Question:

I just got an e‑mail about celebrating the New Year for Trees in January. I don’t know about where you live, but where I live, it’s freezing, with plenty of snow covering the trees. If you want to celebrate the trees, do it in spring. Why now, right in the middle of winter?

Reply:

The 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat—or Tu B’Shevat, as it is commonly called—is not the Jewish version of Arbor Day, but is considered the “New Year for Trees,” with real implications for Jewish law. The 15th of Shevat serves to separate one year from the next with regard to the laws of maaserot (tithes of produce), orlah (the fruits of the first three years, which are forbidden for consumption) and sheviit (Shemittah, the Sabbatical year).

For example, the law of orlah is that the fruit of a tree may not be eaten during the first three years after its planting. The fruits of the fourth year are called neta reva’i, and are sanctified; they must be eaten in Jerusalem or “redeemed” with money.1 From the fifth year on, the fruits may be consumed in the normal manner.2

But how do we calculate when the tree has turned three and then four? From Tu B’Shevat.

Practically, this means that the fruit that grows after 15 Shevat of year four may be eaten in Jerusalem, and those grown after 15 Shevat of year five can be eaten at home.3

Why was this date chosen?

As is the case with many Torah laws, the halachah is based on what happens in the Land of Israel.4 So, since most of Israel’s rainy season is over by the 15th of Shevat, this date is considered the New Year for Trees.5 Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) explains that at this point the ground has become saturated with the rains of the new year, causing the sap to start rising in the trees, which means that the fruit can begin to bud.

The Jerusalem Talmud records an alternative explanation. Until the New Year for Trees, all trees can survive on the water from the previous year. After their New Year, the trees derive their life source from the water of the new year.6

Light at the End of the Tunnel

If you are reading this in sub-zero weather, you may find the most comfort in the explanation of Rabbi Menachem Meiri (1249–c. 1310), who points out that the winter season extends from the month of Tevet until the month of Nissan. The 15th of Shevat is the midpoint between fall and spring. Once half the winter has passed, its strength is weakened, the cold is not as intense, and the budding process begins.7

So take heart. Yes, it may be smack in the middle of winter, but the 15th of Shevat marks a turning point, a time when under all that cold and snow the sap of the trees is rising, readying for spring. In a sense, the 15th of Shevat signifies that sometimes it is precisely from within the darkest and coldest moments of our lives that the new blossoms burst forth!