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Op-Ed: Tu Bishvat, Guide for the Perplexed, 2014

In Israel, one can merit an ambassador who is able to write this kind of article on our Jewish heritage.
Published: Thursday, January 16, 2014 11:11 AM



Just like trees, human beings aspire for stability and durability and have to sustain rough times.
A few thoughts on Tu Bishvat, the "New Year for Trees".

1.  Judaism stipulates four New Years, one of them is the New Year for the trees, Tu Bishvat (Arbor Day), the 15th day of the month of Shvat (January 16, 2014). The zodiac of Shvat is Aquarius – the water carrier (bucket in Hebrew).  Tu Bishvat highlights the rejuvination and blooming of trees and the Jewish people.

According to Rashi, the leading Jewish Biblical commentator, this date was determined because most of the winter rains are over by Tu Bishvat, sap starts to rise and fruit begins to ripen. 

Israel's Legislature, the Knesset, was established on Tu Bishvat, 1949.

The other three New Years are the first day of the month of Nissan (the Exodus – the birth of the Jewish people), the first day of the month of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year) and the first day of the month of Elul (the tithing of cattle - only if the Temple is rebuilt).  

2.  The root of the Hebrew word for tree – Ilan (אילן) - is איל (the awesome/mogul), which is also the Hebrew spelling for the majestic Ram.  The two letters, אל, mean God and the letter י is an acronym for God.  The Hebrew spelling for the rugged, Biblical terebinth and oak tree is אלה and אלון, both starting with the two letters, אל, God.

3. Trees are central to Judaism.  Tu Bishvat is not mentioned in the Bible, but in the Mishnah – the collection of Jewish oral laws, compiled by Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi around 200 CE.

*According to Genesis 1:11, trees were created on the third day of Creation, the only day which was blessed twice by God.

*Leviticus 19:23 stipulates: "When you come to the Land, you shall plant fruit trees."

*Deuteronomy 20:19/20 commands: "When you besiege a city... you shall not destroy its trees by swinging an axe against them; for you may eat from them, and you shall not cut them down… Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees you shall destroy and cut down….”

4.  The Book of Ethics 6:7 refers to the Torah as a Tree of Life, since the Torah is both spiritual and practical like a tree, which is an integral part of nature, reflecting vitality, creativity and growth, nurturing and sheltering its environment.  The Tree of Life was first mentioned in Genesis (2:9), next to the Tree of Knowledge, which was the focus of the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. 

5.  Human-beings are likened to trees of the field (Deuteronomy 20:19) and tree constitutes a metaphor for family: Family Tree. 

Just like trees, human beings aspire for stability and durability and have to sustain rough times (if you want to benefit from the rainbow, you must endure the flood).  However, rough times constitute platforms of challenge and opportunity.  Rough times forge stronger trees and character.Psalms 1:3 states: "He shall be like a tree planted by the brooks of water, that brings forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he does shall prosper.” 

Just like trees, human-beings are capable of withstanding adversity/storm with deep roots (critical values and tradition) and a solid, tenacious trunk (a solid backbone), but at the same time possess flexible leaves and branches (less critical issues).  The state of the roots impacts directly the state of the trunk, leaves and branches.  The state of the roots determines the future of trees and human beings.  Healthy roots facilitate the blossoming of fruit/sprouts.

Just like fruit-bearing trees, so do human beings reproduce and benefit humanity.

6.  Trees have been critical to the ingathering of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel, representing longevity and permanence, underlying the inherent linkeage/bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land - the eternal attachment of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. Hence, Tu Bishvat is a day of planting trees, in Israel, by school and kindergarten children, as well as by pilgrims and tourists.

The 18th century Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, a Biblical, Talmudic and kabalistic genius prayed: "May God merit me to plant, with my own hands, fruit trees around Jerusalem.”

During (Mussaf) prayers on Shabbat and holidays, Jews ask God that they be planted in the Land of Israel.

Trees were not planted during the transient 40 years of wandering in the desert. Trees are planted in the permanent, everlasting, immutable, indestructible Jewish environment of the Jewish Homeland.

7.  The almond tree, which blossoms earlier than most trees/fruit, announces the arrival of Tu Bishvat.  The almond tree/fruit commemorates the rods of Moses and Aharon (the symbol of the shepherd's authority and might, guiding his flock), which were endowed with miraculous power during the Ten Plagues, the ensuing Exodus and the Korah rebellion against Moses.  According to the book of Numbers 17:8, "[Aharon's rod] put forth buds, produced blossoms and bore ripe almonds.”

8.  On Tu Bishvat, it is customary to eat - for the first time - fruit from the new season, particularly the 30 types of fruit growing in the Land of Israel, while focusing on happiness and minimizing sorrow.  

9.  A Tu Bishvat Seder (learning session/family gathering) is conducted on the eve of the holiday, recounting the importance of the trees and fruit of the land of Israel and the historical background and significance of Tu Bishvat.

Happy Tu Bishvat, Shabbat Shalom and have a pleasant weekend,