Tu Bishvat - the creation of beautiful things

'Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps the singing bird will come.”

PLANT ONE of these.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
PLANT ONE of these.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
'Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps the singing bird will come.” This lovely quotation is not from our Sages, but is an old Chinese proverb. Nevertheless, it seems appropriate for Tu b’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, which falls this year on 31st January.
Of course, we have our own Jewish sources too: “When you see handsome people or fine trees, pronounce the benediction: ‘Praised be He who created beautiful things.’ “ (Tosefta: Berakot 7:4) Trees have a great significance in Judaism, and long before “ecology” became a popular word, Jews were commanded: “When you besiege a city … destroy not its trees.”
(Deut. 20:19) Once trees were sacred to many people. Pagans believed that gods inhabited them and took their forms. They were druidic, rising out of the earth and tossing their hair. They were a tender life form which cooled, sheltered and calmed. It is easy to understand reverence for the beauty and dignity of trees, but only Judaism has a New Year for them, which falls on 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat (Tu Bishevat).
This date once fulfilled a great function in Israel’s agricultural life. It marked the date from which to count the age of the tree for reasons of tithe or taxes, and also to indicate the maturation of the fruit of the tree. Even today, fruit cannot be eaten until the 4th year, so Tu Bishevat standardizes the birthday of trees.
Outside of Israel, it is a very minor holiday, not commemorating any great historical event, and there are no special prayers in the synagogue. Yet it has stood the test of time and is again significant in Israel where Jews have returned to the soil. From this date onwards, the sun’s strength increases, there are more daylight hours as the dry season approaches. It is a lovely time, ushered in by blossoming white almond trees with their promise of warm summer weather.
Like America’s Arbour Day, Tu Bishevat is traditionally a time for planting every variety of tree. The Talmud mentions “the joyous planting” on happy occasions. There was a delightful custom of planting a cedar when a boy was born and a cypress sapling at the birth of a girl. When they married, the wood of the trees would be used as poles to support the wedding canopy.
In Israel, it is a day for children to go with their teachers into the hills and valleys and plant tens of thousands of saplings. There is also a custom to eat all the fruits of Israel … olives, dates, grapes, figs, citrus, apples, bananas, nuts and pears, which grow in great abundance.
Many scholars stay up late on the eve of Tu Bishevat, reciting Biblical passages dealing with the earth’s fertility.
They read from Genesis how trees were created along with all the plants of the earth; from Leviticus the Divine promise of abundance as a reward for keeping the commandments; and from Ezekiel 17 the parable of the spreading vine, symbolizing the people of Israel.
Kabbalists hold a special Seder to celebrate the holiday, the New Year of the Tree of Life, which is rich in mystical connotations. They drink four cups of wine, beginning with white wine and ending with red, with the second cup a mixture more of white and the third more of red wine. It is rather like the landscape changes from white (the pale narcissus and crocus) to red (anemones and tulips) as Tu Bishevat approaches.
As well as a Birthday, it is also a Day of Judgement for the trees… which will thrive and be healthy, which will wither and die. Hassidim pray for the “ethrogim”, that they may grow in beauty and perfection for Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles.
Planting trees is very significant for Jews, the indestructible people for whom faith in the future is almost an emblem. We plant trees whose fruit we will not eat, and in whose shade we will not sit. The one who fears that the world will end tomorrow, or next year, does not plant trees. Tu Bishevat affirms the fact that the soil of Israel is holy. The People and the Land have a mystic affinity in Judaism, and the New Year of the Trees reminds us each year of the wonder of God’s creation.