To put it most simply at the outset, the “holiday” of Tu B’Shvat has less than minor religious or theological significance, if any at all.
The Only Halachic Differences
Halachicly speaking, there are only two real differences about the fifteenth day of Shvat. For one, Magen Avraham writes that we do not say the tefillah of tachanun on this day. This would certainly seem to imply that there is some level of happiness that is to be felt and displayed on this day. The movement away from winter, and the start of the rejuvenation of Creation and Spring, certainly calls for a joyous feeling, and like on so many other similar instances1, tachanun is thus omitted.
The second halachic difference is to be found in the Mishnah:
The four new years are: On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals; On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals; Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say, on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables. On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees according to the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof.
In short, we mark a new year for fruit on this day, and thus the day of Tu B’Shvat is nothing more than a calendrical demarcation for the purposes of ma’aser. Just as with the other demarcations mentioned, there is no special significance to the day beyond a legal technicality. There is no deeper spiritual significance to Tu B’Shvat. After all, why would one want to imbue deep religious significance to the day of Tu B’Shvat more so than any of the other New Years mentioned by the Mishnah? Indeed, nobody celebrates by way of a meat seder the leil Rosh Chodesh Elul2!
What About Judgment?
What about the claim that fruits and produce are judged and decided on the day of Tu B’Shvat? We turn once again to the Mishnah:
At four times the world is judged: On Pesach, for the crops. On Shavuot, for the fruits of the tree. On Rosh Hashnah, all the world passes before Him like sheep, as it says, "He that fashioneth the hearts of them all, that considereth all their doings." (Psalms 33:15) And on Sukkot, they are judged for the water.
It is clear from the Mishnah that fruits are judged on Shavuos, not on Tu B’Shvat. If anything, we should be praying for nice esrogim on Shavuos! The simple reality is that attaching an idea of judgment to the day of Tu B’Shvat is utter mythology as there is no source for it in all of our Rabbinic literature.
There Is No Source
The fact is that there is nothing in all of Tanach, Mishnah, Gemara, Midrashim, Rishonim, Zohar, or even Ari’zl that speaks of any sort of special celebration for the day of Tu B’Shvat3. The only real theological significance to the day according to all the aforementioned sources is the Mishnah regarding tithes mentioned above.
Indeed, even the first known source for simply not saying tachanun, the Magen Avraham, is rather late by any standards of determining fundamental theological significance4.
Some Meaning At Least
Nonetheless, the rejuvenation of nature that Tu B’Shvat seems to commemorate is something that, across all religions, did conjure up a sense of happiness. And this makes sense, too, as in North America or Europe when the world was covered in snow, to finally begin seeing winter leave was indeed a joyous occasion.
To be sure, Tu B’Shvat actually falls out forty days before the start of the month of Nissan — the official commencement of Spring — and there is already a Talmudic idea about a certain significance to forty days prior to an event:
But Rav Yehudah said: Rav said: Forty days before the formation of a fetus, a Heavenly voice emanates and says, "The daughter of so-and-so [will be matched] to so-and-so, the house of so-and-so to so-and-so, the field of so-and-so to so-and-so."
Thus, in some sense at least, the idea that forty days before an event is in some way linked to the event itself is something that has at least some level of support. Spring begins in Nissan, and the very start of the process is thusly Tu B’Shvat.
Put differently, if we are to call this day a holiday at all, Tu B’Shvat would thus be the celebration of the beginnings of the Spring within the darkness of the winter. The idea of moving from darkness towards light is most beautiful and is certainly worth pondering. Nevertheless, the day has nothing to do with dried fruits, singing, sedarim, esrogim, judgment, and certainly not anything else of real theological import.
As stated above, the only spiritual and theological significance of Tu B’Shvat is the same as, for instance, that of the new year for animals. That is to say, nothing. In fact, Rav Mendel Blachman, who formulated much of the information herein, goes so far as to posit that adding unfounded religious and spiritual significance to a day is falsifying, undermining, and adding to the Torah — all rather severe sins. In short, adding more religious significance to Tu B’Shvat than is really there is religiously wrong.
Tu B’Shvat is nothing more than a calendar day for tithes. There is no need to suffer through carobs.
1. A bris milah, wedding day, or Purim Kattan to name but a few.↩
2. Though, despite being more expensive, such a thing is certainly more enticing than the recently common fruit sederim of Tu B’Shvat.↩
3. In fact, Rabbi Mordechai Sherabi, one of the greatest mekubalim of Jerusalem — one of the alleged starting grounds for the modern conception of Tu B’Shvat — did not celebrate the day at all.↩
4. Some suggest that the custom for any real celebration of Tu B'Shvat originated in the sefer Chemdat Yamim, but many historical scholars actually believe that this book was the work of Nathan of Gaza, a “prophet” of Shabbesai Tzvi. Only in the 18th century do we even begin to find added mystical meaning to the day of Tu B’Shvat, and it all likely originated from the dubious source of the Chemdat Yamim. Prior to this, any such notion of a spiritual significance to the day was totally nonexistent.↩