Where it All Began: Tu B’Shevat in Israel

January 15, 2014 7:58 am 0 comments

OC Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Tal Russo, plants the first trees of the Strategic Security Forestation Project together with the residents of the towns and villages surrounding the Gaza Strip. Photo: Wiki Commons.

JNS.org - 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 to be had. And now, just consider: 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 pushkes (tin cans), coins earmarked for planting trees in Israel. Many lucky enough to travel to Israel in their youth recall sticking slippery little saplings into the ground, knowing that each one made the fledgling Jewish state that much stronger.

Each sapling and coin has done its part to “green” the Jewish state. Since 1903, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has planted 250 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 Jan. 16 this year—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, hence the holiday’s 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.

But 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 live holiday marked by countless tree-planting ceremonies, ecological consciousness-raising programs in schools and communities, and seders for young and old alike—minus the matzah. It is in many ways a holiday ahead of its time, says one Israeli rabbi.

“Tu B’Shevat is really the celebration of spring time, 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,” Rabbi Binny Freedman, Rosh Yeshiva of Orayta Yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City, tells JNS.org.

After all, it was in Israel that 17th-century Kabbalistic master Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed and his disciples instituted the Tu B’Shevat seder, modeled after the Passover seder. Here, each of the fruits and trees of the Land of Israel were given symbolic meaning, including fruits with hard shells, 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 the 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 of [Safed] would eat 34 fruits and vegetables that night, telling their stories and speaking of their love for Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel),” Lenchner, who is now retired, tells JNS.org. “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 says. “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.”

The 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 first planting outing to Zichron Yaakov. The a tradition was embraced in 1903 by the JNF and taken up in 1908 by the Jewish Teachers Union. 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 the communities in the Hula Valley. In honor of the tradition 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 the Knesset in 1949.

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

“Through 2,000 years of exile we never stopped believing that one day, we would come home,” says Rabbi Freedman. “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.”

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot is in negotiations to take on the female lead role in the remake of the 1959 classic Ben-Hur, according to The Hollywood Reporter. If the deal is finalized Gadot will play Esther, a slave and Ben-Hur’s love interest. Actor Jack Huston will star as the Jewish prince who is betrayed into slavery by his childhood friend Messala, played by Toby Kebbell. Ben-Hur fights for his freedom and vengeance with the help of Morgan Freeman’s character, who trains Ben-Hur how to win at chariot-racing. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    JNS.org – Baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie are the American dream. So why do two young men who have built their lives in Israel have a GoFundMe crowd-funding webpage with the urgent message that they need $3,000 to travel to the U.S. to watch the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles square off for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League championship? Brothers Naftali and Yoni Schwartz, 27 and 25, respectively, are Kansas City natives. Even though they made aliyah with their [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Some 3,000 years ago, King David probably never imagined cars racing at 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour) through the ancient capital of the Jewish people. But on Monday and Tuesday, October 6-7, thousands of Israelis lined the streets to watch Porsche, Audi, and Ferrari race cars fly through the capital against the backdrop of the Tower of David, the Old City Walls, and other city landmarks. The second annual non-competitive Jerusalem Formula One Road Show had been [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James expressed interest in visiting Israel someday, local news site Cleveland.com reported on Sunday. Speaking to Israeli reporters before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason debut against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the NBA star said he had never visited the Jewish state but “I want to look forward to going there if I get an opportunity to.” When asked by an Israeli reporter if there was “any chance that LeBron James and Cleveland comes to Tel Aviv,” the athlete said [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    A Florida-based Chabad rabbi put former basketball star, U.S. Congressman Curt Clawson to shame on the court when the two faced off one-on-one recently. A YouTube video, posted online on Tuesday, shows Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad of Naples shooting hoops with the Florida politician, who played basketball in high school and at Purdue University in Indiana. The game took place in the parking lot of the Chabad Jewish center run by Zaklos. During the 1-minute clip, Zaklos scores two impressive [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    JNS.org – Less than five months after leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to its sixth European basketball title, David Blatt, now the head coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, routed his former team in an exhibition game on Sunday, with the Cavaliers dominating Maccabi 107-80 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The 20,562 fans in attendance witnessed Lebron James’s first appearance in a Cavaliers uniform since he left the club in free agency for the Miami Heat four years ago. [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Jewish New York Giants Guard Plans to Fast on Yom Kippur

    Jewish New York Giants Guard Plans to Fast on Yom Kippur

    New York Giants offensive guard Geoff Schwartz said on Wednesday that he will not eat anything between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday in observation of Yom Kippur, ESPN reported. “If I was playing, I wouldn’t fast, because I’ve got to be able to fuel myself to play,” said the Jewish athlete, who is on short-term leave due to a toe injury. “But it’s not that tough, really. I’ll eat dinner at 5:00 Friday, then I’ll go to services and I’ll just [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    JNS.org – What would you do if you found out that you had only three more months to live? Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He knew that he had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him that it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer metastasized to his liver, and that he had [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.