Before the founding of the state, we used to be treated in Hebrew school every
Tu Bishvat to a piece of bokser – carob – from Palestine. It was hard, dry and
inedible, tasting something like cardboard. Fortunately the dry bokser did not
turn me off Zionism, though it came close. It was not until many years later in
Israel that I tasted the fruit right off the tree – soft, chewable and actually
In the days of the Mishna, Tu Bishvat was little more than a
calendar date marking the official time for separating the tithes of tree
fruits. There was even a dispute between the schools of Hillel and Shamai
concerning when that date was. Shamai used the first of the Hebrew month of
Shvat, while Hillel used the 15th – “tu” in Hebrew (Rosh Hashana 1:1). Prof.
Louis Ginsberg has explained the difference as stemming from the fact that the
wealthier Shamaites owned land in a part of the country where the trees
blossomed earlier than those in the stony, hilly areas where the poorer
Hillelites lived and farmed.
Later, the holiday became a celebration of
the products of the land and a time to eat the fruits that are symbolic of
For people living outside of the country, this was one way of
recalling the land and feeling a connection to it. Kabbalists even developed an
entire Seder for Tu Bishvat, which included eating 15 different
Once Jews returned to the land, the idea of planting trees on Tu
Bishvat in what was practically a denuded country arose and, through the efforts
of Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel-Jewish National Fund, has become a primary way of
celebrating that day ever since.
MORE RECENTLY, environmentally oriented
groups have latched on to Tu Bishvat as a time to emphasize the importance of
caring for the land and the environment in general.
Although this is far
from the original meaning of the day, it fits well with the teachings of our
Judaism has long had a positive attitude toward the
It begins with God giving human beings the task of filling
and mastering the good earth that He has created (Genesis 1:28), then placing
Adam in Eden “to till it and tend to it” (Gen. 2:15). It continues with such
laws as shmita, the sabbatical year, when the soil is left untilled: “Six years
you shall sow your land and gather its yield; but in the seventh you shall let
it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it...” (Exodus
23:10-11). This gives the soil an opportunity to replenish itself, while
reminding us that we are not really owners of the earth, but sojourners,
enjoined to care for it and pass it on to other generations
The commandment not to harm trees when attacking a city in a
time of war is also a lesson in preventing harm to the environment.
the verse says, “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long
time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax
against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down” (Deuteronomy
This makes the wanton destruction of Palestinians’ olive trees a
double transgression, forbidden no matter what your politics.
then, is a wonderful time for celebrating both something particular to us as
Jews and something universal to us as human beings. We specifically emphasize
our attachment to the Land of Israel, its soil, its trees, its fruits. We then
celebrate the good earth that is God’s gift to all humanity, the beautiful
planet that makes life possible. We emphasize our task of tilling it and tending
to it, taking from it what we need in order to live, but also ensuring that it
is not misused and destroyed by our greed and our carelessness. It is the most
priceless treasure we have to pass on to the generations that follow.
writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time
winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution