Perspectives on Tu Bishvat

Looking back in history, the ‘tree holiday’ shows arbor appreciation, patriotism and love of Eretz Yisrael.

Tu Bishvat (photo credit: Courtesy )
Tu Bishvat
(photo credit: Courtesy )
In January 1948, only a few months before Israel became a state, Rabbi Avraham Silverstone of Pittsburgh wrote a very informative article about Tu Bishvat throughout Jewish history, called An Old-New Holiday. Silverstone, in recalling events in decades past, foreshadowed the impending rebirth of the Jewish nation and tied it in to the renewal associated with Tu Bishvat.
“Where there is life there is hope for new strength. The festival that survived the hostile interference of men and nature has been revived and endowed again with its normal functions,” he wrote.
Silverstone stressed how Jews outside of Palestine celebrate through their ongoing contributions for the “reforestation of Eretz Yisrael and for the planting of trees in the land of our Renascence.” He concluded with words which must have been on everyone’s lips in 1948: “In the free and independent new Judea, we may look forward to a bright future both for our land and for this folk-festival.”
Silverstone was only one of many diaspora Jews who attempted to keep Tu Bishvat alive before the establishment of Israel by offering varied explanations why it was so important and should be observed. Poets penned hymns to trees; artists drew pictures of trees in our homeland; through their work, they emphasized why the tree, that unique creation of God was so important to the Jewish people.
As the great-grandson of Yosef Geffen, a jobber who handled the sale of timber from the Lithuanian forests, let me offer some insights into this holiday of ours.
On the one hand, Zionists have explained that “the human tree is the new Jew, who in planting trees advanced settlement of the land, helping to remove the rootlessness of exile.”
The question was asked of the 17th century Maharal of Prague, “What sort of trees are we humans?” He offered a very fascinating response.
“We are upside-down trees whose spiritual roots lie in heaven above and whose far reaching branches and twigs form us earthlings below.”
He continued in this incisive fashion.
“Trees are at the pinnacle of the plant world, which transforms the earth from a barren and lifeless mass into an environment capable of supporting other forms of life such as animals and humans.”
When we witnessed the agonizing destruction of six million trees in the Carmel forest in December 2010, each of us understood what the Maharal was saying.
That is why Jews and non-Jews came to help and why one anonymous person donated $14 million to begin to restore that area. The Maharal reminds us that the phrase “because a man is the tree of the field” teaches us that “the life of man is clearly from the tree.”
Among the early halutzim – and other participants in the first aliya in the nineteenth century – were individuals who were both involved in the clearing of the land for crops and in the planting of trees for holding the soil and for beautification. In the fiscal perspectives of the Ottoman Empire authorities, many means were sought to draw revenue from the population. Every tree was taxed so those who inhabited the land, before the arrival of Jews two centuries ago, cut down as many trees as possible so their tax bill would be less.
The Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund came into being in 1901 both to purchase land and also to plant trees. When you look at early pictures of Israel with wide stretches of barren land, you can truly appreciate what the afforestation, in particular, has achieved.
I recall in my youth the shammas of one of the Atlanta synagogues, Reverend Sholom Clein, who personally took charge of emptying the Blue Boxes and passing on the money to the right sources. A native of the city since the first decade of the 20th century, he felt the need to educate generation after generation of young Jews as to why tree planting was so important.
When he came to our synagogue’s religious school classes, he told us stories about the halutzim and then he said, “Ladies and laddies, they give themselves – you have to give your pennies.”
Of course, in those days one tree only cost a single dollar. While pennies, nickels and dimes were used to buy trees in Eretz Yisrael, some synagogues and temples in the United States did other kind of planting to make the holiday more meaningful for the youth.
A story in the Anglo-Jewish press in 1945 told about a Reform Temple in Dothan, Alabama, whose Jewish population numbered just 144 people. The rabbi, Alfred Wolf, helped the religious school students observe the New Year of the trees by coaching them in the planting of a tree on the grounds of the Temple. Mr. and Mrs. Myer Blumberg had donated a “young long leaf pine” which was carefully placed in the earth. Those students truly had a “tree experience” as they loudly recited the “‘sheheyanu’ blessing” on that crisp Alabama day.
American Jews, who served in the United States military in World War II, often came to Palestine on their leaves once the Nazi and Italian forces had been driven out of the Middle East. Rabbi Jacob Kraft, of Wilmington, Delaware, was a chaplain in the US Airforce in Europe for three years. In the spring of 1945, Kraft traveled to Palestine by military transport with several other chaplains both Jewish and Christian.
In his letters to his wife, Leah, preserved in the Delaware Jewish Archives, he wrote about “the incredible number of trees both small and large which the Jews have planted.
I knew that for years we had collected funds for afforestation, but I had no idea how much success there was with these plantings. I hope and pray that I can return to our synagogue, Beth Shalom, and encourage our members and the children of our religious school to buy trees in great numbers.”
Kraft began a tradition for his synagogue.
Today, several Beth Shalom groves exist as well as a forest.
In January 1942, only a month after Pearl Harbor, Rabbi B. G. Eisenberg of Montgomery, Alabama wrote an article about our tree holiday which was circulated in the southern part of the US. He put his readers on their toes when he said that “you have arbor duty for Zionist interests and for American interests.”
He first explained why every Jew had to contribute to help plant the needed trees for Eretz Yisrael.
Then a different angle: “The preservation of forests and fruit trees, is vital to the national defense of America. There have been a number of large forest fires in this country. These were caused by carelessness and also by sabotage. Our forests are very vulnerable to such activity from the fifth columnists in our midst. Remember how our enemy has killed helpless populations in Europe - destroying trees means nothing to them.”
There is evidence of German and Japan sabotage on the shores of America then, but it was interesting that a rabbi would connect Tu Bishvat and patriotism in this fashion.
He continued on that “the holiday should be utilized in the religious schools to instruct children to be careful to extinguish campfires properly and also to discard cigarette remains safely.” His call to alert on Tu Bishvat surely must have received a very positive response from American Jews who were anxious to do the most for their beloved country.
For Jews the world over, this holiday has always been the “harbinger of spring” in the land of their ancestors. We are fortunate that we can celebrate this wonderful occasion annually on the soil where it began many centuries ago.