The What of Tu B’Shevat

The almond tree blossoms on or around Tu B'Shevat. Painting by Van Gogh.

When it comes to most Jewish holidays, things stay pretty much the same from year to year. Sure, we add some new, more contemporary customs like putting an orange on a feminist seder plate or branching out beyond apples to more exotic fruits on Rosh Hashanah – but these changes speak to the “how” of a holiday, not the “what.” Passover always has been and will be the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt. We’ve got the whole Megillah (with its story of how the Jews were saved from annihilation in ancient Persia) on Purim. The Book of Life is always closed and sealed on Yom Kippur.

The exception to this general immutability is the upcoming holiday of Tu B’Shevat (also spelled Tu Bishvat, and literally meaning “the 15th day of the month of Shevat”), often described as the Jewish Birthday of the Trees. Every time I turn around, someone seems to be marketing a new spin on this holiday. The Rabbis in ancient times decided to mark a rosh hashanah la’ilanot for trees to set an annual date for farmers to bring the first fruits of their trees (on the fourth year of a tree’s life, as it is forbidden by the laws of orlah to eat the fruit of a tree during the first three) to the Temple. They figured that since there were many laws in the Torah governing how trees should be cared for and mandating their protection, they deserved a dedicated New Year celebration (there are actually four New Years in the Hebrew calendar – but that deserves a post all on its own).

Shiv'at Haminim. The 7 species of the Land of Israel mentioned in the Torah. Can you name them?

Then centuries later, the mystical Kabbalists resurrected the holiday, so to speak, after it had long disappeared from the scene along with the Temple. They developed a Tu B’Shevat seder modeled on the Passover seder, replete with four cups of wine and samples of all seven of Israel’s native species mentioned in the Torah. Yet more centuries later, Zionist pioneers co-opted the holiday as a symbolic celebration of the Jewish connection to and rebuilding of the Land of Israel. The Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, or Jewish National Fund, jumped on this opportunity to get every Israeli student out planting trees bought with funds collected and donated by every Diaspora child. I can’t begin to count the tree certificates I piled away throughout the ’70s and ’80s in my desk drawer after framing and displaying the first one I received on my bedroom dresser.

It’s funny how things come back in style. I ate dried dates, figs, raisins and bokser (only years later did I figure out that these teeth-breaking, stinky black seed pods that I knew by their Yiddish name were actually carob) at my Jewish day school on Tu B’Shevat, but the only seder I knew about happened on Pesach. But low and behold – by the time I became a teacher myself, the Tu B’Shevat seder was all the rage again.

In the last decade or so, the holiday has gone in yet another direction – not entirely unconnected to earlier incarnations, but nonetheless nothing I imagine the Sages had in mind. Tu B’Shevat has become the Jewish Earth Day. It’s no longer just about the trees. It’s about sustainable agriculture, environmentalism, eco-green building, recycling, water conservation, reusing and freecycling, solar energy, organic diets, communing with nature, global warming, ozone depletion…and the list goes on. This, of course, is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is probably a good thing, because everyday should be Earth Day these days.

JNF had adapted its mission and marketing to this new, broader way of Tu B’Shevat thinking, and other organizations like COEJL, Hazon and Canfei Nesharim have sprung up in recent years to help in the effort. Even Al Gore has jumped on to the Tu B’Shevat bandwagon:

(You can find more great Adventures of Todd and God produced by and JewishRobot on YouTube. Too bad they didn’t have these kind of  things when I was a kid learning about the holidays.)

Regardless of what interpretation of the holiday is in vogue, the biblical phrase (Deuteronomy 20:19), ki ha’adam etz hasadeh (For the human is like the tree of the field) is at the core of Tu B’Shevat’s message. Despite all historical progress and technological advancement, we are inextricably and intimately connected with nature in a symbiotic relationship. The tree is the bellwether, the canary in the coal mine – and we had better treat it well and pay attention to what it is telling us. The Hebrew poet Natan Zach captured this beautifully in a poem, which was set to music and popularized by Israeli singer Shalom Chanoch (the Hebrew is far more eloquent and the song loses a lot in translation):

For the human is like the tree in a field,
like the human, the tree grows too;
like the tree, the human is chopped down,
and I don’t know
where I’ve been and where I’ll be,
like the tree in a field.

For the human is like the tree in a field,
like the tree he strives upwards;
like the human, it burns in fire,
and I don’t know
where I’ve been and where I’ll be,
like the tree in a field.

I loved, and I hated too,
I tasted this and that;
I was burried in a plot of dust,
and I feel sour – sour in my mouth,
like the tree in a field.

For the human is like the tree in a field,
like the tree he’s thirsty for water;
like the human, it stays thirsty,
and I don’t know
where I’ve been and where I’ll be,
like the tree in a field.

This song came to mind as I watched a New York Times video report on the severe deforestation and manmade ecological disaster in Haiti that was broadcast after the earthquake, but filmed just prior to it. The lesson taken away is that there are things in nature we can’t control, but there are things we can. And if we do the right thing about the things we can control, if we sustain nature, then nature will be in better shape to help sustain us when when we need it. This is ultimately the “what” of Tu B’Shevat.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


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