From the very beginning of creation, the Holy One wasoccupied with the planting of trees. As it is written:
“God planted a garden in Eden.” (Gen. 2:8)
Every year, on the Hebrew date of Tu Bishvat, we celebrate a strange holiday – the New Year of the Trees. The name is a short form of “the 15th of Shvat” – (9) plus vav (6) equals 15. It also has other names: Hag Ha’ilanot (the Festival of the Trees) and Hag Hapeirot (the Festival of the Fruit).
This year, Tu Bishvat falls on January 28.
The month of Shvat marks the beginning of spring in Israel. In winter, there is usually heavy rain and some storms. Vegetation is dormant. Except for the olive, the cypress, the carob and the pine, the trees are leafless, the fields newly plowed and sown. But with Shvat, nature rouses itself. Meadows are carpeted with blood-red anemones and cyclamens peep from rock crevices. Trees begin to blossom. The almond (shaked) is the first, bedecking itself with rose-white flowers.
The Talmud and Midrash are emphatic about the value of trees. “Man’s life depends on the tree;” “All the trees were created for the use and enjoyment of living beings;” “It is forbidden to live in a city that has no gardens and greens.” The Torah is compared to a tree: “For it is a tree of life....” Trees were given human characteristics: the cedar symbolizing courage and strength; the olive, wisdom; the grapevine, joy and childbearing; the palm, beauty and stateliness.
Thus it is easy to understand the significance of the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the day when trees are judged – which trees will flourish and grow tall; which will wither and shrink; which will be struck by lightning and which will withstand all danger. In the ancient Jewish calendar, the date was adopted for tree tithing. Farmers were obliged to give a tenth of their produce to the government as fruit for the Temple. Even today, we measure the age of the tree according to Tu Bishvat and it is forbidden to eat its fruit until the tree’s fourth birthday.
THE CUSTOMS of Tu Bishvat are few but delightful. Holding a Seder is not commanded in the Torah. The idea began in Safed in the 1500s as a celebration of the creation, and it is modeled after the Passover Seder. Some 15 kinds of fruit and nuts are eaten and four cups of wine are drunk. Traditionally, the first cup is white wine, then white mixed with a bit of red, the third cup is red mixed with a bit of white and the fourth cup is pure red wine, symbolizing the four seasons. The table is set with fruit, wine and a loaf of bread and the blessing over fruit is recited at least four times. We read a selection of prayers, poems and blessings referring to trees and fruit and the earth’s fertility.
Tree-planting ceremonies, especially by children, are traditional on Tu Bishvat in Israel, where the soil is holy. At the dawn of creation, God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden to till it and tend it. We are therefore commanded to take care of the world and be its stewards.
Tu Bishvat also reminds us of our responsibility to the environment – that we should cry out against the enormity of the destruction of rain forests and the degradation of God’s world.
The writer is the author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah.