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Tu B'Shvat, a Holiday of Renewal

Pomegranates, one of the five special fruits of Israel Photo: Jonathan Feldman

Tu B’shvat for me as a kid meant giving money to plant a tree in Israel, and eating fruits indigenous to Israel. We would then get a certificate stating that we could be proud of for planting a tree. This might seem like a small project, however the symbolism behind it is enormous. When the Jews arrived in Israel on the first aliyah, it was a land in disarray, and the beautiful cedars and forests spoken of in the Torah were all but gone after 2000 years of deforestation, bad grazing practices and erosion. They braved the elements and planted eucalyptus trees to dry up the malaria infested swamps which were killing them, they planted fur trees in the hills to prevent erosion, and they planted fruit trees to provide for themselves and their families from the land. Slowly, tree by tree they began to rebuild the land. This is the origin, and the real story of planting trees in Israel. But why celebrate it on this day?

The Talmud tells us that Tu B’shvat is Rosh Hashanah for the trees, the new year for trees. What does that mean, that the trees dip apples in honey or something? Well maybe in the Wizard of Oz or more recently the Lord of the Rings trees walk and talk, but I haven’t seen any do so lately.

The New Year for the trees means that a new crop of fruit will be coming soon, and Tu B’Shvat is when we start a new accounting for all the laws that have to do with trees, such as brigning the first fruits to Jerusalem, and taking tithes for the Cohanim. Some of these customs were done only with the special fruits of Israel recognized in the Torah: figs, dates, pomegranates, grapes and olives. There is also a custom to specifically eat theses fruits on Tu B’Shvat as a way to celebrate our connection to Israel (even better if those fruits were grown in Israel, just make sure that the tithes were taken). The Kabbalists even created a Tu B’Shvat Seder to tap into the spiritual energies of the land of Israel and its fruits.

Flowers in Israel with Mount Meron in the background Photo: Jonathan Feldman

Tu B’shvat is the beginning of spring, the first point recognizing the regeneration of nature that occurs every year. Now if you look outside, you would tell me I am crazy, this is the beginning of spring? It is still cold, even here in Israel. Most of us probably do not know that during the winter the tree absorbs water through its roots in order to create sap. In the springtime the sap begins to rise, marking the first stirrings of the springtime. If you think about it, it is a miracle that trees survive winter to begin with. But then there is another incredible miracle of nature. The sap from the roots starts to go up 6 weeks before spring, so that by the time spring comes the tree is ready to bud leaves and flowers and then fruit. It is kind of like a Jewish groundhog day.

There is a very deep message here, it is the message of hope of the possibility for regeneration. When you think the tree is gone, life renews and regenerates. And the potential for that regeneration likes dormant deep within us, even if we do not see it. Tu B’Shvat is a time to tap into energies within us that we might have thought were depleted. The ability to love again, new wellsprings of spiritual renewal, and new potentials for our own selves. Winter will be over and potential for new life is already springing up in nature, let’s tap into if for ourselves.

Kibbutz members planting trees in Israel

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