Tu Bishvat's message

This year the convergence of Tu Bishvat and shmita provides us with a unique opportunity to think about the importance of our ties to the land.

The Hexagon Pool in the Yehudiya Nature Reserve. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
The Hexagon Pool in the Yehudiya Nature Reserve.
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Tuesday evening at sundown marks the start of Tu Bishvat, a special holiday uniquely tied to the Land of Israel. Occurring on the 15th of the Jewish month of Shvat, it is a sort of “Jewish arbor day.”
In classical Jewish sources, Tu Bishvat is mentioned as one of four “New Years” – the New Year of the trees. Precisely which biblical tithes to be given and prohibitions involving trees and fruits are determined in accordance with Tu Bishvat. For instance, in the first three years after a tree has been planted, the Bible prohibits eating fruit from that tree.
This prohibition is called orlah in Hebrew. Tu Bishvat is the date used to determine the age of the fruits of the tree.
Similarly, Tu Bishvat is the day used to determine which types of tithes need to be taken from the produce of the Land of Israel.
This is a somewhat complicated business best left to those well versed in Jewish law. But what is clear is that Tu Bishvat is a quintessentially agricultural holiday that can be observed only in the Land of Israel. It makes little sense to celebrate the day in the Diaspora.
True, there are prominent rabbis throughout the ages – most famously Nahmanides (1194-1270) – who have argued that observance of all the Jewish laws and commandments in exile – not just those directly connected to the Land of Israel – is solely a rehearsal until the Jews are able to return to “the real thing.”
Benedict Spinoza made a similar point, arguing that all the commandments of the Bible were a means of strengthening the Jews’ national identity in the era of the Jewish commonwealth. Because Jews continued to foster a collective national identity in the Diaspora through practices such as circumcision, Spinoza did not rule out the possibility that some day, given the right circumstances and assuming they would abandon their political passivity with regard to reestablishing their commonwealth, the Jews would return to the Land of Israel.
Still, Tu Bishvat is a day on the Jewish calendar more intimately and unshakably connected to the historic homeland of the Jewish people than most others. This did not prevent Diaspora Jews from celebrating Tu Bishvat with a unique ceremony inspired by the Pessah Seder. Usually, these were Jews with a particularly mystical bent influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the father of Kabbala. But many of these attempts to continue to give meaning to the day at a time when nearly all the Jews were far from their land were unsatisfactory.
A story is told of the spiritual founder of the Ger Hassidic dynasty, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787–1859), who, during a Tu Bishvat feast, asked one of his students to elaborate on Tu Bishvat’s meaning.
After a particularly long-winded oration, the Rebbe of Kotzk commented: “If we were in the Land of Israel, it would have been enough to go out to the fields and to observe the trees to understand the meaning of the day.”
With the return of the Jews to their land, it was only natural that Tu Bishvat would once again become a significant day on the Jewish calendar. Secular Zionists seized on Tu Bishvat and turned it into a day of tree planting. There was, admittedly, little logic to the practice. Why insist on planting at a time of the year when the cold weather often did not allow the saplings to survive? There is nothing in the classic Jewish texts that connects Tu Bishvat with the planting of trees. The day marks the beginning of the end of the rainy season, which has implications for the fruit of the tree.
This Jewish year – 5775 – is a shmita or sabbatical year, during which it is forbidden, according to Jewish law, to perform various forms of agricultural work such as plowing, sowing, and planting. The same Jewish law provides various ways of getting around these prohibitions so that agricultural activities can continue. But the Jewish National Fund, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and other organizations will not be conducting tree plantings this year.
Though Israel is today the home of the single largest Jewish population in the world, the vast majority of Israelis are city dwellers. The lives of relatively few are directly connected with plants, trees, and the earth, although we are all inexorably dependent on them.
This year the convergence of Tu Bishvat and shmita provides us with a unique opportunity to think about the importance of our ties to the land, not just as a people with political sovereignty, but as a people with ecological responsibility.