February 5, 2015
Dear Friend of Israel,
Yesterday, Jews around the world observed the holiday of Tu B'Shvat, also known as “The New Year of the Trees.”
Why do trees have their own new year on the Jewish calendar? As with so many things in Judaism, it all points back to the Bible. In Leviticus 19:23-25, God gives the following command: “When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, regard its fruit as forbidden. For three years you are to consider it forbidden; it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit will be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat its fruit.” The celebration of Tu B'Shvat helps us to calculate the age of trees in order to determine when their fruit may be eaten.
There are several observances associated with this relatively minor Jewish festival. Many Jewish people eat one of the Seven Species, foods mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:7-9 as being part of Israel’s abundance: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil, and dates. Some people plant parsley so that it will be ready in time for the seder, the ritual meal that takes place in the spring during the Passover holiday.
During the time when the Temples still stood in Jerusalem, farmers would bring their first fruits as an offering to God at Tu B’Shvat. Though Israel was fertile and well forested in ancient times, over centuries of repeated conquest and destruction, Israel was stripped of many of its trees. So when Zionist pioneers began returning to the Holy Land in the late 19th century, they seized upon Tu B’Shvat as an opportunity to renew the productivity and fertility of the land of Israel.
Because of this, people often plant trees on this day. These efforts have helped restore Israel to the biblical vision that speaks of Israel as “a good land – a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing” (Deuteronomy 8:7-9). In recent years, with the rise of environmentalism, Tu B’Shvat has also become a day to consider how we are caring for God’s creation.
Hopefully it is also a day to stop and ponder what kind of fruit we are bearing in our lives. When we read Proverbs 3:9-10, “Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops,” we are prompted to consider how we are honoring God with our finances, our labor, and our very lives. But most of all, Tu B'Shvat is a time to celebrate and give thanks for the natural world – and, of course to sing praises to God, the source of all life, Who created it.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein