This 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.