Why do we celebrate Tu BiShvat, the Jewish “New Year of the Trees,” in the middle of winter?
Tu Bishvat, called the "New Year of the Trees," falls at a seemingly incongruous time of year. The fifteenth day of Shvat is mid-winter for North American Jews and the last thing on their minds is, well, "Jewish Arbor Day." However, if you think in terms of Eretz Yisrael, the timing of the holiday makes more sense. The climate in Israel is milder, essentially a Mediterranean climate, and by mid-February, the almond trees are beginning to bloom. It is still the rainy season, so the process of redemption begins at the turning point towards hope.
In fact, the date of the holiday actually correlates to the cutoff point for assessing the tithe levied on fruit grown in the orchards as practiced in ancient Israel (sort of a farmer's equivalent of an American's April 15). Any fruit grown before Tu BiShvat would have counted towards the previous year's totals, any fruit grown after towards the coming year's. Tu BiShvat's date also links it to two more prominent agrarian festivals of the Jewish year, Sukkot and Passover, both of which begin on the fifteenth of the month.
George Robinson is the author of the critically acclaimed Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals (revised edition, Atria Books, 2016) and Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, 2006). Mr. Robinson is the film critic for The Jewish Week, the largest Jewish newspaper in North America, and a frequent contributor to Hadassah Magazine. He is adjunct assistant professor of media studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College, and has been critic-in-residence at several Jewish film festivals around the country. Robinson was a contributor to the recent edition of Encyclopedia Judaica and has written frequently for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly. Mr. Robinson lives in New York City with his wife Margalit Fox, a reporter for the New York Times and an author in her own right.