Today (since sundown) and tomorrow (until sundown) are Tu B'Shavat, which is the Jewish New Year of the tree. I don't usually know when this falls but since my husband and I took our daughter to Tot Shabbat at the synagogue this week it's been on my mind. During the synagogue service we sang songs about the wonderful things trees give us such as air, shade, fruit, places to build tree houses etc... I thought it was interesting that no one mentioned wood. Maybe because that involves cutting down the tree? Our daughter came up with maple syrup which made me quite proud, since that had been a recent discussion of ours.
I first learned about Tu B'Shavat when I was in college. My senior year I was in a class about food and culture. The class was led by a professor but actually taught by the students; we each were responsible for an hour long lecture during the semester. I don't remember much about the class, to be honest. I wish I did. Come to think of it, my college probably wishes I did as well. What I do remember is that each of us brought food each week as an illustration of our project and that my project was on how food relates to Jewish Holidays. I chose the theme because my husband was at that time my boyfriend, and had been for about 18 months. We were pretty serious about each other by then and I wanted to learn more about his background. I had a fun and delicious time researching the project and making test recipes with his help. I think I settled on kugel and challah and my class seemed to enjoy the food and the presentation, at least until I fainted at the end. Fortunately I have gotten over my anxieties about pubic speaking since I was in college.
The food for Tu B'Shavat is classically a celebration of plant products that are traditionally abundant in Israel: wheat, barley, pomegranate, fig, grape and olive. Several of these don't actually grow on trees, but that's okay. Another way to celebrate is to eat 15 different fruits, since Tu B'Shavat actually means the 15th day of Shavat. You can also host a seder meal for Tu B'Shavat, gathering with family and friends for prayer and song over an extended meal, which sounds fun but is not something that our family has ever done.
The reason for a new year of the trees is that in Torah law the age of a tree is important. The first three years of a tree's life you don't eat the fruit from it. I'm not sure what you do with any fruit that forms, but I can tell you from experience trying to plant fruit trees they generally don't bear fruit those first 3 years anyway. The 4th year of the tree's life all the fruit is tithed to the temple and it is considered as belonging to G-D. The 5th year you can eat the fruit. Tu B'Shavat is considered the birthday of all trees, so that's when the age of a tree advances. Essentially it was the start of the new tax year.
These days there isn't any more tithing to the temple. Now Tu B'Shavat is generally celebrated by either planting a tree (if you live somewhere that is warm enough to do so) or by donating money to plant a tree. Which is what I will do, since where I live it is the middle of a very cold January, and it is absolutely no time to be planting anything outside that you want to actually live. Tree planting is part of Tikkun Olam, the work of healing the world. It is a promise to the next generation and the generation after that. I will take care of the earth, I will plant trees now so that you may enjoy them when you are born. I like that promise and hope.