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Tu Bishvat, Israel’s Holiday of Trees

Rebirth in the dead of winter.

P. David Hornik


January 15, 2014 - 7:00 am
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PJM-Tu Bishvat-1This Wednesday evening and Thursday mark the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat (the name refers to the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat). Also known as the New Year of Trees and as Israeli Arbor Day, it’s a minor, nonbiblical holiday, its source in the Talmud. But quite a to-do is made about it in Israel.

The Talmud specified Tu Bishvat as the day on which the annual agricultural cycle begins. Considering that the holiday falls in January or, at best, February, this—the middle of winter—may seem a strange time for agricultural rebirth. It is, though, the time in the Land of Israel when—amid the cold and damp, but with sunnier intervals—you start to see the first white and pink almond blossoms.

You also see packages of dried fruits (dates, figs, apricots, pineapple) and nuts, especially almonds, everywhere. In the Diaspora, Tu Bishvat was marked by eating fruits of the Land of Israel. In the European Diaspora with its cold winters, that meant dried fruits. Now, back in the Land of Israel, they’re ubiquitous at this time of year.

But on a deeper, more ideological level, Israeli Tu Bishvat has become a day of massive tree planting. The custom began in 1890, in the early days of Zionist settlement. A bit later—about a century ago—it was adopted by the Jewish National Fund, which made Tu Bishvat a day to fight malaria by planting swamp-draining eucalyptus trees.

By now the Jewish National Fund has planted over 240 million trees in Israel, adding 12,500 acres of new forest every year. On each Tu Bishvat it holds tree-planting events in forests; about a million Israelis take part in them including large numbers of schoolchildren.

Mark Twain, touring the Land of Israel in 1867, not long before Zionist settlement began, described it this way:

…[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds—a silent mournful expanse…. A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action…. We never saw a human being on the whole route….There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere….

 He wouldn’t recognize it today.

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How curious that vibrant Judea, as the land was called in Roman times, moved toward desolation in the 3rd century as it lost most of its Jewish population - a desolation that continued until the late 19th century when the Jews started returning. It would appear that just as the Jews longed for and yearned to return to that land, the land needed the Jews to return.

It's also a safe bet that, absent the Jews, the land would have remained mostly under-developed, and that Syrians, Jordanians and Egyptians would today be fighting over it. And none of us would have heard of a Palestinian people.

Apropos, Israel is reportedly the only country that had more trees and more forest cover at the end of the 20th century than at its beginning.
1 year ago
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Thanks for sharing this day w/PJM readers. Hag Sameah.
1 year ago
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