If we were to choose a date for the holiday of planting, we would almost certainly choose a date in the spring or mid-summer when the agricultural cycle is more fitting to give birth to new plants. (Religious farmers would do most of their planting in the summer to shorten the planting time and the associated halachic implications called Orla.)
So why has this date in the heart of the cold winter become a proud holiday associated with growth and agricultural renewal?
The answer surprisingly lies more in modern Zionist history than ancient tradition.
In the wake of the creation of the Zionist movement in the early 20th century, much of Israeli society had undergone a transition whereby Jews wanted to remain connected to their identities but had grown somewhat estranged from halachic observance.
The desire to remain passionate about love for the land and our national history became a foremost Israeli priority, while the commitment to sanctification of those ideals with ancient practices had somewhat waned.
This new “secular” Israel introduced an original perspective on the Jewish calendar and began shifting how we perceived and observed many ancient traditions. The holiday of Shavuot, which the Torah had described as a day when we give thanks to Hashem for the produce that he has bestowed upon us, became a date when the farmers of the secular kibbutzim would put on agricultural fairs where they boasted accomplishments in their fields and greenhouses. Hanukkah, which was created as a way to give thanks to God for allowing us to achieve victory over physical elements, was transformed from the spiritual to the physical where modern Jewish heroism was saluted. Similarly, Purim was stripped of many of its spiritual aspects with the fun and carnival-like aspects of the holiday preserved but the connection to God and spirituality largely absent from the modern secular narrative.
Even Pesach, while observed by the vast majority of Israelis, is a holiday celebrating the physical freedom of a nation, but in modern Israeli practice is often dismissive of the spiritual aspects of that freedom.
Tu B’Shvat is identical in that regard. The day is described in the texts in very halachic terms when the status of a newborn tree changes so that its produce becomes permissible for consumption, as well as other legal considerations that are attached to that change in status.
This aspect of the day’s identity has been largely cast aside in its modern observance.
It is therefore imperative that even while we enjoy this Tu B’Shvat as a source of fun and connection to nature, this reality must remain at the very heart of how we observe the day.
We need to remember that Tu B’Shvat is not solely a modern innovation but is rather a modern adaptation of ancient traditions. Before we head out to the fields with our shovels and seedlings, we need to re-educate our children about the generations-old lessons and teachings that are the ethos of this day. And that even in the greatest modern practices there is a connection to our halachic tradition which is at the very heart of who we are as a people.
Certainly planting and developing the land is a deeply blessed and commendable activity, but the beauty and agricultural wonder of Israel can never be detached from its spiritual uniqueness. We settle and grow this land not only because we are here today but because of the holiness and God-given blessing which has brought us to this time and place.
By remembering and internalizing this original lesson of the holiday, we, our children and all of Am Yisrael can be afforded a renewed and deeper appreciation for the power of Tu B’Shvat – a day both modern and ancient at the very same time.