In January 1948, only a few months before Israel became a state, Rabbi Avraham
Silverstone of Pittsburgh wrote a very informative article about Tu Bishvat
throughout Jewish history, called An Old-New Holiday. Silverstone, in recalling
events in decades past, foreshadowed the impending rebirth of the Jewish nation
and tied it in to the renewal associated with Tu Bishvat.
“Where there is
life there is hope for new strength. The festival that survived the hostile
interference of men and nature has been revived and endowed again with its
normal functions,” he wrote.
Silverstone stressed how Jews outside of
Palestine celebrate through their ongoing contributions for the “reforestation
of Eretz Yisrael and for the planting of trees in the land of our Renascence.”
He concluded with words which must have been on everyone’s lips in 1948: “In the
free and independent new Judea, we may look forward to a bright future both for
our land and for this folk-festival.”
Silverstone was only one of many
diaspora Jews who attempted to keep Tu Bishvat alive before the establishment of
Israel by offering varied explanations why it was so important and should be
observed. Poets penned hymns to trees; artists drew pictures of trees in our
homeland; through their work, they emphasized why the tree, that unique creation
of God was so important to the Jewish people.
As the great-grandson of
Yosef Geffen, a jobber who handled the sale of timber from the Lithuanian
forests, let me offer some insights into this holiday of ours.
On the one
hand, Zionists have explained that “the human tree is the new Jew, who in
planting trees advanced settlement of the land, helping to remove the
rootlessness of exile.”
The question was asked of the 17th century
Maharal of Prague, “What sort of trees are we humans?” He offered a very
“We are upside-down trees whose spiritual roots lie
in heaven above and whose far reaching branches and twigs form us earthlings
He continued in this incisive fashion.
“Trees are at the
pinnacle of the plant world, which transforms the earth from a barren and
lifeless mass into an environment capable of supporting other forms of life such
as animals and humans.”
When we witnessed the agonizing destruction of
six million trees in the Carmel forest in December 2010, each of us understood
what the Maharal was saying.
That is why Jews and non-Jews came to help
and why one anonymous person donated $14 million to begin to restore that area.
The Maharal reminds us that the phrase “because a man is the tree of the field”
teaches us that “the life of man is clearly from the tree.”
early halutzim – and other participants in the first aliya in the nineteenth
century – were individuals who were both involved in the clearing of the land
for crops and in the planting of trees for holding the soil and for
beautification. In the fiscal perspectives of the Ottoman Empire authorities,
many means were sought to draw revenue from the population. Every tree was taxed
so those who inhabited the land, before the arrival of Jews two centuries ago,
cut down as many trees as possible so their tax bill would be less.
Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund came into being in 1901 both to
purchase land and also to plant trees. When you look at early pictures of Israel
with wide stretches of barren land, you can truly appreciate what the
afforestation, in particular, has achieved.
I recall in my youth the
shammas of one of the Atlanta synagogues, Reverend Sholom Clein, who personally
took charge of emptying the Blue Boxes and passing on the money to the right
sources. A native of the city since the first decade of the 20th century, he
felt the need to educate generation after generation of young Jews as to why
tree planting was so important.
When he came to our synagogue’s religious
school classes, he told us stories about the halutzim and then he said, “Ladies
and laddies, they give themselves – you have to give your pennies.”
course, in those days one tree only cost a single dollar. While pennies, nickels
and dimes were used to buy trees in Eretz Yisrael, some synagogues and temples
in the United States did other kind of planting to make the holiday more
meaningful for the youth.
A story in the Anglo-Jewish press in 1945 told
about a Reform Temple in Dothan, Alabama, whose Jewish population numbered just
144 people. The rabbi, Alfred Wolf, helped the religious school students observe
the New Year of the trees by coaching them in the planting of a tree on the
grounds of the Temple. Mr. and Mrs. Myer Blumberg had donated a “young long leaf
pine” which was carefully placed in the earth. Those students truly had a “tree
experience” as they loudly recited the “‘sheheyanu’ blessing” on that crisp
American Jews, who served in the United States military in
World War II, often came to Palestine on their leaves once the Nazi and Italian
forces had been driven out of the Middle East. Rabbi Jacob Kraft, of Wilmington,
Delaware, was a chaplain in the US Airforce in Europe for three years. In the
spring of 1945, Kraft traveled to Palestine by military transport with several
other chaplains both Jewish and Christian.
In his letters to his wife,
Leah, preserved in the Delaware Jewish Archives, he wrote about “the incredible
number of trees both small and large which the Jews have planted.
that for years we had collected funds for afforestation, but I had no idea how
much success there was with these plantings. I hope and pray that I can return
to our synagogue, Beth Shalom, and encourage our members and the children of our
religious school to buy trees in great numbers.”
Kraft began a tradition
for his synagogue.
Today, several Beth Shalom groves exist as well as a
In January 1942, only a month after Pearl Harbor, Rabbi B. G.
Eisenberg of Montgomery, Alabama wrote an article about our tree holiday which
was circulated in the southern part of the US. He put his readers on their toes
when he said that “you have arbor duty for Zionist interests and for American
He first explained why every Jew had to contribute to help
plant the needed trees for Eretz Yisrael.
Then a different angle: “The
preservation of forests and fruit trees, is vital to the national defense of
America. There have been a number of large forest fires in this country. These
were caused by carelessness and also by sabotage. Our forests are very
vulnerable to such activity from the fifth columnists in our midst. Remember how
our enemy has killed helpless populations in Europe - destroying trees means
nothing to them.”
There is evidence of German and Japan sabotage on the
shores of America then, but it was interesting that a rabbi would connect Tu
Bishvat and patriotism in this fashion.
He continued on that “the holiday
should be utilized in the religious schools to instruct children to be careful
to extinguish campfires properly and also to discard cigarette remains safely.”
His call to alert on Tu Bishvat surely must have received a very positive
response from American Jews who were anxious to do the most for their beloved
For Jews the world over, this holiday has always been the
“harbinger of spring” in the land of their ancestors. We are fortunate that we
can celebrate this wonderful occasion annually on the soil where it began many