By: Cantor Michael Davis
After January 1, how many New Years are there? The beginning of the school year. Rosh Hashana. Your birthday. The Talmud introduces one more, Jewish practice: the “New Year of the Trees” – Tu Bishvat (15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat). This year that happens to fall on the evening of January 15. It may be the dead of winter in North America, but in Israel/Palestine all it takes is some winter rain to bring life back to the desert plants and flowers. The trees there are also producing their first blossoms. While the major holidays celebrate Jewish history and the stories of ancient miracles, the Bible also sets them in the agricultural cycle. For example, Passover is “Chag Ha’aviv,” the
Spring Festival in addition to being “Chag Hacherut,” the holiday of freedom. By contrast, Tu Bishvat is unique among the many Jewish holidays in that it does not commemorate any miracle, except for the never-ending miracle of nature.
The Talmud’s interest in the trees’ new year was quite practical. Farmers were required to tithe their fruit and this priestly tax was regulated around the tree’s annual cycle. The holiday’s ancient origin lived on in the following centuries in the form of a celebration of fruit. When I was growing up in England, we celebrated Tu Bishvat/ the 15th of Shevat the traditional way: by eating 15 different types of fruit. Since there aren’t really 15 types of everyday fruit, after we had worked our way through the fruit bowl of apples, pears and oranges, we turned to dried fruit: dates, figs and raisins and even obscure fruit like carob. How better to celebrate the appearance of tree blossoms than to enjoy the fruit that emerges from the flower buds?
In modern times, Zionism claimed Tu Bishvat as a tree-planting festival. In the Jewish tradition of collecting small change for charity, the most prominent pushke, or tzedaka box, has been the ubiquitous blue JNF (Jewish National Fund) box for planting trees. My siblings were given “tree planting certificates” in honor of their birth. Tree planting in Israel became a central expression of Jewish charity, no more so than on Tu Bishvat. To date, the JNF has planted a quarter of a billion trees on over a quarter of a million acres of land. A fascinating new study (soon to be published) by scholar Dr. Rhoda Rosen tries to understand the Zionist afforestation project and place it in the broader context of modern history.
An early administrator of the JNF argued that tree planting was the easiest and fastest way to stake a Jewish claim on the land. Some of the founders of the JNF’s afforestation project were trained in British colonial India, where planting forests was a means of claiming land for the crown. Under Israeli law (based on a mid-19th century Ottoman law), planting trees on somebody else’s property can transfer ownership and void previous claims to the land.
My first home in Israel was in a little village in the Jerusalem hills. On the bus to school in Jerusalem, I could see the pine forests stretching from the crest of the hilltops down to the dirt trail at the base of the slopes. Sometimes, I would go on hikes along these trails, passing through the deserted stone buildings of Lifta at the entrance to Jerusalem. Close up, I could see the man-made stone terraces hidden by the trees.
Occasionally, you would come across broken stone walls tracing the shape of a ruined house. The pines blurred the lines of previous ownership and concealed the destruction of Palestinian civilization that happened with the birth of the State. Rosen shows how over 80% of the forests were planted after the birth of the State of Israel, many of them on land vacated by the departing indigenous population. Some 80% of the Palestinian population left in 1948, never to return. And this project continues with JNF’s focus on land in the Palestinian areas of the State of Israel in the Galilee and Negev and the secretive planting of trees in the West Bank. (In a call-in interview that JNF just posted on YouTube, the organization’s CEO, Russell Robinson, does not answer a caller’s question about JNF tree planting over the Green Line.)
So, it is appropriate to point out that the forests of the Jewish National Fund forests are not fruit–bearing, but pine. It is deeply symbolic then that the early 20th century Eastern European settlers chose a non-native, barren tree. Symbolically and in a real sense, this foreign tree displaced the olive trees of the indigenous population.
The JNF’s lasting legacy for Jews around the world, beyond the awareness of the importance of trees, is to establish Tu Bishvat as a significant holiday. While other traditional dates on the religious calendar have disappeared from the lives of all but the Orthodox, Tu Bishvat continues to be a significant date for liberal Jews.
For activists and those trying to reclaim Jewish ritual for non-nationalistic Judaism, how do we reclaim Tu Bishvat?
On Wednesday evening, the eve of Tu Bishvat, eat some fruit – fifteen types, if you like. Focus on the fruits of Israel/Palestine. Jewish liturgy, following the bible, celebrates figs, dates, pomegranates and olives as the special fruits of the Land of Israel. In particular, the ancient culture of olive trees is under constant threat by settlers and the state. So, buy some Palestinian olives or olive oil. Celebrate the natural abundance of the land in solidarity with its indigenous people.
This lovely story from the Talmud (Ta’anit 5b) uses the fruit tree as a metaphor for a blessing:
When they were about to say farewell to each other, Rabbi Nachman said, “Bless me, master.” Rabbi Yizhak said, “How shall I bless you?” I think of a man on a journey in the desert. The man was hungry, tired and thirsty. He came upon a tree bearing sweet fruit, casting generous shade on the ground with water flowing plentifully by its roots. The man picked some fruit off the tree and ate it. Then he drank some water and lay down to rest in the tree’s shade. When he was ready to get up and leave, he said, “O tree, how shall I bless you? If I were to say, may your fruit be sweet – but your fruit are already sweet!; that your shade be generous? it already is!; that water should flow by your roots? – it already does! So, let me bless you that all trees that are planted from your will be just like you.”
With best wishes for a beautiful, ethical Tu Bishvat!
If you would like to honor the tradition of tree planting, click here to plant a tree for peace.