Trees of the Odem Forest on the Golan Heights.
(photo credit: MEITAL SHARABI)
A special holiday uniquely tied to the Land of Israel began Sunday evening at sundown and continues until Monday evening. It is called Tu Bishvat (the 15th of the Jewish month of Shvat) and is often described as a sort of Jewish arbor day.
In classical Jewish sources, Tu Bishvat is mentioned as one of four “new years” – the new year for the fruits of the trees. Precisely which biblical tithes to be given and prohibitions involving trees and fruits are determined in accordance with Tu Bishvat. For instance, in the first three years after a tree has been planted, the bible prohibits eating fruit from that tree. This prohibition is called “orlah” in Hebrew. Tu Bishvat is the date used to determine the age of the fruits of the tree. Similarly, Tu Bishvat is the day used to determine which types of tithes need to be taken from the produce of the Land of Israel.
This is a somewhat complicated business best left to those well versed in Jewish law. But what is clear is that Tu Bishvat is a quintessentially agricultural holiday that can only be observed in the Land of Israel. It makes little sense to celebrate the day in the Diaspora.
This did not prevent Diaspora Jews from celebrating Tu Bishvat with a unique ceremony inspired by the Passover Seder. Usually, these were Jews with a particularly mystical bent influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the father of contemporary Kabbala.
But many of these attempts to continue to give meaning to the day at a time when nearly all the Jews were far from their land were unsatisfactory.
With the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel, it was only natural that Tu Bishvat would once again become a significant day on the Jewish calendar. Secular Zionists who were less committed to adhering to the intricacies of Jewish laws regarding newly planted trees and tithes nevertheless understood the importance of Jewish customs that were intimately tied to the Land of Israel. Holidays like Tu Bishvat provided an opportunity to imbue the return to the Land of Israel with meaning and a sense of continuity with the distant past before Jews were exiled from their land.
The Zionist movement seized on Tu Bishvat and turned it into a day of tree planting. There was, admittedly, little logic to the practice. Why insist on planting at a time of the year when the cold weather often does not allow the saplings to survive? There is nothing in classic Jewish sources that connects Tu Bishvat with the planting of trees.
Tu Bishvat Seders and tree-planting are okay but it would be worthwhile devoting this day to thinking about a more pressing issue: the ecological responsibilities that come with Jews’ renewed political sovereignty.
The State of Israel has much to celebrate as a world leader in developing new technologies that improve the environment. Israel is also a leader in water desalination.
Last year Jerry Brown, the governor of California – a state facing major water shortage problems – was here to learn more about Israeli water technologies.
However, there is still plenty of room for improvement.
Israel does not invest enough in public transportation.
The cumulative state investment in public transportation in Israel was about €1,400 per person, according to a 2014 Knesset Information and Research Center report, compared to an average of about €10,000 in comparable Western countries.
Another area that needs improvement is cooperation with Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank.
Lack of proper sewage treatment, for instance, not only harms Palestinians, it also endangers Israelis. When sea water off the coast of Gaza is polluted, when wadis and tributaries are used to dispose of chemicals – both Israelis and Palestinians are harmed.
Also, Israel’s overall greenhouse gas emissions are set to rise in coming years, in large part due to population growth.
In addition to planting trees and holding Tu Bishvat Seders, no day is more fitting then Tu Bishvat to deal with pressing environmental issues facing the State of Israel.