The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 1:1) tells us that the fifteenth of Shvat is the “Rosh HaShana” (New Year) for trees. The commentaries explain that Tu B’Shvat is the day when the sap begins to flow back into the limbs of the tree to begin a new season of growth. For this reason, Tu B’Shvat marks the beginning of a new crop of fruit. This is relevant for a number of the laws of agriculture, mainly the various agricultural tithes and the prohibition of ערלה (the prohibition against eating the fruit of trees in their first three years). Many of these laws are only applicable within the land of Israel.
The significance of Tu B’Shvat is primarily as a legal date, serving as a dividing line between the crops of separate years. However, it is also considered a minor holiday. From a halachic perspective, this means only that we refrain from fasting, eulogizing the dead, and that we omit the recitation of Tachanun from the daily prayers. There are a number of such minor holidays in the Jewish year (e.g. Tu B’Av, Pesach Sheini, Lag B’Omer, and, in leap years, Purim Katan).
However, Tu B’Shvat stands out for having a unique, and intriguing custom, recorded in many authoritative sources. This is the custom to eat fruit on Tu B’Shvat. This is an intriguing custom in that the activity involved is actually extraordinarily commonplace. People eat fruit all the time, most of us have a stash of apples and oranges in our refrigerator. One of the first blessings Jewish children learn to recite is the blessing made before eating fruit, "Blessed are You, HaShem our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the tree."
How does an ordinary activity, one that many of us engage in on a daily basis, suddenly become a “custom” on Tu B’Shvat?
I believe we can understand this from a classic Chassidic tale:
R’ Aharon of Karlin was once sitting with a young boy, when they were brought a bowl of apples. Each took an apple, recited the blessing, and took a bite. The young boy, sitting with the famous rabbi, began to think, “The rabbi recites a blessing and eats the apple; I recite a blessing and eat the apple. Are we really all that different?” R’ Aharon, seeing the thoughtful look on the boy’s face, immediately realized what the boy was thinking.
He said to the boy, “You and I are both eating apples, and it appears as if we are doing the same thing. But there is a real difference. When you see the apple, you imagine the pleasure of eating the apple and you desire the apple. So you take the apple, but, being a religious boy, you are careful to recite the blessing first, thanking God for the kindness He has bestowed on you. When I see the apple, I too notice how beautiful and attractive it appears and I think about the pleasure that we experience when eating it. I am then filled with gratitude and love for God Who has bestowed these wonderful kindnesses upon us. A great desire to recite the blessing on the fruit of the tree, thanking God for His great kindness, takes hold of me. But one may not recite a blessing on food unless one eats the food, so I pick up the apple to enable me to recite the blessing. In short, you recite the blessing to permit you to eat the apple, I eat the apple to permit me to recite the blessing.”
The custom of eating fruit on Tu B’Shvat provides us with an opportunity to emulate this high spiritual level. On Tu B’Shvat we desire to express our gratitude to God for the fruits of the trees, so we make a point of eating these fruits, enabling us to recite the blessing, “Blessed are You, HaShem our God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the tree.”
This should be a model for us for the entire year. Even if we aren’t always on the level of eating for the sake of a blessing, we can at least be careful to always recite the appropriate blessings on our food and to think for an instant about the often overlooked kindnesses that God continually bestows upon us.