In the early days of pioneering Zionism, secular settlers on kibbutzim and
elsewhere made attempts to recast religious holidays into new molds that
emphasized the return of Jews to the soil. We were no longer an urban people,
but a people that had returned to the land.
Thus they emphasized the
agricultural aspects of these days, singling out nature for praise and ignoring
God and other religious aspects.
The most well-known of these attempts
was the plethora of Passover haggadot that spoke about Passover solely as “the
holiday of spring” and never mentioned the name of God or the idea of
redemption. Shavuot, building on the idea of “first fruits,” was especially
important, and was used to emphasize the harvests.
Even children born
during the year were paraded as “first fruits,” and still are in some places.
Obviously, the aspect to the giving of the Torah was put aside.
any of these attempts have truly succeeded in remaking the holidays as far as
the general Jewish public is concerned. The one exception is Tu Bishvat, which
is almost upon us. It was totally reinvented. From being the “New Year of the
Trees,” it became the holiday of tree planting, something never envisioned in
the traditional sources.
The success of this reinvention may be
attributed to many forces, the most important being that it had Keren Kayemeth
LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, and all its resources behind it. In addition, it
filled a real need – the reforestation of a denuded land.
Bishvat was merely a date on the calendar used to calculate the new year of
fruit trees. It is one of four dates mentioned in Mishna Rosh Hashana 1:1 as new
years: the first of Nisan, the new year for the reign of kings and the
festivals; the first of Elul, the new year for counting tithes on animals; the
first of Tishrei; the new year for years; and the first of Shvat, the new year
for the tithing of fruit trees. This was the ruling of the school of Shammai.
The school of Hillel, however, said that it was 15 Shvat, and that became the
Since all the other dates are the first of the month, the time of
the new moon, it is curious that Beit Hillel insisted this one be on the 15th,
the full moon. Prof.
Louis Ginzberg, the great talmudist who taught at
the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, once gave a lecture at the Hebrew
University in which he explained this anomaly. According to Ginzberg it has an
economic and social reason, based upon the fact that the Shammaites represented
the richest landowners and the Hillelites represented the poorer classes. The
trees in the land owned by the rich were in the lower and more fertile areas of
the country, and blossomed early. The trees belonging to the poor in the higher,
rockier areas did not blossom until the middle of the month.
also explained many other differences between the two schools on the basis of
socioeconomic differences. Hence, the anomaly of a “new year” that begins on the
15th of the month.
Concerning the remaking of Tu Bishvat, before the
Zionists, Kabbalists in the 16th century had instituted many other customs for
that day, including the eating of fruits and even a Tu Bishvat Seder,
emphasizing the texts in our tradition that speak about trees. Thus, inserting
the idea of planting trees was a relatively easy step to take.
now serves to call our attention not only to trees, but to nature in general. By
celebrating the fruits of this land, it reminds us of the blessing we have in
dwelling in a rich and fertile place. At the same time, it also calls upon us to
do whatever has to be done to preserve the earth, the soil and the fragile
environment in which we live.
The secular Zionists were right about the
fact that in having a land of our own, we should be increasingly aware of the
blessing of the land and of the need to preserve it. We may not all be farmers
and tillers of the soil, but we are all benefactors of the good earth that is
ours – and therefore, are all responsible to preserve it. Secularists may think
that this has nothing to do with religion, but believers see the land as a gift
from God the Creator, and view themselves as partners with the Creator in the
work of creation.
God placed Adam in the garden “to till it and to
preserve it” (Genesis 2:15).
Similarly, God did not give us the world for
us to destroy, but for us to preserve and even improve – and that is what Tu
Bishvat should mean to us today. The writer, former president of the
International Rabbinical Assembly, is a twotime winner of the National Book
Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).
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