By Al Maimon
Tu BiShevat, the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat (this year, Friday night, Feb. 10), is one of four “new years” specified in the Talmud. It is designated as the “new year of trees.” This time is significant to determine the beginning of the annual growth cycle used to decide which produce is part of which year, especially as it relates to taking tithe, and more specifically, the tithe from fruit of the tree.
It has also acquired the status of a “semi-holiday” in that a)certain penitential prayers are omitted b)one may not fast and c)no eulogy may be said. In addition, many customs have evolved over the years to highlight this connection to the Land of Israel in certain ways, including through certain foods. Kabbalistically, it has also been connected to creation and primordial righteousness, drawing an analogy between different types of fruit and the spiritual/material nature of the world.
Since the early 20th Century, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has used this time to focus support for Israel by its “plant a tree in Israel” campaigns. Also, according to the encyclopedia Otzar Yisrael, on Tu BiShevat in 1913, school teachers in Jerusalem took students on a planting field trip, adding a “Jewish Arbor Day” aspect to its celebration - a tradition that continues today. More recently, Jewish environmental organizations have chosen it for public ceremonies to heighten awareness of environmental issues through the lens of Jewish tradition - halacha, kabalah and midrash. In fact, an internet search will bring up a large number of handbooks, articles and guides reflecting the wide range of possible celebration options.
Traditionally, in Sephardic practice, we celebrate Fruticas with a home ceremony that also has many variations in practice, reflecting a wide perspective of emphasis. The practice of the Levantine, Ladino-speaking community is highlighted below.
I recall leading my first Fruticas when we lived in Israel. My father sent us a letter in 1970 (5730) for Fruticas, which described our custom. I still use this today. I have also found several sources that give broad insight into the occasion and relate many customs, including those closely related to our custom.
For example, a service can be held at home as a “stand-alone” ceremony, after and separate from dinner. Or there can be a communal celebration, with the basic ceremony and also featuring plays (in Ladino), songs and “auctioning” the honor of reciting the various blessings- berachoth, etc. I remember going to such events in the auditorium of the Talmud Torah building at 25th and Columbia in Seattle - great memories…
The basic service can be found in Zehuth Yosef, pp. 386-9. In summary:
1- Recite the 15 “Songs of Degrees (steps). These are chapters 120-134 of Psalms. These psalms recall the 15 steps in the Holy Temple between courtyards, since the Levites used to sing these psalms, among others, as part of the Temple service.
2- Recite the verse from Deuteronomy 8,8: describing the seven special fruits associated with the Land of Israel, and through which it is blessed. Eretz hita useora, vegefen, uteena verimon, eretz zait shemen udevash a land of wheat, barley, grape (wine), fig, pomegranate; a land of olives (olive oil) and honey (dates).
3- Eat foods made of these fruits, as specified below, with some items preceded by a special verse from Song of Songs, said in Hebrew then Ladino and the appropriate blessing:
a) Wine (red), vino, comes first, accompanied by reciting Shir HaShirim 2,5: asufreme kon las redomas de vin, afloshame kon las mansanas, ke doloryozo de amor yo
Sustain me with bottles of wine, comfort me with apples, for I am sick with love
b) Wheat, panezicos or biscochos
c) Barley, prehito (“peri hita”- fruit of grain)
d) Grape, and/or white wine
e) Fig, igos- Shir HaShirim 2,13: la igera espunto sus igos, I las vides ensyerne dieron guezmo, alevanta a ti mi kompanyera mi ermoza, i anda a ti
The fig tree puts forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grapes give a good odor; arise, my love, my fair one and come away.
f) Pomegranate, agranadas - Shir HaShirim 6,7: komo pedaso de la agrenada tu syen, de aryento de la krencha
As a piece of pomegranate are your temples within your locks
g) Olive, azetunas
h) Date, datiles - Shir HaShirim 7,9: dishe suvere en el datilar, travare en tus ramas, i sean agora tus pechos komo razimos de la vid, i huezmo de tu nariz komo las mansanas
I said - I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of its boughs. Your breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of your nose like apples.
4- Eat other fruit - seasonal and appropriate, reciting relevant verses, if any. This includes a “new” fruit to say SheHeChianu, if needed, carob (i.e., St. John’s Bread, or “boxer”), apple, walnut, (fruit “SheNishtabechu Bahen Yisrael”- praising the people, not the land) pear, carrots, bananas or melon.
a) Apples, mansanas - Shir haShirim 2,3: komo el mansano en arvoles de la shara, ansi mi kerido entre los mansevos, en su solombra kovdisyo i estuve, i su fruto dulse para mi paladar
Like an apple tree among the forest’s trees, so is my beloved among young men; I sat down under his shadow with great delight and his fruit was sweet to my taste
b) Nuts, muezes, almendras - Shir HaShirim 6,11: a huerto de el nuezal abashi, por ver en frutos de el arroyo, por ver si enfloresio la vid, si espuntarton las agranadas
I went down into the nut garden to see valley fruits, and to see if the vine flourished, the pomegranate budded.
5- Other customs:
a) bring good smelling fruit, herb or bush to add the two blessings for “good-smelling fruit” and “creator of spice trees”
b) have Etrog, connecting this occasion with Succoth - holiday of booths
c) recite verses from Tanach, Mishnah and Zohar including the reading from the third day of creation (“etz Peri”, “oseh Peri” fruit bearing/making tree), some aspects of ritual in the Temple, etc.
d) be sure to have sample fruits from all three categories of fruit, analogous to the three “worlds”- assiyah, yetzirah and beriyah- material, mixed with spiritual (fruit that is totally edible, fruit whose pit is inedible and fruit whose skin is inedible - this might also help explain our selection of fruit beyond the seven species).
e) have four cups of wine at various times during the service - mixed in various proportions between white and red.