As we are coming up to the 15th day of Shevat (Jan. 26) or Tu B’Shevat, I remember when I was a religious schoolteacher and I would struggle to come up with a different idea on how to celebrate this minor Jewish holiday, sometimes called the New Year for Trees.
I remember how I used to pour over books in our congregation library (this was pre-Internet as we know it now) and ponder how to keep children transfixed. I realize now all we really had to do is start with planting, maybe, parsley to begin with and go from there. This 15th day of Shevat now has a much broader meaning for me in particular as I grow as a gardener and a world citizen about ecology and wasting our resources.
Tu B’Shevat is first referred to in the late Second Temple period, 515 BCE to 20 CE, when it was the cut-off date for levying the tithe on the produce of fruit trees. When Jewish colonists returned to Palestine during the 1930’s, they reclaimed the inhospitable land by planting trees where they could and it became customary to plant a tree for every child that was born. For a male, a cedar would be planted and for a female, a cypress.
In the United States, Tu B’Shevat is the New Year of the Trees and is embraced as a “Jewish Earth Day or Arbor Day.”
True, when we celebrate this holiday (January or February) most of our country is blanketed in cold and snow, and Israel’s land is starting to awaken from its wintry hold. Most of the gardens here - either personal or community- are long past.
The fruits we see in the grocers are not as plentiful as in the warmer part of the year. Jews eat fruits at this time to celebrate the potential that a tree has and will have again in the spring and summer. We particularly eat fruits that are in Israel (dates, figs, pomegranates, carob etc.) to show our connection and support for this wonderful Jewish state.
We discuss ecology, and how it affects us personally – the air, the water and how we can positively affect changes and how not to waste our most precious resources. In my class, we would end our day with a planting of parsley for the sedar plates that would come for Passover.
My friend, Irwin Blank and his wife, Iris made aliyah (immigration) to Israel a few years ago and writes: "The weather is Spring-like now, and sometimes, even warm enough for the beach. Tu B'Shevat is celebrated as the New Year for Trees and schoolchildren, youth groups and even members of the armed forces, visit the national forests and plant thousands of saplings. As a matter of fact, all the trees that were destroyed in the Carmel fires last year, have been replaced, and Israel is the only country on Earth to have ended the 20th century with more trees at the end of that time than at the beginning. Since 1903, when the Jewish National Fund was started by Theodor Herzl at the Zionist congress, more than 240 million trees have been planted all over Israel, from the Galillee to the Negev. There is also a special Tu B'Shevat seder that families celebrate where the fruits of the land are eaten and blessed."
Jews have long been interested in respecting not only the earth and our stewardship of God’s creation but also how we go about such actions. This Tu B’Shevat , as we honor our beloved trees, ponder on how to promote our constant global struggle with climate change and its impact not only for the immediate now but for generations to come.