Tomorrow night marks the start of Tu B’Shvat (the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shvat), which is the rabbinically ordained birthday of trees. The original purpose of giving trees a birth date was to calculate their age in order to know when to tithe them. In Leviticus 19: 23-25, it is written:

When you come to the land and you plant any food tree, you shall surely block its fruit [from use]; it shall be blocked from you [from use] for three years, not to be eaten. And in the fourth year, all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to the Lord. And in the fifth year, you may eat its fruit; [do this, in order] to increase its produce for you.

For most of us, these verses have little application to our modern lives. Only a small percentage of people actually farm and there is no temple or priestly caste to deliver the tithed fruits and produce to. Perhaps this holiday would’ve been consigned to the dustbin had it not undergone a transformation in the 20th Century. In Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology, edited by Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman, and Arthur Waskow (Jewish Publication Society), an article discusses the beginning of the Jewish environmental movement that would eventually expand the meaning and focus of Tu B’Shvat:

Early in the 1970s, there began to emerge a special literature that explored what Judaism had to say about the adam-adamah, human-earth, relationship. Some of it sprang directly from increasing public concern that new forms of human technology were damaging the earth.

With an increased focus on bringing Jewish textual sources and values to confront growing ecological global problems, Tu B’Shvat, the holiday that celebrates trees, was naturally adopted by Eco-Jews as their own. One of the events that many environmentally concerned individuals will participate in is a Tu B’Shvat seder, which like the better known Passover variety, is dominated by fours – sections of the service, cups of wine and types of fruit. There is no established liturgy for this emerging ritual (just as there is no set English spelling of the holiday’s name) so the text and emphasis can vary from one to the next. But many will use it as an opportunity to raise awareness of pressing environmental issues and bring Jewish ideas, such as bal tashchit, a biblical injunction against wastefulness, to the fore. If you live in Northern California, you can buy tickets for the Bay Area Eco Tu B’Shvat Seder.

If you would like to create a seder of your own, there are online resources that can help. Hazon, a Jewish environmental nonprofit, produces its own guide to the Tu B’Shvat seder, which you can download for free here. My Jewish Learning also provides a comprehensive review of this evolving ritual.

In addition to the seder, there are some other things you can do on this holiday, including service. The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Women’s Philanthropy presents a Family Volunteer Tu B’Shvat Event Sunday January 23, 2011. Volunteers will do art projects with seniors, sing songs and have a great time. You can register in advance by emailing [email protected]