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As we’ve mentioned here before, one of the hardest parts of the production process can be deciding what to leave out. For me, sorting through over 70 ancient woodcut illustrations from Scott-Martin Kosofsky’s The Book of Customs for this slideshow was definitely an excercise in leaving things out.

Just as it was necessary to leave out many of the images, there was also wealth of information about the customs they depicted that needed to be pared down into succinct captions. One illustration that intrigued me more than the others was Tu b’Shevat, or “The New Year for Trees.” A New Year for Trees? I was intrigued, so I looked to see what The Book of Customs had to say about it:

This was the date on which the year was determined for tithing of fruit trees during Temple times. Since a tenth of the fruit was obligated to be given to the Levites and Temple each year, it was necessary to calculate from a measurable turning point in the growing season.

At first I was disappointed by this description — to me it sounded like celebrating tax day as a holiday. But as I read further, Tu b’Shevat revealed itself as a great testament to the ability for customs to take on a life of their own. It turns out that many traditions have been built around the holiday — from simply eating fruit to reciting passages in the Bible, Talmud, and Kabbalah related to fruit. More recently, Tu b’Shevat is interperated by many as a kind of Jewish Arbor Day — an occasion for celebrating the environment, planting trees, and raising ecological awareness.

The truth is that many of the customs shown in this slideshow followed a similar historical trajectory, becoming abstracted from their original purpose — and of course, Judaism doesn’t hold a monopoly on this sort of evolution. What kind of traditions have you observed that have expanded out from their origins — for New Years, for trees, or otherwise?

For a better quality, higher resolution version of this slideshow, view the Flash-based version on our site.


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2 Comments

Tu B'Shevat did start as a tax holiday, as did many of the other Jewish holidays. The more spiritual aspects of the holiday are more recent. Tu B'Shevat is also considered one of the 4 Jewish New Years.

"There are four new year days: the first of Nisan is the new year for reckoning the reigns of kings and the feasts; the first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of cattle; the first of Tishrei is the new year for reckoning of the years and taking stock of human lives; the first of Sh'vat is the new year for the fruit trees. That is according to the school of Shammai; the school of Hillel says, on the 15th of Sh'vat." -- Mishnah Rosh Hashanah

Yes, much of this history is new information to me and so I'm seeing it with fresh eyes. I found myself imagining the American tax day (April 15th) gaining spiritual significance in the future -- a thought that struck me as strange and a little bit funny. I appreciate the quote, thanks for contributing to my education!