“And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
If you’re a tree, especially a Jewish tree, you must be very excited that Jan. 30 is so close. For you and many of your fellow plants, as well as your fruit and vegetable relatives, it’s New Year’s Eve. Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees (Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot) falls on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which this year arrives at sunset this Tuesday night. There is a lot for humans to celebrate as well.
Tu B’Shevat, although a bona fide Jewish holiday, is not as well known or universally celebrated as such holidays as Passover and the better-known Rosh HaShanah. Yet it has interesting roots (pun intended), is still evolving its customs and celebrations, and involves delicious food (like other Jewish holidays).
The origins of the holiday date back to the days of the great temple in Jerusalem and the system of tithing of crops to support the priests and the poor. Over the centuries it blossomed into a holiday marking the beginning of spring and the harvest in Israel, and, in modern times, into a time to celebrate the bounties of nature and remind ourselves to take care of the environment.
Tu B’Shevat is a post-biblical festival with biblical roots, literal and metaphorical. In Genesis on the third day of creation God says, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” There is, of course, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, as well as the injunction in the book of Deuteronomy against destroying fruit trees in times of war. In Proverbs 3:18, the Torah is referred to as an eitz chayim (tree of life): “She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy.” These words are recited when the Torah is returned to the ark at the end of the Torah service.
Tu B’Shevat is first mentioned in the Mishnah, the code of Jewish law. Seventeenth-century Kabbalists (mystics) created a ritual for Tu B’Shevat that is similar to a Passover seder. The rituals and readings for the Tu B’Shevat seder were collected into a book, Pri Etz Hadar (The Fruit of the Goodly Tree), published in 1753, a compilation of passages on trees from the Torah, Talmud and Zohar. On Erev Tu B’Shevat, the Kabbalists gathered for a 15-course meal, each course including foods associated with the land of Israel. The Jewish yearning for Israel was thus manifested in a physical association with the land. This tradition continued for centuries.
Modern Tu B’Shevat seders include prayers, readings, food, wine, songs, poems and, in some cases, games (try Eco-Bingo). Examples of contemporary Tu B’Shvat seders can be found online on such websites as Hazon.com and Torahresource.com. Families and congregations have taken on this mitzvah in increasing numbers.
The Zionist movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries gave new meaning to the holiday. Early Zionists reforested the land of Israel, literally making the desert bloom. On Tu B’Shevat in 1890, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz, a founder of the religious Zionist movement, took his students to plant trees in the agricultural colony of Zichron Yaakov. This custom was adopted in 1908 by the Jewish Teachers Union and later by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which was established in 1901 to oversee land reclamation and reforestation in Israel. Today JNF holds huge tree-planting events onTu B’Shevat. Many Israelis participate.
In keeping with the idea of Tu B’Shevat as marking the spring revival of nature, many of Israel’s major institutions chose this day for their founding. Cornerstones were laid for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1918, the Technion (the science and technology research university in Haifa) in 1925 and the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in 1949, all on Tu B’Shevat.
In Israel Tu B’Shevat is a national holiday, and a tree-planting festival for Israelis as well as Jews throughout the world. It is a time to appreciate nature and the many ways that trees make our lives better, providing food, shelter and beauty, not to mention helping us to breathe.
Whether or not you attend a Tu B’Shevat seder, you can enjoy the customs of the holiday. Eat of the Seven Species (shivat haminim) mentioned in Deuteronomy as being evidence of the abundance of the land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. Enjoy the Tu B’Shevat seder custom of drinking four cups of wine in varying shades of red, representing the four seasons. White is for winter, white with a bit of red represents early spring, red with a bit of white represents the blossoming of late spring, and dark red represents the growth of plants and vegetation through the summer.
Plant a tree in Israel through JNF. Spend some time appreciating the trees in your yard, on your street, in a nearby park. Our Jewish tradition ensures that we don’t take the treasures of nature for granted.
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