The Seven Species and Tu Bishevat

The Land of Israel is praised for the Seven Species mentioned in Deuteronomy / Devarim chapter 8. Tu Bishevat is a celebration of trees. What is the relationship between the 7 species and Tu Bishevat?

What are the 7 Species?

Here’s are the verses that mention the seven species:

Deuteronomy Chapter 8

7 For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land, a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, that emerge in valleys and mountains,
8 a land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil producing olives and honey,
9 a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose mountains you will hew copper.

Let’s start by clarifying what exactly are the species mentioned in verse. Five of them are very clear, but the other 2 are not as clear.

Here is the list with needed explanations:

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Vines in the verse means grapes
  • Figs
  • Pomegranates
  • Olives
  • Honey in the verse means date honey

That answers the easy question of what are the seven species of the land of Israel. Here is my article that discusses the individual species and their significance.

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Before we can understand Tu Bishevat, we first need to learn about orlah.

Let me start by pointing out that orlah is one of agricultural commandments in the Torah. In general, the agricultural laws only apply to the Land of Israel.

However, the orlah also applies outside of the Land of Israel (see the Mishnah Orlah 3:9).

Here are the relevant Torah verses about orlah:

Leviticus Chapter 19

23 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.
24 And in the fourth year, all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to the Lord.
25 And in the fifth year, you may eat its fruit; [do this, in order] to increase its produce for you. I am the Lord, your God.

The Hebrew word “orlah” in this context does not have an easy English translation. In the above translation it is rendered as “block / blocked.” Other translators render it as forbidden or uncircumcised.

The translation “uncircumcised” is because the word orlah is also used in the Torah to indicate the foreskin that is removed by circumcision. That leads to some confusion about the best way to translate orlah.

Here’s how Rashi explains our verse:

23 you shall surely block…[from use] [lit.:] “And you shall block up its blockage,” i.e., [its fruit] shall be blocked and closed up from deriving benefit from it.

it shall be blocked for you [from use] for three years. From when does one start counting [this three-year period]? From the time of its planting.

The first part of Rashi’s comment tells us that we should understand the word orlah to be mean “blocked and closed.” In other words, “forbidden” is a reasonable translation in this context.

In his second comment, Rashi tells us the 3 years begin from when the tree is planted.

How to Count the 3 Years

Tu Bishevat counting years

You might think that the 3 years are counted the same way we count, for example, birthdays. If Rivka was born on March 1, 2002, then on March 1, 2003 is her first birthday.

Of course, it’s never that simple. 🙂

The Mishnah Rosh Hashanah teaches us that there are four “new years” during the Jewish year. Let’s look at a section that mishnah:

Rosh Hashanah 1:1

The 1st of Tishrei is the new year for years, for shemitah, for yovel, for plantings, and for vegetables.

Here’s a brief explanation of the mishnah, without going into lots of detail:

  • “Years” means that each Jewish year begings on 1st of Tishrei. That is why this date on the calendar is called Rosh Hashanah.
  • “Shemitah” means the 7-year agricultural cycle.
  • “Yovel” means the 50-year cycle of seven shemitah cycles.
  • “Plantings” refers to trees.
  • “Vegetables” refers to determining which year a vegetable belongs to and it’s status for separating terumah and maaser.

According to Jewish tradition, if a fruit bearing tree is planted enough days before Rosh Hashanah (1st of Tishrei), then that partial year counts as one year. (In this article I won’t discuss in detail what I mean by “enough days.”)

For example, let’s say you plant a tree on the 1st of Tamuz (about 90 days before 1st of Tishrei), of the year 5780. Here’s how that tree’s “years” are counted:

  • On the 1st of Tishrei 5781 the tree is considered as if it was planted for 1 full year.
  • The 1st of Tishrei 5782 counts as being planted for 2 years.
  • The 1st of Tishrei 5783 counts as being planted for 3 years.

The tree is now considered to be 3 years old and has begun its its 4th year.

However, the fruit cannot be eaten yet. There is another “new year” to take the fruit out of orlah status.

Tu Bishevat

Tu Bishevat is the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat.

Tu Bishevat fresh fruit

Shevat is the 11th month on the Jewish calendar. On the secular calendar it corresponds roughly with the end of January and the beginning of February.

Shevat is mentioned in another section of the mishnah as one of four “new years” on the Jewish calendar.

Rosh Hashanah 1:1

On the 1st of Shevat is the New Year for trees, these are the words of Beit Shammai. Beit Hillel says, on the 15th of the month.

Let’s look at this disagreement between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel.

Here is how Rabbi Pinhas Kehati explains Beit Shammai:

[F]or the beginning of the formation of the fruit is the deciding factor for trees, and no tithe is taken from fruit which formed before Shevat for fruit which formed after the first day of Shevat; and similarly, regarding ma’aser sheni (“Second Tithe”) and ma’aser ani (for the poor): if the the fruits formed in the beginning of the third year of the shemitah cycle, before Shevat, even though they were picked after Shevat, they are considered as the fruits of the second year of the shemitah cycle, and ma’aser sheni is separated from them, whereas ma’aser ani is separated from the fruits that formed from Shevat onwards.

Here is how R. Kehati explains Beit Hillel who teach that the new year for trees is the 15th of Shevat:

[T]he Gemara explains that the New Year for the tree was established in Shevat, “Because most of the rains have already fallen, and the resin has come up in the trees, and as a result the fruits begin to form now.” Hameiri explains Beit Hillel’s reasoning is that since the fifteenth of Shevat is the median date between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, and since half of the period has already passed, the winter has abated and the cold has diminished, and the formation of the fruits accelerates.

Now, looking back at the example we started above, it is Tu Bishevat of 5783 that determines if the fruit can now be eaten.

If fruit formed on the tree before Tu Bishevat of 5783, then that fruit is still orlah and may not be consumed. This is true even if that fruit continues to grow and ripens after Tu Bishevat.

However, the fruit that formed after Tu Bishevat of 5783, that fruit is not orlah. It now has the status of 4th year fruit.

The Seven Species and Tu Bishevat

We are now ready to tackle the issue of the connection between the 7 species and Tu Bishevat.

Clearly, since 5 of the 7 species are fruits, they are subject to the rules discussed above about orlah.

That also means that the 15th of Shevat is the cutoff point for which Jewish year the fruit belongs to.

However, all of this applies to every fruit tree, not just those included in the 7 species.

That being said, over the years there has emerged a custom to celebrate Tu Bishevat by eating fruit and especially fruit of the 7 species.

It would be very appropriate to celebrate Tu Bishevat by eating fruits of the 7 species and discussing the significance of each fruit in the Torah. My article The Seven Species in the Bible will help you with that discussion.

Tu Bishevat Seder

Another custom that has emerged is holding a Tu Bishevat seder.

My wife and I attended such a seder once. As I recall, it was based on drinking 4 cups of wine of differing shades of red and white to represent the seasons.

Such a structure is clearly based on the 4 cups of wine of the Passover Seder.

There is no set tradition for a Tu Bishevat seder. There’s no reason why you couldn’t create your own based on verses and teachings from the Torah and the Gemara.

One more thing.

In the Torah we are warned to not eat insects. A Tu Bishevat seder could be a good time to review the guidelines for checking fruits for insect infestations.

You can download a free bug checking guide here.

Tu Bishevat and Arbor Day

Trees for Arbor Day

There are those who want to turn Tu Bishevat into a Jewish version of Arbor Day.

What is Arbor Day?

Arbor Day started in Nebraska in 1872.

And on January 4, 1872, [J. Sterling] Morton first proposed a tree planting holiday to be called “Arbor Day” at a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture.

The celebration date was set for April 10, 1872. Prizes were offered to counties and individuals for the largest number of properly planted trees on that day. …

Today Arbor Day is celebrated in all 50 states. The most common date for the state observance is the last Friday in April — National Arbor Day — but a number of state Arbor Days are at other times to coincide with the best tree planting weather, from January and February in the south to May in the far north.

Arbor Day is a day for celebrating trees and planting more of them. Both good things.

Tu Bishevat has nothing to do with planting trees. As explained above, Tu Bishevat is the dividing line for determining which year of the shemitah cycle the fruits belong to. That determines the fruit’s status for terumah and ma’aser.

Also, Arbor Day is about all trees whether or not they give us fruit. Tu Bishevat is only relevant to fruit bearing trees.

I’m certainly not against planting trees. But let’s not lose sight of the true purpose of Tu Bishevat.

Further Reading

Here are the other articles I’ve written about the 7 species:

The Seven Species in the Bible

Almonds in the Bible which explains my theory why almonds are not included in the 7 species.

The quotations of Rabbi Kehati’s commentary are from Mishnah Seder Moed – A New Translation with a Commentary by Rabbi Pinhas Kehati.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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