Why Tu Beshvat should not be forgotten

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (z”l), my teacher and cousin, once said that it is quite easy to tell which are the most profound Jewish holidays. They are, he suggested, the ones that are observed by the smallest number of individuals. 

His statement is not only poignant, but it is also tremendously accurate, especially as it relates to Tu BeShevat (the New Year of Trees), which we will celebrate in just a few days.

Sadly enough, for the most part, this day passes annually without much notice and without much recognition.

Now, we might believe that the reason the observance of this day has disappeared from our individual and communal radar screens has something to do with the fact that it is anachronistic and antiquated. Maybe its messages are no longer relevant? Perhaps Tu Beshvat no longer speaks to us in the way it spoke to past generations of Jews? After all, we are living in postmodern times. We are “more evolved” and “more sophisticated.” We know far more about the world around us than our ancients could ever have hoped to know.

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But I think not. In fact, Tu BeShevat may be even more relevant today than ever before in our history. So why and how is it that Tu BeShevat goes unnoticed and unrecognized by so many of us?

I think this mystery has several layers. First, Tu BeShevat is not mentioned in the Torah. It is mentioned only later in the Mishnah (c. 200 CE) and, despite the fact that Judaism, as we know it today, is a rabbinic religion (established by the rabbinic sages), the fact that it is not mentioned in the Bible may have contributed to its relegation to a Tier 2 holiday in the minds of some Jews.

Second, though the holiday is mentioned in the Mishnah, no specific ritual observances are mentioned in connection with this day. And as we all know, disembodied religion — religion sans ritual — has little if any ability to maintain viability.

Finally, Tu BeShevat seems to have been observed most fastidiously by two groups of Jews: Sephardim and Kabbalists (mystics). And clearly, most of us are neither Sephardic nor are we initiates in the esoteric mystical traditions of our people. Hence, the holiday seems to have fallen out of favor, at least for the majority of Ashkenazi Diaspora Jews.

Yet despite all these valid reasons to downplay Tu BeShevat, if we pause to reconsider this holiday and its focus on trees and what they have to teach humans, we might discover some tremendously valuable and spiritually uplifting meanings.

Two brief examples, which I hope, will whet your appetite for additional exploration:

1. The Rabbi of Ger taught: Tu BeShevat is a special time. It is the season when we are called upon to pay heed and provide care for the trees. We tend to them and hope they will imbibe and absorb the nutrients that we lovingly provide for them. So, too, is it a special time for the human to absorb the teachings of the Torah, which are nourishment to the soul. Tu BeShevat calls on us to open ourselves up anew to absorbing the waters of Torah and, in this way, become refreshed and renewed.

2. The Bialer Rebbe taught: The strength of the tree is in its roots. Without these roots, the tree cannot flourish; it cannot survive.  So, too, it is for the Jewish people. We must have strong roots. And these roots bind us not only to the past, but also to one another. When together we celebrate Tu BeShevat, we join our roots to the roots of the primordial tree, the quarry from which all souls are hewn.

As we grow and deepen as individuals and as an Am Kadosh (holy community), I pray that we will together merit to celebrate this beautiful and profound holiday with passion and fervor.  

May this be God’s will —  and our own. Amen.

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona.