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.
“Making the desert bloom” is a central metaphor of the Zionist movement and Israel. Entering the 21st century, Israel, a global leader of reforestation, was the only country with more trees than it had at the start of the previous century.
It was not only land that was brought back to life. As the Jewish population grew, Tu Bishvat and other agriculturally based holidays like Shavuot and Sukkot evoked special celebrations and inspired new songs and poetry.
What was being revived, along with Hebrew as a language of everyday use, along with the intimate connection between the Jewish calendar and the cycle of seasons in the ancient habitat, was the organic national life that had once fructified in the Bible and been suspended for two millennia. To plant a tree was—and still is—not just an affirmation of nature’s vitality but also of the almost incomprehensible perseverance of a culture and people.
Much of the Diaspora, meanwhile, was in deep winter as persecution of Jews mounted in European and Arab lands. The Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel was not able to rescue European Jewry from an ultimate, heretofore unimaginable descent. It did, though, symbolize the fact that, even after dire catastrophe, life could be planted anew.
As the Talmudic sage Yochanan ben Zakkai put it two thousand years ago:
If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, “Come quickly, the messiah is here!,” first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah.
Planting comes before anything else.