The Fifteenth of Shevat or Tu Bishvat is the Rosh Hashanah for trees (Rosh Hashanah 2a). Most people commonly think that just as on the First of Tishrei, which is the day of Rosh Hashanah, all creations are judged for life or death, for wealth or poverty, and the like, so too, on Tu Bishvat, trees are judged in Heaven and their fate for the coming year is decided.
Nevertheless, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l writes that this is not the case, for on this day, the trees are not judged at all. Similarly, Hagaon Harav Avraham Chaim Na’eh zt”l (Rabbi of Jerusalem’s Bukharian Quarter approximately fifty years ago) writes that many have a misconception that Tu Bishvat is the Judgment Day for trees when in fact this is not the case, for the Mishnah in Masechet Rosh Hashanah (16a) writes that fruit trees are judged on the holiday of Shavuot, not on Tu Bishvat. If so, what is the significance of Tu Bishvat and why is it called the “Rosh Hashanah for Trees”?
It seems that the reason why Tu Bishvat was established as the New Year for trees is because at this point, most of the rainfall of the year has already fallen, as the Gemara in Masechet Rosh Hashanah (12a) and Rashi (ibid.) state that by the day of Tu Bishvat, most of the rainfall has already passed, the sap rises through the tree, and the fruits have reached a noticeable stage of development by this day (the Rishonim disagree exactly how much this is).
Nevertheless, the day of Tu Bishvat poses certain halachic implications regarding the laws of Terumot and Ma’asrot (tithing of produce) and Orla (fruits grown within three years of the tree being planted which are forbidden to benefit from). Just to illustrate this, let us discuss one such example.
The Torah states (Vayikra 19, 23): “When you shall come to the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, for three years shall it be considered forbidden and may not be eaten.” Our Sages explain that these three years must be counted from the time the tree was planted and only after this point will the fruits become permissible. However, fruits that have grown on the tree during its first three years since being planted are forbidden forever.
Nevertheless, these three years do not need to be counted as three complete years; rather, we follow the years of the world. This means that the last several days of the year and consider them like an entire year. For instance, if one planted a tree at the end of the year 5777, one need not wait until the end of the year 5780 for the fruits to leave their Orla status; rather, the final days of 5777 are considered one year, then the years 5778 and 5779 are another two, and immediately at the beginning of the year 5780, the fruits exit their Orla status.
However, only when there at least forty-four days remaining in the year can this be considered an entire year. This means that if one planted a tree before the Sixteenth of Av of the year 5777, which is forty-four days before Rosh Hashanah of the year 5778, this counts as one year since being planted, for thirty days of the first year are considered one year and another fourteen days are added to compensate for the time it takes the sapling to take root in the ground; thus, a total of forty-four days are necessary for this to be counted as the tree’s first year. One must then count another two years for the completion of the three years, for instance, if one planted the tree in the year 5777, as we mentioned above, one counts an additional two years, 5778 and 5779, and in the year 5780, the fruits become permitted for consumption. However, since Tu Bishvat is the Rosh Hashanah for trees, although 5780 marks the fourth year, any fruits that are on the tree until Tu Bishvat of 5780 are forbidden to benefit from. Only the fruits grown after Tu Bishvat of the year 5780 are permitted for consumption, even without separating Terumot and Ma’asrot (since these fruits are called “Neta Reva’i” and are permitted for consumption after their sanctity has been transferred onto a coin after the fruits have been harvested. The individual redeeming the Neta Reva’i fruits recites the following blessing: “Baruch Ata Hashem Elokeinu Melech Ha’Olam Asher Kideshanu Bemitzvotav Vetzivanu Al Pidyon Neta Reva’i.” One then takes a “Perutah”, which is a coin of minimal value, such as the ten-Agora coin in Israel and states: “All of the sanctity of these fruits and their fifth is transferred onto this coin which is worth a Perutah.” It is preferable for one to recite this text three times. After performing this procedure, the fruits are permitted for consumption immediately and Terumot and Ma’asrot need not be separated).
Although the actual fate of the trees for that year is not decided on Tu Bishvat, nevertheless, Hagaon Rabbeinu Yosef Haim of Baghdad writes that there is an accepted tradition from Ashkenazi sages that one should recite a special prayer regarding the Etrog (citron) fruit so that the Jewish people will merit obtaining beautiful Etrogim for the Sukkot holiday.