The Promise of Tu Bishvat

Finding new meaning in tree planting

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Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

This year it's going to be different. As a child of the '70s growing up in Brooklyn I had no deep religious or spiritual connection with Tu Bishvat. There were no rituals. Sure, we "planted" trees in Israel. But the real annual ritual was deciding whom to honor with the tree, whose name would appear on the Jewish National Fund certificate. (One year, my Hebrew school class bought a tree in honor of the Fonz). We sang a few Zionist songs; we received baggies filled with dried fruit and a hard, dark, tasteless, impossible-to-eat substance they called "bokser"--as if naming it explained everything--and we went home.

Why were the trees having a birthday? Why in the middle of winter when snow covers bare branches? What did this holiday have to do with the indoor Judaism of my childhood neighborhood and the shtetl of generations past? And how did Israel fit into it all?

tree plantingThis year, finally, it's going to be different. Now I live with my husband and two young children on the edge of a nature preserve. Trees abound. Our Shabbat walks inevitably lead to quiet awe at God's creation. My two-year-old loves to go hiking to "see the trees decaying" in the woods. Our connection to the land is again palpable. And now we understand, deeply, that while we live in New Jersey, our land is Israel; that while many books fill our shelves, our book is the Torah.

To fulfill certain precepts of the Torah involving agricultural calculations (one requiring farmers to give away a tithe--one tenth--of all crops grown during a given year, the other prohibiting people from eating the fruit of a tree until the fourth year after planting), the rabbis established a new year for the trees on the 15th day of the month of Shevat. The rabbis believed that the trees' first fruits were beginning to form at this time, and the festival became a harbinger of spring. In the Diaspora, especially in the 20th century, it became a day to celebrate our connection to the land of Israel. And over the last few decades, Tu Bishvat has taken on ecological overtones, returning in a way to its agricultural roots.

Earlier this year, around the time of my son's birthday, we planted the cedar tree we had intended to plant at his birth. At Tu Bishvat, we're going to celebrate his tree with a special ceremony. We'll offer some berakhot (blessings) and we'll water the tree. We'll explain that this is the tree's birthday, and my son will sing "Happy Birthday," his favorite song. Instead of birthday cake, we'll eat the fruits that grow in Israel, symbolically celebrating the trees growing there (no bokser, though, which I now know is carob and was used because it was one of the few fruits that could be shipped to Diaspora communities from Israel without risking spoilage). And my son and his tree will grow up together. The promise of the land, the promise of Israel, and the promise of my son will be forever intertwined. And the gift of Tu Bishvat will not be lost on him.

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Johanna Ginsberg

Johanna Ginsberg is the former publications director at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is a staff writer at the New Jersey Jewish News.