The 15th of Shvat is one of four ‘New Years’ referred to at the beginning of Massechet Rosh HaShanah. It is described as the New Year for Trees.
What is the significance of this day? Why have a New Year for Trees?
Let us begin from a halachic viewpoint.
The agricultural cycle in Israel runs for seven year periods, culminating in the Shmitta year, a sabbatical year. When we harvest our fruits, we are commanded to set aside a certain portion for the Kohanim – Terumah, another tithe for the Levi’im – Ma’aser Rishon and a further tithe either for ourselves to take to Yerushalayim and eat there – Ma’aser Sheini, or for the poor – Ma’aser Ani.
Each year of the seven year cycle begins on the 15th of Shvat.
Furthermore, for the first three years of a tree’s life we must not eat its fruit –categorized as Orlah – uncircumcised. The fruit of the fourth year is to be taken to Yerushalayim and eaten there – Netta Revai. Although the Orlah years are calculated from the 1st of Tishrei, the fourth year of Netta Revai does not begin until Tu BiShvat.
In addition to the halachic significance of the day in Temple times and in Israel, Am Yisrael in exile began to mark their yearning for the Land by celebrating the fruits of Israel on Tu BiShvat. Many had the custom to present each of the Seven Species together with the recital of relevant midrashic sources relating to Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael.
In the 1600s, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed and his disciples created a Tu BiShvat Seder, based on the Pesach Seder, celebrating the Tree of Life. The earliest published version of this Seder is called the P’ri Eitz Hadar, which means “The Fruit of the Beautiful Tree”. The Seder evokes Kabbalistic themes of restoring cosmic blessing by strengthening and repairing the Tree of Life, generally using the framework of the Four Worlds, described metaphorically as the parts of a tree, i.e. roots, trunk, branches and leaves.
The traditional Tu BiShvat Seder ended with a prayer which states, “May all the sparks scattered by our hands, or by the hands of our ancestors, or by the sin of the first human against the fruit of the tree, be returned and included in the majestic might of the Tree of Life.”
In conjunction with this practice, many Chassidic Jews eat Etrog on this day, which according to some opinions was the fruit eaten by Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden.
Apart from its halachic importance and the yearning for Eretz Yisrael, Tu BiShvat is rich in deeper symbolism.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch has some remarkable comments. He says that Tu BiShvat celebrates the beginning of spring while still in the first half of the winter!
This message is so significant. It teaches us that the gentle awakening of spring begins its hidden work in the middle of the bleak embrace of winter; silently, softly and hidden from view. The fresh new sap flows through the trees in readiness for the coming of spring. Under the torn, cold bark, fresh life is pulsating. The winter is no graveyard. It is the source of life.
Tu BiShvat offers us a powerful lesson.
As Rav Hirsch so poetically describes it:
“… Men and nations are bent by sorrow, pain and grief. They had harbored beautiful dreams of their future, proudly wearing the crown of their efforts, intoxicated with the unlimited power of their might and deeds. A violent force robbed them of their fruits and the storms of life smashed their flourishing hope and joy, destroying the glitter of their society, breaking the halo of their power and might and leaving them poor and defenseless.
Not a single blossom is within sight. No greenery heralds the coming of a new future. But we misunderstand! We fail to look within ourselves, to realize the Source from which all help emanates and where hope, strength and life blossom.
And so on this day we must leave our homes shaken by winter storms and tempests. We should behold the trees on their birthday with the objective of self-inspiration.
Let us remember those days of beauty when we were decorated with fruits, leaves, branches and twigs, and let us note that winter robbed us of our fruit and colorful leaves. The storms and cold broke branch after branch, twig after twig, leaving the trees enshrouded with ice and snow.
But if we look carefully enough, we will be able to ignite our hopes and dreams by celebrating our silent rebirth in defiance of nature’s onslaught. The old leaves and fruits are surely gone but the blossoms of the future are within our grasp.
