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Take a Bough: How Tu B'Shevat Has Branched Out

January 8, 2014 By:
Deborah Fineblum, JNS.org
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An Israeli family chooses plants in a nursery in Eshtaol, Israel, in celebration of Tu B’Shevat in 2011. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash 90

Israelis know that each and every tree is precious. When the pioneers of the Jewish state first cast their eyes on the Promised Land, it was barren. There were no natural forests. Now, Israel is the only country in the world that ended the 20th century with more trees than it started with. In just six decades, Israelis have literally sunk down roots.

Of course, Israel did not accomplish this alone. Diaspora Jews have grown up dropping coins into little blue-and-white pushkas (tin cans), coins earmarked for planting trees in Israel. Many lucky enough to travel to Israel in their youth recall placing slippery little saplings into the ground.

Each sapling and coin has done its part to “green” the Jewish state. Since 1901, the Jewish National Fund has planted more than 240 million trees indigenous to the Middle East, such as native oaks, carob, redbud, almond, pear, hawthorn, cypress and the exotic Atlantic cedar. JNF has also developed more than 250,000 acres of land and 1,000 parks.

Tu B’Shevat — the Jewish New Year for trees, celebrated this Jan. 16 — grew out of the tithes (the amount Jewish law requires to be donated) that Jews take from the produce grown in Israel. The date when new fruits are officially assigned to the new year is the 15th of the Hebrew calendar month Shevat. The letter value of 15 spells Tu, hence the holiday’s name and timing.

Today, Jews around the world mark Tu B’Shevat by eating fruit, particularly the kinds mentioned in the Torah as Israel’s natural gifts: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

In Israel, where trees are nothing less than a relatively recent miracle, Tu B’Shevat isn’t just a passing nod to our leafy-boughed friends. It’s a real, living holiday marked by countless tree-planting ceremonies, ecological consciousness-raising programs and seders  — minus the matzah. The rituals have become increasingly popular in the United States as well.

“Tu B’Shevat is really the celebration of springtime, yet it is in the middle of the winter because it’s really the festival of faith, and particularly faith in the land of Israel,” said Rabbi Binny Freedman, head of Orayta Yeshiva in Jeru­salem’s Old City.

It was in Israel that 17th-century Kabbalistic master, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Tzfat, and his disciples instituted the Tu B’Shevat seder, modeled after the Pas­sover seder. Each of the fruits and trees of the Land of Israel were given symbolic meaning, including fruits with hard shells, those with inedible pits and those that are completely edible. In addition, four cups of wine or grape juice are drunk in a specific order and in varying shades of red, pink and white, representing the cycle of life and seasons.

For many years, the Tu B’Shevat seder was an important event for children in the elementary school in Kfar Saba, where Israel Lenchner was principal. They were among Israel’s poorest kids, the majority of them from Ethiopian families.

“Five hundred years ago, the rabbis would eat 34 fruits and vegetables that night, telling their stories and speaking of their love for Eretz Yisrael,” said Lenchner, who is now retired. “That’s why, for all the years I was the principal, we always had the seder of Tu B’Shevat.”

But Lenchner didn’t do it for the children alone.

“As important for them to know the stories, the wisdom and the traditions that have been handed down to us about the land, it’s just as important for us that they know it, that they truly love this land and this people,” he said. “That’s why every year we made sure they heard it, so they could grow up appreciating what they — and we — have been given here.”

Tree planting was an Israeli tradition even before JNF got in on the act. On Tu B’Shevat in 1890, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz led his students on a planting outing to Zichron Ya’akov.  JNF embraced the tradition in 1901 and the Jewish Teachers Union took it up in 1908. A few years later, JNF devoted the holiday to planting eucalyptus trees in an effort to drain the swamps and halt the malaria that had attacked communities in the Hula Valley.

In honor of this holiday of new beginnings, the laying of the cornerstone at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem took place on Tu B’Shevat in 1918, as did those of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in 1925 and of the Knesset in 1949.

These days, more than a million people attend JNF’s annual Tu B’Shevat planting ceremonies in Israel’s largest forests. But the trees have not been immune to violence. In 2006, after Katyusha rockets destroyed 10,000 acres of forest, JNF launched Operation Northern Renewal to begin replacing topsoil that had burned away and to replant the forest.

“Through 2,000 years of exile we never stopped believing that one day, we would come home,” said Freedman, the Orayta Yeshiva rabbi. “Which is why this Jewish festival is being rediscovered in Israel, because anywhere else in the world it is by necessity missing something. A celebration of coming home makes the most sense — when you are home.”

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