Today is Tu Bi-Shebat, a Jewish holiday celebrating the new year for trees. This year the holiday is celebrated at sundown on February 7 through February 8. Tu Bi-Shebat falls on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shebat. The day is known as the New Year for Trees. The word “Tu” means 15 in Hebrew. It is composed of two Hebrew letters ט and ו.
The purpose of this holiday is to calculate the age of trees for the purpose of tithing. This festival is based on the law found in Leviticus 19:23-25:
“When you come into the land and plant all kinds of trees for food, then you shall regard their fruit as forbidden; three years it shall be forbidden to you, it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all their fruit shall be set apart for rejoicing in the LORD. But in the fifth year you may eat of their fruit, that their yield may be increased for you: I am the LORD your God.”
According to this Levitical regulation, after a tree was planted, the fruit of that tree could not be eaten for three years: for “three years it shall be forbidden to you.”
The KJV has a more literal translation of verse 23: “And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then ye shall count the fruit thereof as uncircumcised: three years shall it be as uncircumcised unto you: it shall not be eaten of.”
Jacob Milgrom, in his commentary on Leviticus 17-22 (New York: Doubleday, 2000), p. 1678, translates the text as follows: “You shall treat its foreskin with its fruit as foreskin.” He said that this statement is a metaphor to describe what is forbidden, that is, “the fruit of the first three years is a despicable covering for the tree, like the foreskin.”
Thus, when calculating the fourth year of a tree’s existence, on each Tu Bi-Shebat a tree was considered to have aged one year. On the fourth year, the fruit of the tree was offered to God. The fruit of the tree belonged to God, but its first yield was considered unclean and therefore not eaten. In the fifth year the fruit was considered clean and therefore it was good for general consumption.
The injunction regarding eating the first yield of a tree is not unique to Israel. According to the Code of Hammurabi, the fruit of the tree was not eaten until the fifth year:
“If any one give over a field to a gardener, for him to plant it as a garden, if he work at it, and care for it for four years, in the fifth year the owner and the gardener shall divide it, the owner taking his part in charge” (CH § 60).
The meaning of this Levitical law was expressed by Philo on his treatise on the three virtues:
(157) Accordingly, many husbandmen at the commencement of the spring watch their young trees, in order at once to destroy whatever fruit they show before it gets to any growth or comes to any size, from fear lest, if it be suffered to remain on, it may bring weakness to the parent tree. For it might happen, if some one did not take care beforehand, when the tree ought to bring fruit to perfection, that it will either bear none at all, or not be able to ripen any, being completely weakened by having been allowed to satiate itself with bearing before its proper time, just as old vinestems when weighed down, are exhausted both in root and trunk. (158) But after three years, when the roots have got some depth and have taken a firmer hold of the soil, and when the trunk, being supported as it were on a firm unbending foundation, brows up with vigour, it is then in the fourth year able to bear fruit in perfection and in proper quantity: (159) and in the fourth year he permits the fruit to be gathered, not for the enjoyment and use of man, but that the whole crop may be dedicated to God as the first-fruits, partly as a thank-offering for mercies already received, and partly from hope of good crops for the future, and of a revenue to be derived from the tree hereafter.
The Levitical law about trees seems trivial to us who live in cities and do not depend on the land for our survival. However, this law shows God’s great concern for the well-being of his creation.
The observance of Tu Bi-Shebat by our Jewish brothers and sisters is a celebration of the abundant gifts the Creator has bestowed upon his creation.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary