“The first time Tu Bishvat – Rosh Ha’shanah La-Ilanot – New Year of trees – is mentioned in the Mishna (the book of the Oral Torah) is in connection with tithing of fruit.
According to the sages at this point the tree has
supped the winter rains and is starting to produce fruit and therefore it is possible to calculate the tenth of the crop that is due as a tax to the Temple. As it was a purely administrative holiday no liturgy was created.
After the destruction of the temple the day, which has lost all its agricultural and administrative relevance developed into a minor holiday. The symbolic consumption of fruit was meant to affirm the Diaspora’s allegiance, to the land of Israel.
The land which is referred to in Deuteronomy 8:8 as ‘a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, of olive trees and honey’.
Traditionally, the word honey, here and elsewhere in the Bible is interpreted as fruit trees – according to the Sages honey was not farmed or used until the return from the Babylonian exile (except in Samson’s foible where the habit of opportunistic gathering of honey – from the Lions carcass, is mentioned). The Biblical honey is thought to be a thick syrup extracted from sweet
fruit such as dates, figs and carob. This kind of honey is still used all over the Middle East to sweeten and give a pleasant, characteristic acidity to many sweet and savory dishes.
In the European Diaspora dried fruit – the only fruits that are available when the holiday occurs, at the end the European winter, were symbolically eaten on the day.
Raisins, figs and dates where eaten by those who could afford them while the poor celebrated the holiday with Carobs – which were cheap and readily available. Nuts where also eaten, almonds in particular.
Being, traditionally, the tree to herald the spring the almond is the symbol of rebirth and purity.
The holiday took yet another turn in the Kabalistic courts of medieval Sfad. To the Kabalists the tree has an enormous symbolic value and Tu Beshvat is one of the important tikun olam (mending of the universe) when human actions can correct the harms done to the natural balance – the tree of life. Therefore a Seder (order) ceremony, based on the Pesach Seder was devised
where 3 courses each containing 10 fruits are served. It is believed that by eating them – accompanied by reciting the appropriate portion of the Old Testament, they will bring back the natural balance – the balance that was disrupted by the damage that was done to the tree of knowledge. The ritual also involves, like the Pesach Seder, the drinking of 4 cups of wine.
The first one is white wine, symbolizing the dormant winter; the second cup is of white with a fewdrops of red mixed in the third is mostly red while the last cup is red with just a few drops of white mixed in. The red wine represents activity – nature in bloom.”