Tu Bishvat morphes from a Zionist to an environmentalist rite

Ancient Judaism, despite Zuta’s romantic assumption, had no such thing as a holiday for the plants.

Israeli policemen plant a sapling for Tu Bishvat last year (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israeli policemen plant a sapling for Tu Bishvat last year
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
“Winter was furious,” wrote Haim Arye Zuta in 1904, referring to his childhood in Czarist Yekaterinoslav.
“Snow reigned everywhere,” he reminisced in Jerusalem. “Deep in thought I would walk away from the Heder where they had just handed all of us kids dates, raisins, and carobs, about which they told us that they all grow there, in that land; that out there, today is the holiday of the trees; that out there, the trees are now singing, reciting a prayer for the new year.”
An educational pioneer who back in Europe helped secularize the Heder’s curriculum, Zuta (1868-1939) recalled fondly and enviously the Russian version of the American Arbor day.
Convinced it was invented by “our forebears [who] knew how to thank the trees,” and recalling how while abroad he imagined festive planting of trees in the Land of Israel, trees that “benefit the land, purify the air, bring dew, and remind mankind that the tree of the field is alive” – Zuta set out to nurture the Zionist holiday of trees, Tu Bishvat.
His success was astonishing.
For more than a century by now, every 15th of the month of Shvat – the midwinter day that the Mishna lists as the start of “the trees’ new year” – thousands of Israelis plant thousands of trees in mountain forests, urban gardens and rural fields.
Supermarkets shelves, meanwhile, brim with colorful baskets of strawberries, apricots, prunes, nuts, raisins and assorted tropical fruits as households indulge in the produce of the Land of Milk and Honey.
Few realize that Tu Bishvat is effectively an invented holiday, one whose opaque origins in Jewish mysticism were used to craft a tool of Jewish nationalism before making way for yet new relevance in an age of universal concern for the future of planet Earth.
Ancient Judaism, despite Zuta’s romantic assumption, had no such thing as a holiday for the plants.
The Mishna that lists Tu Bishvat among Jewish law’s four New-Year days refers merely to the technicality of dating the tithes that farmers gave the priests and the poor.
That the ancient Jews did not treat this date as a holiday is evident from the Mishna’s debate over its date (the House of Shamai thought it should be the first day of the month of Shvat), a controversy that could not emerge concerning an actively observed holiday.
Indeed, Tu Bishvat was first made a celebration of sorts by kabbalists in Ottoman Turkey, who created a festive meal of fruits peppered by readings of sacred texts.
Just what drove those mystics is not fully clear. Some apparently yearned for the days when the Jewish people owned and farmed its land, a longing those kabbalists expressed by munching on apples, figs and dates while studying Judaism’s agricultural laws. Others, while biting the Tree of Life’s fruits, hoped to correct what Adam and Eve wronged when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge.
Understandably, such rabbis were suspected of secretly worshipping the false messiah Shabtai Zvi, and of harnessing Tu Bishvat for a cause that to most other rabbis was by then anathema.
Still, the fruits’ celebration itself remained legitimate and its subsequent enlistment by secular nationalism would be embraced by everyone, even the ultra-Orthodox.
That is how in 1910, after persuading the Teachers Union to hold Tu Bishvat ceremonies in all of Ottoman Palestine’s Jewish schools, Haim Zuta got five schools from Jaffa to march three kilometers southeast, to the Mikve Yisrael agricultural school, where 300 kids planted trees.
It was the first public Tu Bishvat event, according to Bar-Ilan University cultural historian Hizky Shoham, and the precedent it set quickly took root.
Three years later, 1,500 children from all of Jerusalem’s Jewish schools trekked to Motza, outside the city’s western exit. Joined by thousands of adults, they “planted plants, sang songs, and danced and rejoiced” and “felt that the good days are returning; the golden age when Israel sat on its land,” the Hebrew daily Ha-Herut waxed nostalgic.
Though joined in that case by the ultra-Orthodox, the remodeled Tu Bishvat was a Zionist creation, an instrument for achieving the romantic quest to shift the Jews to nature from urbanity, to productivity from commerce, and to their soil from Exile’s many lands. In this regard, Tu Bishvat was hardly unique.
Hanukkah was for centuries almost a non-holiday, a week in which routine was disrupted only by several added prayers and dishes, and whose central rite, the candle lighting, was removed from the public sphere. Zionism changed this, radically.
First, a struggle for national liberation could hardly be more relevant for the Zionist cause. Secondly, the Maccabees’ battles, which for previous generations were dim echoes from a distant land’s blurry landscapes, became for Zion’s returnees a palpable part of their landscape.
And lastly, the historic fear of celebrating Jewish holidays publicly vanished. Hanukkah therefore became a major Zionist holiday, with public candle-lighting ceremonies, large parties in schools, youth movements, workplaces, and theaters, and a countrywide torch-relay that ended in the Maccabees’ reputed graves.
It was in that unfamiliar spirit of national confidence that poet Avraham Shlonksi suggested in 1928 making a burning effigy of the biblical Haman the central theme of the costume pageant that paraded on Purim through young Tel Aviv.