What did those trees actually lose? The fruits of which they were robbed would eventually have fallen anyway. The leaves which they lost had already withered. The twigs and branches broken by the storms were already dry, brittle and lifeless but their inner core remained alive and fresh. They will always weather the storm, just as our people will survive the terrors of historical night. Our strength is found not in the transient part of the trees, the rustling crown or adornment of branches, twigs and leaves. Our eternal foundation is a place that weather and storms cannot reach.”
Let us add the wisdom of the Admor of Chortkov:
“The people of Israel have been likened to a tree. Throughout the winter, the tree stands naked, exposed and at times frozen. Its leaves have fallen; the arrows of frost and ferocious storms have almost uprooted it. The tree is at the point of despair, yet nevertheless, on this day of Tu BiShvat, we rejoice in the tree. We rejoice with the knowledge and the hope that that very tree will soon blossom once again.
Israel is that tree. During this long winter of exile, the tree is often exposed. Its leaves have fallen and storms of tragedy and war have almost uprooted us. Yet from this very darkness – perhaps because of this darkness – the blossoming of Israel will surely come. The redemption will indeed arrive.”
For centuries, Tu BiShvat had been celebrated as a festival in honor of Eretz Yisrael. Now, quite miraculously, we merit celebrating it in Eretz Yisrael, and the Chortkover’s message seems so apt. His beautiful parable and Rav Hirsch’s insights give us strength, hope and belief.
As Rav Hirsch says so lyrically, “winter is not the grave of a summer that has passed, but the cradle of the spring to come!”
What appears to be negative is in fact an essential part of who we are, what we are and where we are going. Even though we find ourselves at the brink of final redemption, we nonetheless still stand alone, facing daily injustice and overt anti-Semitism.
We have lived through 2,000 years of devastating exile. We have been through the Holocaust. To this day, we continue to fight for our right to exist as a nation in our own land, with the threat of war constantly knocking at our door. We seem to be caught in an unending winter, with raging storm after storm attacking the tree of Israel. Is it any wonder we find it hard to see a positive outcome?
Tu Bishvat comes to remind us that we must not be misled by the apparent darkness and devastation of winter. We all know that however long the winter may be, spring will inevitably arrive.
We see the cold and the rain ravaging the trees, but they still stand and blossom once again. We know it in our hearts, but once a year we must stop, look and listen to the messages of Nature!
But as Rav Hirsch points out, this is not only about proving the survival of our nation. We go one stage further. Even though winter appears to represent the enemy, we need to realize it is an essential part of our development. It is the key to our future.
The wetter the winter, the more beautiful the spring. As we walk the streets on this day, we are convinced of our ability to survive the storm, because of the storm.
And this is true not only of Am Yisrael as a nation, but of each and every Jew. We all experience our share of winters. However, when we realize this is part of the Divine plan to advance the world, we can pull through and produce even sweeter fruits.
We must apply the reality of nature to our personal and national destiny. Hashem is the true and only ruler on this earth. We must have faith in Him even though our perceived reality sometimes appears to be negative and depressing.
We know that spring will surely follow winter.
Our faith teaches us it cannot come without it.
 Chapter 1, Mishna 1.
 These latter two tithes are not taken simultaneously. They are dependent on the specific year in the seven-year cycle. In first, second, fourth and fifth years, we take Ma’aser Sheini and in the third and sixth years, Ma’aser Ani. See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 331:19.
 Ibid, 331:125.
 See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 294:4.
 The Seven Species that Eretz Yisrael is blessed with: wheat, barley, grapes, dates, figs, pomegranates and olives. See Devarim 8:8.
 The Kabbalistic, tree-shaped map of the 10 Sefirot, the mystical channels of Divine energy.
 The worlds of asiyah (action), yetzirah (formation), briyah (creation) and atzilut (emanation).
 Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, Parashat Bereishit, Parashah 15
 See Collected Writings, Volume 2 – Shevat 2 and Shevat 5.
 Rabbi Dovid Moshe Friedman, 1828 – 1903.