Tu B’Shvat: The Jewish Holiday Intended for Everyone  

Most Jews in the U.S. today would associate Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year for the Trees, with something like the American Earth Day. Even Jews from outside of the U.S. are likely to associate it with ecological awareness and environmental protection (possibly due to global attention rightly paid to these issues). In antiquity, far before humanity was aware of its ability to damage the biosphere, Tu B’shvat occupies an intriguing place in the Jewish calendar as a day of everyday agricultural workers.

The Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) involved priestly ritual and the Temple in Jerusalem, as did the high holidays. Hannukah and Purim involve people in positions of power as the heroes. In contrast to these holidays, Tu B’Shvat is primarily a holiday about ordinary work and ordinary cycles, which is important to consider given that the priesthood and the royalty, despite being the Children of Israel along with everyone else, had a sense of detachment from the general populace. A lot of Jewish day school narratives, both when discussing Jewish history as a whole as well as the background for many holidays, focus on “big guys”, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and their families. Often what isn’t present is the fact that the entire story is usually, especially in the Five Books of Moses, on the Children of Israel themselves. Despite struggling with both their leaders and God, they are not just what makes the story, they ARE the story.

It is far too easy to lose sight of the fact that it is often the masses in Jewish history that have been the most important and influential, although seldom are any of them given a voice (as is the case in much of the world with any people group). In an age in which a lot of young Jews are clamoring for acceptance in communities, Tu Beshvat can help us think about how the Jewish experience has had many dimensions in which people of all trades were not only involved but very deeply involved. The Jewish story in the Bible isn’t only one about high priests and kings, nor is the one in the Talmud only about sages—it involves the whole of the people. While many other holidays may celebrate the Temple rites or singular Biblical heroes, Tu B’shvat is a holiday for those orchard laborers in Judah and Israel whose stories were never told.

From entrepreneurial standpoint, this understanding of Tu B’shvat is essential, especially now. Many entrepeneurs of contemporary times tend to focus on individual characters (such as CEO’s, bosses, well-known heroes and paragons of the craft) rather than big collectives that history may have not given a strong voice. But what about those lacking that strong voice? What can business leaders learn from partaking of a rite that resembles the life of the ordinary farmer?

Individualism and competition in the world, rather than collectivism, has sometimes been a toxic influence, and Tu B’shvat is about the wholesomeness of the human story as well as the agricultural and ecological experience. Above all, this holiday serves as a reminder that, despite our accomplishments, our ancestors were largely ordinary laborers and we owe a lot to them and need to learn from their example.