Tu BiSh'vat, the birthday of the trees (or the new year of the trees) is a minor Jewish holiday.The name comes from the calendar date on which it falls: Tu is the Hebrew equivalent of 15 and Sh'vat is the Hebrew month in which we are in right now. Tu BiSh'vat was originally a day when the fruits that grew from that day on were counted for the following year in regard to tithes.
In modern times, it is celebrated as a Jewish "Earth Day" - celebrating trees, planting trees, and reflecting on environmental and ecological issues. In honor of Tu BiSh'vat, here are 13 reasons trees are important (and a few facts about trees in Israel for good measure).
1. Trees are a source of shade when the sun is hot. They protect our homes, our grass, our land, from the heat of the sun. Trees control climate by moderating the effects of the sun, rain and wind. Leaves absorb and filter the sun's radiant energy, keeping things cool in summer.
2. Trees produce nourishing fruits and nuts for humans to eat.
3. Trees purify the air we breathe and are sometimes called the "green lungs" of our cities.
4. Trees help prevent the soil from erosion and the land from becoming a desert.
5. Trees can be beautiful and inspiring to gaze upon. As the old adage goes, “I have never seen something as beautiful as a tree.”
6. Many animals, including elephants, koalas and giraffes eat leaves for nourishment. Flowers are eaten by monkeys, and nectar is a favorite of birds, bats and many insects. Animals also eat much of the same fruit that we enjoy.
7. Hundreds of living creatures call trees their home. Leaf-covered branches keep many animals, such as birds and squirrels, out of the reach of predators.
8. They have a wide variety of practical and commercial uses. Wood was the very first fuel, and is still used for cooking and heating by about half of the world's population. Trees provide timber for building construction, furniture manufacture, tools, sporting equipment, and thousands of household items. Wood pulp is used to make paper.
9. The bark of some trees can be made into cork and is a source of chemicals and medicines. Quinine and aspirin are both made from bark extracts. The inner bark of some trees contains latex, the main ingredient of rubber.
10. Today, there are over 200 million trees in Israel – forests of pine, tamarisk, carob and eucalyptus.
11. Since its founding, the Jewish National Fund has planted more than 240 million trees in Israel to protect the land, prevent soil erosion, green the landscape and preserve vital ecosystems.
12. Israel is the only country in the world that entered the 21st century with a net gain in numbers of trees.
13. The Yatir Forest, which grows on the edge of the desert, is the largest of Israel’s man-planted forests. The father of afforestation in Israel, Yosef Weitz, jabbed the ground of Yatir with his walking stick and declared: "A forest will grow here!" contradicting the experts who argued that it was impossible for trees to grow on such arid soil. Which generally sums up Jewish gumption!
Rabbi Phyllis Sommer is the associate rabbi at Am Shalom in Glenoe, IL.
Originally published at Ima On (and Off) the Bima