Tu B’Shevat, also known as the Jewish New Year for Trees, is a festival celebrated on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. With roots in ancient agricultural practices mentioned in the Mishnah, the most authoritative section of the Talmud, Tu B’Shevat traditionally marked the beginning of the agricultural cycle, particularly for tithing fruits in Israel. In the 16th century, Kabbalists in Tzfat, such as the Arizal, developed a practice of the Tu B’Shevat seder to celebrate the spiritual connection between nature and the divine, which is how most people still celebrate it today. Over time, the holiday evolved, and in the modern era, it has taken on ecological significance with an emphasis on environmental awareness, tree planting, and sustainable practices. Tu B’Shevat has become a time for reflection on humanity’s relationship with the environment, fostering a sense of responsibility for the conservation and preservation of nature. Whiloe today it has been widely embraced as one of the more beloved minor holidays, for some time the seder was seen as controversial.
The Tu B’Shevat seder, as it is known today, has its origins in the 16th century among Kabbalistic circles in Safed, Israel. Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal) and his disciples developed a Tu B’Shevat seder, inspired by Kabbalistic symbolism, to connect the physical and spiritual aspects of trees, nature, and the divine.
Shabbatai Tzvi, born in the 17th century, claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah and gathered a substantial following who eventually followed him to what is now Turkey where he was forcibly converted to Islam. His teachings, rooted in mysticism and Kabbalah, had a profound impact on various aspects of Jewish practice during his time, insofar as they were all completely tainted.
Shabbatai Tzvi’s influence on the Tu B’Shevat seder would be indirect but related to the broader Kabbalistic movement, and written out in the Sefer Chemdat Yamim which has unclear authorship and has been attributed to his teachings. This has been largely disproved by now. The mystical interpretations and traditions associated with Tu B’Shevat were affected by the turbulence caused by Shabbatai Tzvi’s messianic claims.
Shabbatai Tzvi’s ultimate conversion to Islam in 1666, under the threat of the Ottoman Empire, led to a significant crisis within the Jewish community. His failed messianic aspirations had a lasting impact, creating mistrust and skepticism about messianic movements, certainly, but even just mysticism (kaballah) in general. Since Tu B’Shvat is only directly mentioned in the Oral Torah as a day that marks the start of the blossoming season for tithing and other agricultural purposes, all the deeper meaning and emotional significance of the day came from later practices developed from these mystical teachings that were now regarded with extreme reservation.
The controversy surrounding Shabbatai Tzvi and his impact on Jewish society for generations likely contributed to a complex relationship between the Tu B’Shevat seder and certain segments of the Jewish population. Over time, however, as the fervor surrounding Shabbatai Tzvi waned after the 17th and 18th centuries, the Tu B’Shevat seder became more widely accepted as a symbolic and spiritual celebration of nature, growth, and renewal. Today, Tu B’Shevat is observed in diverse ways, with the seder serving as a meaningful and unifying tradition within the Jewish community.