Historical roots

How the secular movement turned a marginal Jewish holiday into a day for planting trees

‘At the turn of the 20th century, the Zionist secular movement chose a marginal date, the 15th of Shvat, traditionally named the New Year of the Trees, and converted it into the ‘Festival of Trees’ on which trees were planted by the public,” writes Prof. Idit Pintel-Ginsberg of the University of Haifa, a leading scholar of the folklore of Israel, in the journal Israel Studies.
Since the first waves of Jewish olim to Eretz Yisrael focused on agricultural work and forest planting, Pintel-Ginsberg believed “a distinctive narrative: redeeming the abandoned land and returning it to its former biblical state as the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’” was developed.
To enliven this narrative, Tu Bishvat became “a nationwide tree planting, in which everyone in the country took part, thus contributing to the land’s restoration. This activity was seen as the direct continuation of the biblically divine commandment (Leviticus 19:23): ‘And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees.’”
Pintel-Ginsberg noted that the “sequel” of the verse was to plant “for food.” Assuming this statement meant “fruit trees,” the early settler narrative made it refer to “various kinds of trees, including those planted to create forests.”
Prof. Yael Zerubavel, a historian of the symbols of Israel, reinforced her colleague’s conclusions. “In the emergent Hebrew culture of pre-state Jewish society in Palestine, trees carried an even greater symbolic value: They became an icon of national revival, symbolizing the Zionist success in ‘striking roots’ in the ancient homeland.”
Zerubavel emphasized that children were named for trees, children’s literature described young trees as children and the Jewish nation was depicted as a tree.
Zerubavel defined Tu Bishvat as “an excellent temporal locus for teaching about trees and the Jewish National Fund’s mission of afforestation. Tree-planting emerged as a central patriotic ritual of this holiday within the secular national Hebrew culture.” From that original narrow definition, the mission and mitzva of planting trees on the holiday grew to include the entire population of this country, both religious and secular.
THE FIRST textual description of communal tree planting on Tu Bishvat was in a letter from Yesud Hama’ala, dated 22 Shvat 5644, 1884, and translated by Pintel-Ginsberg for her article. This settlement was founded by members of the First Aliya who immigrated to the area in the Hula Valley. Twelve families moved there from Poland initially.
Moving south from the Hula area, the educator Ze’ev Yavetz led the next known Tu Bishvat planting in 1890 on the outskirts of Zichron Ya’acov. We can assume that other plantings occurred in various settlements in this same period, but they were not recorded for posterity.
A most dramatic event at the end of the 19th century in Eretz Yisrael occurred in November 1898 when Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, recorded in his diary that he personally planted a cypress tree in Motza just outside of Jerusalem. In 1901 a major step was taken at the World Zionist Congress when the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet was established.
In her writings, Zerubavel has stressed that the JNF, “the Zionist agency entrusted with the mission of purchasing land and promoting the Jewish settlement of Palestine, regarded tree planting as a sacred activity that would lead to the ‘redemption of the land.’”
She took the process one step further, noting that Jewish educational institutions helped the JNF by “socializing the children to give weekly donations to the JNF blue box, teaching them (in the words of a famous Hebrew song) that every penny counts and contributes to the redemption of the land.”
In 1908 the Jewish Teachers Bureau in Jerusalem made it obligatory for every child in the city’s schools to go out to plant in Motza (the site of Herzl’s tree) on Tu Bishvat. The Jewish Chronicle of London wrote a few weeks later that “all the girls of the Evelina de Rothschild school were led by Headmistress Landau on the Chamisha Asar B’Shevat outing to a nearby settlement for treeplanting.”
In her very comprehensive article in the 1915-1916 American Jewish Yearbook entitled “Recent Progress in Palestine,” Henrietta Szold focused on a few elements relating to the developing tree culture in Eretz Yisrael. Since she spent a long period of time in the country in 1913 and 1914, she was present for the Tu Bishvat celebration. She stressed that the future can best be seen in the “processions of schoolchildren, on whose breath the world stands, as they wend their way singing to Motza, on Hamisha Osher Be-Shevat, the Palestinian children’s Arbor Day.”
“Palestine has the conditions and therefore the opportunities of California. The soils in various parts [of the land] are adaptable for all sorts of growth.”
Pintel-Ginsberg also provided a description of the planting of a portion of the Deganya Forest in the 1920s. In this document we sense the excitement of how the teachers from the moshavot in the Lower Galilee brought their pupils to Deganya on 15 Shvat, specifically to an area referred to as “the land of the people.”
“Even before sunrise, the children’s march starts moving on foot, riding horses, traveling on carriages and chorales of music at the head. By an open space near the Jordan’s banks, 400 seedlings are ready to be planted. Two children near each seedling. Two children and a seedling – two children and a seedling” all waiting to begin. “The musicians start beating their instruments, immediately the children as one, lower the seedlings into the prepared holes – all deeply at work.”
The author of the document made everyone a witness to the meaning ofthe children’s efforts more than eight decades ago. “Man and trees,trees and children. Both will become rooted in the land, will blossomand grow.”
This planting forged a deep bond “between our children and the land andits trees... and the tree grows and the child grows. And years willpass by, and when the man, after years will visit here, his soul shalllove this place and the tree that he planted with his own hands.”