Judaism is not nearly as archaic and stultified as some critics allege. Many popular Jewish observances are the result of the on-going creativity within the halachah. Simchat Torah, Bar-Mitzvah and Bat-Mitzvah, Yizkor and Yahrzeit, have all grown over time within the Jewish tradition. Jewish life would now be unthinkable without them.
Another illustration, but much older than the observances already mentioned, is Tu BiSh’vat, the new year for trees. It has ancient origins, though at first rabbinic writing gave it little attention.
The Mishnah of Rosh HaShanah declares that there is a new year for trees in Sh’vat – according to Bet Hillel, on the 15th of the month; according to Bet Shammai, on the first. Little theology seems to have entered the initial debates, which were simply concerned with calculating the tithes due from the produce of each year. Some say that Bet Shammai reflected the view of those who dwelt in the valleys where the weather was warmer and the produce ripened earlier than in the hilly regions, whose inhabitants argued for a later date. But it was the later date of the 15th of the month (the letters tet and vav represent 9 + 6, and hence 15 Sh’vat is called Tu BiSh’vat) that finally prevailed.
Tu BiSh’vat did not remain simply an agricultural anniversary. It came to be regarded as the day of Divine judgment on the trees. A classical passage spoke of the fate of the trees being decided in heaven: “which shall flourish and grow, which shall wither and shrink; which shall suffer from adverse weather and harmful insects, and which shall stand up to all dangers…”
In Judaism, trees were treated with great respect and even honour. Man’s life was likened to a tree. The Torah was called a tree of life. It was forbidden to dwell in a place where there were no trees. There was a custom to plant a cedar sapling when a boy was born, and a cypress on the birth of a girl: the cedar symbolised height and strength, the cypress tenderness and fragrance. As the children grew, they carefully tended their trees; and it was their own trees which were eventually used for their marriage canopy.
In the Diaspora, Tu BiSh’vat was celebrated in tribute to the Holy Land. The day became a feast-day for fruit-eating, preferably the species known in Israel, accompanied by recitations and rituals. To the kabbalists, eating fruit on this day was a means of atoning for Adam’s sin. Everywhere, even wintry eastern Europe, it recalled the beloved homeland and betokened faith in the tree-like stability and indestructibility of the people of Israel.
For modern Israel, Tu BiSh’vat is a heaven-sent opportunity of stressing not simply the beauty and dignity of trees but their practical value in turning back the wilderness and bringing about the day when people shall say, “This land that was desolate has become like the Garden of Eden!”