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Reflections on Tu B’Shvat

I was driving into my community of Karnei Shomron last week and literally had to pull over at the glorious sight of bright red tulip blossoms cheerfully clustered around our main traffic circle. I knew that these were tulips donated by our Christian friends in Holland, and it made me smile when I realized what day it was. It was Tu B’Shvat, Israel’s own Jewish Arbor Day, the “New Year of the Trees”, and the flowers had bloomed just in time to help me feel the spirit of the day.

When I lived in America, Tu B’Shvat was a poor imitation of what it is really meant to be. Schools used to give out little bags filled with dried fruits, and in Arts and Crafts we would make little trees out of colored paper, creating mini almond blossoms out of cotton balls dotted with lipstick. But that’s it. I guess it’s hard to feel the celebration of planting and growth in the Land of Israel, when you’re sitting in America. Somehow, other Jewish holidays are connected to our history, and their laws and traditions are not only viable, but still very meaningful, even abroad. But Tu B’Shvat celebrates the land.

And now I’m living in the land. And I thank G-d every day for that.

Here, on Tu B’Shvat, you feel the holiday. It is customary to eat the fruits, nuts and foods that are made from species that grow specifically in Israel, like figs, dates, almonds and carob. Every city, every municipality, every community, has its own plantings, bringing spots of growth and color to schools, synagogues and streets. Youth groups travel to forests, to barren areas along the highways, to newly built outposts, and plant young seedlings, sinking their sweet young hands into the soil, perhaps not even realizing how momentous this simple act is. The little children come home from kindergarten, proudly carrying little sticker- and- crayon- decorated pots of planted bulbs, seriously spouting instructions for their care. This year Elitzur explained to me how the almond tree is the first to begin to flower and to have its sap rise within the tree. And he explains how Tu B’Shvat falls just at the right time. I heard this with each kid and I’m still not bored. I still love living in the land where I can walk the streets and see the pink almond blossoms coming into bloom right when they are supposed to!

In Leviticus (19:23) we read, “When you will come into the Land of Israel, you will plant all fruit trees.” After years of wandering through the wilderness, one of the first things the People of Israel are commanded to do, right alongside setting up a system of government and strategizing the conquering of the land, is planting trees. The Bible presents the Jewish People with a wonderfully successful way of settling the land and making a connection with the land. Over a hundred years ago, before there was even a Jewish State, the Jewish National Fund took upon itself the buying of land in Israel, and the first Zionist act that they did was to encourage the planting of trees. The first thing! Just like in the days of the Bible. It was very emotionally satisfying for lovers of Israel from all over the world to have something concrete to do to show support– to “buy” a tree and have it planted in Israel. I remember, as a child in America, being very proud of the certificate I received from JNF, childishly picturing “my” tree, standing in a forest, labeled with my name.

The Bible is full of laws and customs connected to trees, encouraging us to value them, to cherish them. When fruit trees are planted, for three full years their fruits are forbidden to us. They may not be eaten. (Leviticus 19:23-24) We see the bounty bursting forth on the vines and we are cautioned: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me. But remember the Lord your G-d, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18)

There is no bigger thrill than sending my boys out to the yard with a bag, to fill it with fruits of our own orange and tangerine trees. Even better is when I peek outside and see Netanel and Elitzur picking oranges, then peeling them right there and biting into the sun- ripened juiciness, spitting the seeds into our rich earth.

When we eat a fruit for the first time, each season, there is a special blessing we say, thanking G-d for bringing us to that moment. At the beginning of each season, my husband Kuti loves going to the supermarket before each Shabbat, and finding a fruit we haven’t tasted all season. Then, we sit around the table after the meal, and each of us gets a slice of persimmon or a chunk of pineapple or a section of grapefruit, and we make the blessing.

It is not so simple to cut down fruit trees. Once fruit trees have taken root, they are a part of the land. Many houses, even public parks have been built around existing trees, so as not to uproot them.

There are even blessings for sighting the first buds of a fruit tree. At my daughters’ High School, the principal would invite each class over to his house, each spring. The girls would walk the ten minutes to his house, and sit on the small piece of grass of his garden, snack on lemonade and cookies, and say the blessing on his fruit trees. When this great Rabbi, this educator, passed away after a long illness, it was very important to the girls to continue this tradition. Each year they visit the home of his widow to say the blessing.

I get a real kick out of the fact that we have our own fruit trees growing in our backyard, and when the first blossoms of spring bloom, we gather the kids for the blessing, thanking G-d for the fruit of His trees and for providing His people with the enjoyment and pleasure of His fruits. It is meaningful to leave, for a moment, our offices, our classrooms, our homes, and go out to our gardens, our fields, and thank G-d for this sign of renewal, praise him for this sign of the continuation of His creation.

During the Disengagement, there was a point when the people of Gush Katif finally realized that they were actually being thrown out of their homes. Some of the most heartbreaking photographs of that horrible part of our history were of the families of Gush Katif kneeling in their gardens, crying, gently pulling out saplings from the earth, and carrying them lovingly in their hands as the soldiers led them away. And these small trees were replanted outside their new homes, the dirt that clung to the roots carrying a piece of the homes they left behind. The uprooted people of the Gush Katif community of Shirat Hayam, while waiting for years for their new homes to be built, were eager to put down new roots, to make another barren area come to life. While still living in temporary, flimsy mobile homes, they planted the Maskiot Olive Tree Grove. It was the only appropriate response to being uprooted—to replant… rebuild.

There is a classic tale from the Talmud of Honi, a righteous man, who was out walking when he came upon an old man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” The man replied, “Seventy years.” Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?” The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.” Trees help us focus on the next generation… on a future.

In Judaism, trees are regarded as extremely precious and important. There are countless examples in our writings that use the symbol of trees and growth to teach a lesson. A Talmudic sage once said, “Anytime our wisdom exceeds our good deeds, to what are we likened? — To a tree whose branches are numerous but whose roots are few; then the wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down…. But when our good deeds exceed our wisdom, to what are we likened? — To a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are numerous; even if all the winds of the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place…”

May the people of Israel keep on growing and flourishing and may they be privileged to continue putting down roots in the Promised Land. And may we see the fulfillment of the prophecy in Ezekiel (34:27), “And the tree of the field shall yield her fruit, and the earth shall yield her increase, and they shall be safe in their land.”


Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities