Tu B’Shvat: a Celebration of Renewal
by Ariella Bracha
History and Customs
Yesterday, I was walking through the neighborhood noticing the trees and their magnificence, in spite of their state of barrenness. I love their majestic and upright stance and the variety and uniqueness of each individual tree. Their regal stateliness makes them a true source of inspiration, joy and wonder.
Trees play a vital role in the world and are a true source of blessing because without them, we could not survive. A single, mature tree produces approximately 260 pounds of oxygen per year, which can meet the needs of a family of two. Trees are an abundant source of raw material and provide shade as well as adding extraordinary beauty to G-ds world. They were created as much for our enjoyment, as well as to accomplish their productive role. These facts are brought to mind, during the current Hebrew month of Shvat, as the festival of Tu B’shvat arrives.
The annual festival called Tu B’shvat, meaning the 15th day of the month of Shvat, takes place in the middle of the month, when the moon is at its fullest. It is referred to in the Mishnah as the “New Year” of the trees. According to tradition, it arrives in the darkness of winter, when the world seems to be in a state of hibernation. Suddenly, the tree begins awakening, as the life force of the sap, hidden away in the trunk of the tree, starts flowing upward. This upward movement creates the first glimmer of the new fruits that will manifest in the spring and summer months. This inner, hidden movement of the tree creates an awakening in the soul of mankind as well, even though he may be unaware of it. It is a very auspicious and symbolic time period and has become the traditional day for Jews to show their appreciation and love of the land of Israel and its trees and fruits, in particular.
Tu B’Shvat was first mentioned in the Mishnah, as one of the four “New Year” days. It was considered of great importance to the agricultural life of Israel, because it was the day when a part of the crop, which was considered like a tax, was calculated for the Levites, who did not receive a share of the land inheritance. At that time, it was not considered a festival but was regarded as a highly significant date. As time went on, however, it gradually became a festival. Special prayers and liturgical poems about trees and the Holy Land were added and recited. Today, it still does not have the status of a full holiday, but is a festive day that Jews celebrate by way of custom.
With the conquering of the land of Israel by the Crusaders in the 11th century, along with the dispersion of the Jews, the custom of celebrating this holiday almost disappeared. Almost but not quite! Kabbalists or mystics who settled in the city of Tzfat, in the Galilee region, in the 1500’s, revived the holiday of Tu B’Shvat. They established a special “Seder”, ceremonial meal, corresponding to the structure of the Passover Seder. With the rise of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century, there was a renewed emphasis on planting in the land of Israel. The Tu B’Shvat festival therefore gained great importance in Israel as the passionate pioneers began to work the land enabling it to bloom and grow. The day became specifically associated with tree planting. In fact, this custom seems to have been started by the settlers of Yesud Ha’Ma’La, located in the Galilee region, who planted 1500 trees on this day in 1884. Additionally, the first avenue of trees in Tel Aviv was planted on Tu B’Shevat, in 1910 by school children from the port city of Jשככש.
In modern times, this day has been officially designated as a specific day to plant trees in the Land of Israel, in addition to celebrating nature festivals and Earth Day. Israel’s Nature Protection Society organizes educational programs and excursions to nature reserves throughout the country. Creative ways to enjoy and celebrate this holiday continue to be developed throughout Israel, with the focal point being the trees and fruits of Israel, the land of Israel, and the people of Israel.
In the biography of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief Rabbi of Israel, “An Angel among Men”, by Rabbi Simcha Raz, the story is told of Rav Kook planting a tree on Tu B’Shevat in the Holy Land and the dramatic religious experience it engendered. Just as G-d created the world and then planted trees (Genesis 2:8), “He planted a Garden in Eden,” G-d instructed the Jewish people that when they enter the land of Israel, they should do the same….. (Leviticus 19:23) “When you enter the land, you shall plant all types of fruit trees.” When Jews do the same in their Biblical land of their inheritance, they approach the divine presence (the Shechinah). Thus, as Rabbi Kook planted the tree, he was overwhelmed by the feeling that he was touching the presence of G-d. The Torah teaches us that one who plants, especially in the hallowed Land of Israel, is one who is connected to G-d because the land belongs to G-d and the Jewish nation only holds it in trust (Lev. 25,23) The one who plants actually sends forth roots, deep into the ground and the deeper the roots go, the stronger the G-d connection becomes. Rav Kook must have known and felt this truth on a deep level thereby engendering his passionate emotions.
Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, in his book,” Exploration into Jewish Holidays” states that “when we read in the Torah that G-d planted a garden in Eden, we are to interpret this literally and metaphorically: if we wish to cling to G-ds ways, we too must be involved in planting. To ‘cling’ to G-d means to imitate His ways. Thus, when the Torah teaches us that G-d ‘planted a garden of trees,’ we deduce that it is His will that the earth be settled. It is His desire that we occupy ourselves with planting and building in order to make the world a better place in which to live. G-d, by planting a garden, teaches us that we must not only develop the spiritual world, we must concurrently work at perfecting the material world. We must not belittle the physical, but rather enhance it, bringing it to perfection. So too, the desire to plant trees reveals a wish to benefit others. Planting trees, then, is a reflection of our idealism and holiness, for it is walking in the ways of G-d. Thus, the desire to plant is an expression of man’s inner desire to spread goodness and improve the world.”
The Torah teaches us that man is compared to the trees of the field (Deut.20:19). Like a tree, our roots are the source of our continued life. The roots of the Jewish people are: G-d, our g-dly soul, our ancestral homeland, and G-d’s instruction book—the Torah and mitzvot (His commandments). Every commandment that we honor and perform taps into our deep root system, thereby making an enduring connection to our source. It nourishes us by enabling us to absorb the wisdom of the Torah, thereby anchoring and supporting us in our life journey. Holding onto our Jewish roots brings us a greater ability to flourish and grow as the roots give us stability to live life successfully. The more we adopt a Torah lifestyle, rooted in truth, the more we become rooted in life flourishing on many levels.
The trunk of our tree is our individuality, our unique center. Our Torah learning is likened to the crown at the top of a tree where the branches peak in their fullness. Our branches represent reaching out to community and relationships towards which we extend ourselves. Our flowers and fruit are the offspring of our spiritual refinement. They represent our good deeds and the teachings we share that nourish friends and family. As we give birth to our fruits, which are represented by community projects, good deeds and mitzvot, we not only strengthen the inner life-force of our soul but also strengthen the roots of the entire Jewish nation.
The Tu B’Shvat festival reminds us of the human need to blossom, grow and be fruitful. It has the ability to inspire a deep awareness of our inner life force which arouses us to spiritual refinements and a quest for rootedness. At the deepest level of our essence, we desire to devote our lives to worthy and fruitful endeavors. We all long to be rooted, like a tree, in our core values just as we yearn to leave an enduring and lasting mark, like a tree, in the world.
May we seize the symbolism and depth of meaning embedded in Tu B’Shvat and cultivate our essence, just as we do the plants and trees in our garden, so that we may once again be nurtured by the tree of life, the Torah, in the land of life. May we develop the merit to stand tall and proud in our commitment to G-d and Torah as we become rooted to carrying out the will of G-d.
With blessings for a dynamic Tu B’Shvat day. May it be a true celebration of RENEWAL. May you feel the life force pulsing through your being. Ariella Bracha