Almond tree

Celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the new year of trees.

While people in Michigan have snow on the ground and sub-freezing temperatures in the air, in Israel, people can already detect the first hints of spring. The iconic first hint: when pretty white flowers appear on almond trees. That early-blooming almond tree generally coincides with the 15th of Shevat in the Hebrew calendar, give or take a few days.

Fifteen, using the numerical value of the Hebrew letters, comes to tet-vav, pronounced “tu,” hence “Tu b’Shevat.” This year, the holiday begins the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 31.

The day of the first visible sign of progress toward a new tree crop seemed appropriate to begin counting the year for orchardists, according to the rabbis of Beit Hillel as recorded in the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1). Their ruling means that, for tax purposes, the arborists’ year has closed. Farmers have harvested the last crops of the previous year, the olives and dates. They must use the required percentage of the harvested fruit for their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to support the Kohen, the Levite and the poor. As the arborists’ year opens, almond trees, destined to produce the fruits much later in high summer, are just showing signs of renewal.

The Hebrew name for the almond (sha-KED) and for the tree (Eitz haSha-KED or shkaydiYAH) coincidentally has the same root letters as a verb meaning “to be eager, alert, awake, diligent, ready to act.”

The Bible makes a pun on that coincidence. After a frightening vision of destruction, the prophet Jeremiah then sees an almond branch, which he understands to mean that the destruction will come soon (1:12-13). If he spoke English, he would never have understood the message; he spoke Hebrew, so he recognized that the almond signifies “eagerness.” Perhaps the name of the almond tree is not a coincidence, and it is “so called for its early waking out of winter’s sleep” (Rabbi David Kimhi).

The almond tree needs plenty of water, about a gallon for each single almond. It needs cool winters and hot, dry summers, like Israel’s climate. In the Bible, when Jacob needs to send a valuable present to a powerful ruler in Egypt, he includes a few almonds in the gift (Genesis 43:11). The wealthy Egyptian would appreciate the imported delicacy.

The past five winters Israel has experienced elevated temperatures and unusually light rainfall, probably symptoms of global climate change. Hebrew periodicals describe the effect as making almond trees “crazy” or “fooling them” into blooming prematurely — sometimes as early as October — and then possibly not blooming at all around Tu b’Shevat.

Jews around the world celebrate the holiday by eating fruit, especially fruit that grows in Israel. In Israel, schoolchildren plant trees. 

Eliezer Finkelman Contributing Writer

Take a look at this Tu b’Shevat song translation.