Unlike what some may believe, the 15th of Shevat (or Tu BiShvat, as it’s commonly called) isn’t some Jewish version of Arbor Day. In fact, the 15th of Shevat doesn’t even fall out during the planting season in Israel. And as we’ll see below, “the new year for planting” as (opposed to the “new year for fruits of the tree”) is actually on the first of Tishrei.
The first mention of the significance of the 15th of Shevat can be found in the Mishnah,1which states that there are four days that are considered the “new year,” each for a different purpose:
The first of Nisan is the new year for kings2 and festivals.3
The first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of cattle.4
The first of Tishrei is the new year for counting years, for calculating Sabbatical years and Jubilee years,5 for planting6 and for tithing vegetables.7
The first of Shevat is the new year for trees8 according to the school of Shammai; the school of Hillel, however, places this on the 15th of Shevat.
The halachah follows the school of Hillel, so the 15th of Shevat serves to separate one year from the next with regard to a number of agriculture-related laws, such as maaserot(tithes of fruits) and orlah (fruit produced by a tree during the first three years after planting, which are forbidden for consumption).
(See Why Is Tu BiShvat in the Winter? for why this date was chosen.)
Yet, neither the Mishnah nor the Talmud tell us about any special celebrations or commemorations associated with the day.
One of the earliest sources for the 15th of Shevat being a celebratory day is a pair of ancient liturgical poems that were found in the Cairo genizah, a trove of old Torah texts, documents and manuscripts discovered in the 19th century. The poems, composed by Rabbi Yehuda Ben Hillel Halevi around the 10th century, were meant to be added to the prayer service of the day.9
In a response to a community that wished to establish a fast day on the 15th Shevat, Rabbeinu Gershom(c. 960–1040) explained that just as one does not fast on the other days that are called “the beginning of the year” in the Mishnah, so too, one does not fast on the 15th of Shevat.10 Additionally, we find in early sources that one doesn’t recite penitential prayers on the 15th of Shevat, just as one doesn’t recite them on other holidays.11
In addition to not fasting and not reciting any penitential prayers, there is also a custom to eat fruits on this day. The first to mention this custom (although it seems to have already existed in his day) was Rabbi Yissachar ben Mordecai ibn Susan (fl. 1539–1572) in his work Tikun Yissachar. This custom was popularized by the Kabbalists and subsequently cited in many halachic works.12
The somewhat controversial Kabbalistic work of unknown authorship Pri Eitz Hadar (first published in Venice in 1728) was also very influential in spreading the custom to eat fruits on this day. The work includes various texts that one would recite when eating the different fruits. However, the common custom is not to recite these texts when eating fruits on the 15th of Shevat.13
Luxury vs. Necessity
Expounding on the deeper meanings behind this custom, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that, unlike wheat, which is considered a staple, fruits are often eaten purely for pleasure.
The Torah is at times compared to bread and water—necessities—and at other times to wine, olive oil and date honey—foods for pleasure.
This refers to two dimensions of the Torah: the revealed part, which is necessary at all times and for all Jews; and the deeper, mystical part of Torah, which, especially in earlier generations, wasn’t studied by all.
As the exile and the spiritual state of the world grow ever darker, just sticking to the bare bones necessities is no longer enough. It is imperative that one study the deeper, mystical aspects of the Torah, the “fruit” that infuses pleasure, strength and spiritual energy into our day and service of our Creator.
Thus, it is no wonder that the custom of eating fruits on the 15th of Shevat gained prominence at the same time as the mystical teachings of Kabbalah began to spread. This inner dimension of Torah infuses us with newfound vitality to finally finish off our task to light up the darkness of the world and usher in the ultimate Redemption.14 May it be speedily in our days!