Even more radically, Lag Ba’Omer, the springtime holiday of bonfires, was pretty much ignored in most Jewish communities over the centuries until reinvented by Zionism as a celebration of Jewish heroism, due to its assumed origins in the Bar-Kokhba revolt against Rome.
The biblical Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot were also reprogrammed by Zionism, which dusted and amplified their agricultural aspects, especially in kibbutzim, whose replacement of those holidays’ traditional prayers with colorful, dance-filled festivities of harvest and fertility struck some as neo-pagan.
Tu Bishvat was different.
There was no ancient formula for its celebration that could be violated or tweaked. Indeed, never in its history, old or new, did it carry a constitutional text, the way the books of Esther and the Maccabees did for Purim and Hanukkah, nor did it produce a sacred ritual like the latter’s candle lighting, or Passover’s Seder, or Sukkot’s eating in temporary huts.
Indeed, even after its Zionist embrace Tu Bishvat never became a legal vacation day, and its ceremonies remained pretty much where Haim Zuta initiated them, in the kindergartens and schools, so much so that scholars see it as part of what they call “the children’s culture,” and a reflection of the common equation of children and plants.
Still, planting was for Zionism no child’s play, but a matter of high strategy, and once the British came along it turned out that on this front the two had plenty of room for cooperation, especially on Tu Bishvat. The British Mandate government had a Department of Forests that welcomed the Jews’ eagerness to forest the Land of Israel, because it saw in forestation a way of combating desolation.
The Jews, though primarily driven by national motivation to expand their grip on vacant areas, shared this British thinking. The Mandate government therefore declared Tu Bishvat a formal holiday, and in fact supplied millions of saplings to the Jewish schools for their students to plant on Tu Bishvat.
By the time the British left in 1948 they had planted more than 13,000 acres of trees west of the Jordan, mostly along the Mediterranean coast, while the Jews planted an additional 6,000 acres, mostly in the Galilee and Judean Mountains.
So devoted were the Jews those days to the planting endeavor that in 1937, while the Arab Revolt’s perpetrators torched planted forests, some mourned them, and also vowed revenge, as if they had been human beings.
“Look, brothers, at what the murderers did to our saplings,” a moderator told the crowd in a Tu Bishvat ceremony in Tel Aviv in 1937. “Listen to the burnt forest’s groan. Rest not until we return and plant, and our forests become glory in the land.” The children, reported the Labor daily Davar, answered in a resounding roar, “We shall remember!”
Though some of this context remains relevant, the nationally rooted Tu Bishvat is globalizing.
Yes, organized planting continues in earnest, led by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which is in the last stages of a decade-long effort to have as many citizens as possible plant an aggregate 6 million trees, from the Negev to the Galilee.
And yes, some of the planting remains politically charged, especially beyond the Green Line, though some of the planting projects actually defy the conflict, like one in which settlers from Efrat and their Palestinian neighbors from Jurat-a-Shama jointly planted trees on Tu Bishvat in 2012 to fend off the nearby desert’s dust, which invaded their houses in disregard of national borders.
Though such a post-conflict Tu Bishvat is not about to become the norm anytime soon, the holiday is steadily sailing toward an apolitical future, whereby nationalism gives way to a universalistic environmentalism.
That is why the planting drive JNF launched last decade is part of the United Nations Environment Program’s “Plant the Planet” project, which aims to plant a billion trees worldwide, informed by Israel’s singular success in having by the end of the 20th century more trees than it had when it began.
In the same world-mending spirit, environmental organizations like the Nature Protection Society and the National Parks Authority use Tu Bishvat to bring thousands to places where development threatens nature, like the sand dunes of Nitzanim south of Ashdod, or the Timna Valley north of Eilat.
No longer feeling the urgent need that Haim Zuta felt in Czarist Russia to prove that Jews can be as attached to their land as Gentiles can be to theirs, Israelis now use Tu Bishvat to join the rest of mankind’s effort to fight modernity’s affronts to the planet.
Come mid-January’s Tu Bishvat, Israelis will flock to the Judean Mountains to admire their blooming almond trees’ gowning in a pinkish white veneer; and to the Sharon Valley, to stroll by its blankets of velvety red anemones; and to the Dimona Creek’s bronzy slopes, to inhale the fragrance of midwinter’s daffodils as their green stalks and yellow petals and stamens violate the surrounding desert’s desolation, aridity, and pallor.
While observing this way the one Israeli holiday that has no constitutional myth, guiding text, or vacation day, few Israelis recall the third stanza in “The Almond Blossoms,” in which Hebrew poet Yisrael Dushman (1884-1947) vowed, “We shall forest every mount and hill / From Dan to Beersheba / And our Land we shall reclaim.”
Millions, however, sure do remember this poem’s opening lines, having sung them with their kindergarten teacher while planting, like Haim Zuta’s children outside Ottoman Jerusalem, a sapling in their land:
The almond is blossoming
And a golden sun is shining
Birds atop every roof
Announce the holiday’s approach
Tu Bishvat has arrived – the holiday
of the trees