One of the so-called “minor” festival days within Jewish tradition falls today, January 30th, which also happens to be a Sabbath day this year of 2010. It is called in Hebrew Tu b’Shevat which literally means “15th of Shebat,” referring to the 11th month/moon on the Jewish/biblical calendar (called Shevat, see Zech 1:7). We are not certain of the origins of all the names of the Jewish months, since in the Hebrew Bible months are normally just numbered, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so forth. However, the Hebrew word shevat does mean a staff or rod, and thus by extension a “tribe.” One of the more interesting references to the 11th month is Deuteronomy 1:3 where Moses gives his final message to the assemblies of Israel east of the Jordan on the 1st of Shevat, which would have been the New Moon.
In Hebrew numbers are expressed by letters, Alef=1, Bet=2, Gimmel=3 and so forth. By such a system the number fifteen would be “ten & five” which is Yod Heh–however, since Yod Heh is an abbreviation for YHVH, the Divine and Holy Name of God, a substitute combination of Tet (nine) and Vav (six) are used–Thus the designation TU. The 15th of any lunar month is also the Full Moon and since Shevat, or the 11th month, often falls in late January/early February, it is the biggest and brightest moon of the year, sometimes called the “Wolf Moon,” see National Geographic story “Biggest Full Moon.”
In Jewish tradition this festival of the Full Moon of Shevat is also called the “festival of the Trees” and it marks a “new year” in terms of trees and their fruit, based on the Torah command in Leviticus 19:23-24: “When you come into the land and plant any kind of tree for food, then you shall regard its fruit as “uncircumcised” (i.e., forbidden). Three years it shall be forbidden to you; it must not be eaten. And in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, an offering of praise to the Yehovah. But in the fifth year you may eat of its fruit, to increase its yield for you: I am the Yehovah your God.” This passage is viewed as having great significance, both practically and mystically, and it falls within the Holiness Code of the Torah (Lev 19), one of the more inspiring and universal collections of mitzvot or teachings.
In Israel and throughout the world it is a day of the planting of trees. It is also said that on the 15th of the 11th month the sap in the trees begins to rise signaling the end of winter, and the almond trees blossom by this day. I heard from a friend in Israel just this week that indeed the almond trees are out in full all over the Land. Since trees as so often used in the Hebrew Bible to represent human beings, their lifespan, and their potential to “bear fruit,” both the planting of a tree and its eventual growth and gifts are understood to represent symbolic meaning as well (see Psalm 1:3; 92:13; Eccl 12:1-7).
This day is also connected to the ma’aseror “tithe” of produce, as related to trees, fruit, and other produce.
In terms of the Torah text itself just as a tree is planted with future hope of fruit, but without any immediate result until at least three years of growth, plus a 4th year of dedication to YHVH, and then only in the 5th year the fruit is eaten–humans have similar experiences of new beginnings or “plantings” that do not yield immediate results but one must “wait” for the results to appear. Fruit trees continue to represent to most of us a picture of pardes or Paradise, as well as the original diet of human beings (Genesis 1:29; 2:9). Such a diet (called in Hebrew zeor’im or “seeds”) was seen as ideal and conducive to spiritual development. Daniel and his three companions in Babylon separate themselves from the food and wine of the king and for three years of “testing” eat “from the seeds,” experiencing health and spiritual insights and power far beyond their peers (Daniel 1:14-15).