevat is now associated with the birth of the Jewish state. Most recently, as awareness of the environment has become a more pressing concern for many people, Tu Bi’Shevat has become a “Jewish Arbor Day,” a day on which we recognize our ethical obligations to care for the planet and its inhabitants. The theme of a new year for trees, a time of recognizing our connection to the earth, is a popular Tu Bi’Shevat theme today.
All these themes — fertility, trees, rebirth and renewal, obligation to heal the world, earth-awareness and the interconnected web of life — are included in the seder, just as on Passover all the symbols have many layers of meaning created from the most ancient times to the present. Tu Bi’Shevat is a wonderful family holiday on which to gather, sing, dance, eat and celebrate the earth and our connection to it.