Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Features World Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Graves of Jewish Pirates in Jamaica Give Caribbean Tourists Taste of Little-Known History

    Tour operators are calling attention to Jamaica’s little-known Jewish heritage by arranging visits to historic Jewish sites on the Caribbean island, including a cemetery where Jewish pirates are buried. A report in Travel and Leisure magazine describes the Hunts Bay Cemetery in Kingston, where there are seven tombstones engraved with Hebrew benedictions and skull and crossbones insignia. According to the report, centuries ago, Jewish pirates sailed the waters of Jamaica and settled in Port Royal. The town, once known as “the wickedest city in the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    Filmmaker Eyal Resh Embraces the Challenge of Telling Israel’s Story (VIDEO)

    JNS.org – Telling Israel’s story. It’s the specific title of a short film that Eyal Resh created last year. It’s also the theme behind the 27-year-old Israeli filmmaker’s broader body of work. The widely viewed “Telling Israel’s Story” film—directed by Resh for a gala event hosted by the Times of Israel online news outlet—seemingly begins as a promotional tourism video, but quickly evolves to offer a multilayered perspective. “I want to tell you a story about a special place for me,” a young woman whispers […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    Israel Geeks Out: Science, Art and Tech Event Embodies Jewish State’s ‘DNA’

    JNS.org – The entrance to Jerusalem’s Sacher Park was transformed from April 25-27 by a fire-breathing robotic dragon, which flailed its arms and attempted to take flight. The robot, a signature feature at Jerusalem’s first-ever “Geek Picnic,” was one of more than 150 scientific amusements available for the public to experience. This particular dragon was designed by students from Moscow’s Art Industrial Institute in conjunction with the Flacon design factory, said Anatasia Shaminer, a student who helped facilitate the display. Children […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Opinion The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin (REVIEW)

    The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love. CreateSpace, 2015. The Syrian Virgin, by Zack Love, is a very interesting novel. Equally a political and romantic thriller, at times a real page-turner, it gets you intimately involved in the dire situation in today’s Syria, as well as in the romantic entanglements of its mostly New York-based characters — whose entanglements just might determine the fate of that dire situation in Syria. Along the way it introduces a really important idea that somehow […]

    Read more →
  • Features Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    Unpacking the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict and Its Ripple Effect on Israel’s Region

    JNS.org – Aside from Israel itself, those with a vested interest in the Jewish state are accustomed to tracking developments related to Middle East players such as Iran, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. But much global attention has recently focused on the Caucasus region at the Europe-Asia border, specifically on the suddenly intensified violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh area of western Azerbaijan. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, while not taking place in Israel’s immediate neighborhood, does have what one scholar called […]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Features Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    Earth Day 2016: Israel Shines in Water Technology, Recycling, Renewable Energy

    JNS.org – On Friday, April 22, 196 nations across the world mark Earth Day, the annual day dedicated to environmental protection that was enacted in 1970. Not to be forgotten on this day is Israel, which is known as the “start-up nation” for its disproportionate amount of technological innovation, including in the area of protecting the environment. For Earth Day 2016, JNS.org presents a sampling of the Jewish state’s internal achievements and global contributions in the environmental realm. Water conservation Israeli […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture World New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    New Documentary Explores Holocaust Humor, Role That Laughter Played in Death Camps

    Holocaust humor and the role that laughter played in the lives of Jews during World War II are the focus of a documentary that made its world premiere on Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In The Last Laugh, first- and second-generation survivors, as well as famous Jewish and non-Jewish comedians, discuss their thoughts on when joking about the death camps is appropriate or taboo. “Nazi humor, that’s OK. Holocaust humor, no,” Jewish comedic giant, actor and filmmaker Mel Brooks says in the film. “Anything I […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    Tragedy Culminates in ‘Celebration,’ Says Israeli Author Who Lost Son to Terror

    JNS.org – Sherri Mandell’s life was devastated on May 8, 2001, when her 13-year-old son Koby was murdered by terrorists on the outskirts of the Israeli Jewish community of Tekoa. Yet Mandell not only shares the story of her loss, but also celebrates the lessons she has learned from tragedy. Indeed, “celebrate” is this Israeli-American author’s word choice. Her second book, The Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration (Toby Press), came out earlier this year. The lesson: in every celebration, there is […]

    Read more →