Tu B’Shvat: Plant a sapling, green the earth for the Jewish New Year for Trees

“In order to serve God, one needs access to the enjoyment of the beauties of nature—meadows full of flowers, majestic mountains, flowing rivers. For all these are essential to the spiritual development of even the holiest of people.”

-Rabbi Abraham ben Maimonides, cited by Rabbi David E. Stein in “A Garden of Choice Fruits,” Shomrei Adamah, 1991

Tu B'Shvat New Year trees

Trees in Israel. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 27: Winter is still in full swing in the Northern Hemisphere, but today in Israel, a vital component of nature is honored: It is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for Trees. Known also as Jewish Arbor Day, it’s customary (in places where the ground isn’t frozen) for Jews to plant a tree today—and this tradition has done wonders for the Holy Land (keep reading to find out why). The purpose of Tu B’Shvat is to calculate the age of a tree for tithing and for eating.

Many observant Jews have long followed a passage from Leviticus that forbids the eating of a tree’s fruit for the first three years of its life, and so by following this easy-to-remember holiday, Jews can keep the biblical instructions. (Read more, plus lots of related articles, at Chabad.org.)

What do Jews do on this day dedicated to trees and fruit? Plant trees, and then eat plenty of fruit, of course! Customarily, devotees either eat a new fruit today or eat one of the Seven Species abundant in the land of Israel. Since the Seven Species consists primarily of grains and sweet fruits, today’s meal is usually a sweet one. For Jews who can’t plant trees today, the tradition of collecting money to plant trees in Israel is popular.

ISRAEL: A LAND ABUNDANT IN TREES

In modern-day Israel, Tu B’Shvat is celebrated as an ecological awareness day. Ecological organizations in Israel and the diaspora often promote environmental-awareness programs on this day, and trees are planted in celebration.

In the global green movement, Tu B’shvat has been attracting major media attention as Jews around the world remember, today, that “man is a tree of the field”—and non-Jews can take part in Tu B’shvat by reflecting on our connection with nature. (Green Prophet has an environmental perspective on Tu B’shvat.) A dedicated tradition of tree-planting can make a major difference. Israel was one of the few countries in the world to have more trees on its land at the end of the last century than it had at the beginning.

Tu B’Shvat: Jews mark New Year for Trees; pontiff marks 50th of Nostra Aetate

A palm tree heavy with date fruits, both ripe and unripe

A fruit-bearing date tree. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET SUNDAY, JANUARY 24: It’s a New Year for Trees!

On the 15th day of the month of Shevat, Jews observe Tu Bishvat—an ancient commemoration of the start of the agricultural year—and, in 2016, that day begins on the evening of January 24. (Note that holiday spellings may vary.)

The Jewish calendar has four New Years, and in centuries past, farmers would mark the age of their trees in order to calculate their eligibility for fruit harvest and tithing. According to Leviticus 19:23-25, a tree’s fruit may only be eaten after its fifth year: in the first three years the fruit is forbidden, and in the fourth year, the fruit must be set apart for God. When the State of Israel was reestablished, in 1948, interest in the ancient festival surged. Jewish people were farmers, once again, and the fruits of the land of Israel were celebrated.

Today, the TuBishvat seder is observed in many Jewish households and synagogues. Many partake in the fruits and nuts of Israel, while reflecting on the need for sustainable agriculture. It is recognized that man depends upon the fruits of agriculture.

POPE FRANCIS MAKES LANDMARK VISIT TO JEWS IN ROME

Pope Francis’s recent visit to Rome’s Great Synagogue made him the third pontiff in history to visit the building—and, this time, at the 50th anniversary of the Vatican’s Nostra Aetate. (Read more at Haaretz.com.) Last month, the Vatican released a document to mark the milestone anniversary of Nostra Aetate, with a text restating how Christianity is rooted in Judaism and emphasizing that the Church should not try to convert Jews. Pope Francis, who maintained a close relationship with the Jewish community during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires, is aiming to convey a message of coexistence and mutual respect.