Tu BiSh’vat, also called Chamishah-Asar BiSh’vat or the “New Year of the Trees,” is Jewish Arbor Day. The holiday is observed on the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat, roughly corresponding to February in the secular calendar. This year, Tu BiSh’vat is celebrated on Saturday, January 26.
Every letter in Hebrew has a numerical equivalent. Thus, alef equals one, bet equals two, gimel equals three, and so on. The Hebrew letters tet (nine) and vav (six), used to make up the Tu in Tu BiSh’vat, have a combined numerical value of fifteen (chamishahasar in Hebrew). Tu BiSh’vat, then, is an abbreviated way of saying Chamishah-Asar BiSh’vat or “fifteenth of Sh’vat.”
We first hear of the holiday in the Mishnah, which calls it the “New Year of the Trees,” Rosh HaShanah La-ilanot. Scholars believe that Tu BiSh’vat was originally an agricultural festival, marking the emergence of spring in ancient Palestine. At this time, the tithes on the fruit crop were levied and sent to the Temple in Jerusalem. Some scholars hold that this was also a day for planting trees, especially “marriage trees.” It was customary for parents who had been blessed with children during the preceding year to plant special seedlings on the fifteenth of Sh’vat. Cedars were planted for boys, cypress trees for girls. When the children grew up and married, the trees were cut down and used as part of the chuppah (marriage canopy). Some Israelis perpetuate this custom today.
As in the case with many Jewish observances, a critical historical event served as a catalyst. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the exile that followed, many Jews felt a need to bind themselves symbolically to their former homeland. Tu BiSh’vat served in part to fill that spiritual need. As it was no longer possible to bring tithes to the Temple, Jews used this time each year to eat a variety of fruits and nuts that could be obtained from Palestine. The practice, a sort of physical association with the land, continued for many centuries. The sixteenth- and seventeenth- century kabbalists (mystics) of Palestine elaborated on the exilic customs, creating a ritual for Tu BiSh’vat somewhat similar to the Passover seder. On Erev Tu BiSh’vat, they would gather in their homes for a fifteen-course meal, each course being one of the foods associated with the land. Between courses, they would read from an anthology called P’ri Eitz Hadar (Citrus Fruit), a compilation of passages on trees drawn from the Bible, the Talmud, and the mystical Zohar. Today, in modern Israel, Tu BiSh’vat has become a national holiday, a tree planting festival for both Israelis and Jews throughout the world. Much of the credit for the great joy and spirit of the holiday is a direct result of the important work of the Jewish National Fund.
When many of us think of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), we think of the little “blue box” in our homes or the beautiful tree certificates we send or receive at important Jewish moments in our lives and in the lives of family and friends. All too few, however, are fully aware of what JNF has done over the course of many decades to insure the viability of the modern State of Israel. The JNF was the brainchild of a German mathematician named Hermann Schapira. Schapira, an ardent Zionist, realized that there had to be an agency that would purchase the land on which a Jewish state might ultimately flower. He felt that Jews throughout the world should help to buy the land, thus enabling it to be held in trust for the entire Jewish people. The land, he affirmed, must never be sold or mortgaged, only leased. The agency he proposed would ensure that the Jewish state, once established, would never be subject to the whims of real estate speculators or political bodies, whatever their wealth or nationality. Schapira’s brilliant concept was first proposed in 1884. Seventeen years later, in 1901, the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (JNF) was officially established as the land purchasing agency of the World Zionist Organization. Since then, JNF has secured countless acres of land; helped to establish kibbutzim and moshavim; provided those settlements with farm equipment, livestock, and water supply systems; drained swamps; assisted farmers in maximizing crop production; paved thousands of miles of road; built dams for irrigation; and planted more than two hundred million trees. Today, Jews in some forty countries help JNF through personal contributions and the purchase of trees. Hospitals, schools, and synagogues are constantly being built on JNF land.
The Union for Reform Judaism has also sponsored special forests in Israel for the entire Reform Movement. For more information on planting trees, contact the Jewish National Fund.
Trees are part of the natural wonder of our world and have always been a special symbol for Jews. Trees were protected in times of war (Deuteronomy 20:19). A midrashic Sage said: “Trees were created for man’s companionship.” And Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav proclaimed, “If a man kills a tree before its time, it is as though he had murdered a soul.”
Above all, the Torah itself is seen as a “tree of life,” a growing and abundant source of spiritual sustenance to a great people. Perhaps this is the best indication of the reverence and respect that Judaism holds for God’s world. The tree has been a symbol of life and continues to be a source of life for Israel today. On Tu BiSh’vat, we celebrate that life in joy and gladness.
Adapted from The Jewish Home (Revised Edition) by Daniel B. Syme, URJ Books and Music.