Today is beginning of the New Year for Trees in Israel. The rainy season is coming to an end, cold winds are warming, scents of springtime are in the air and the almond tree is displaying her blossoms.
It’s Tu BiShvat, the 15th day and full moon of the Hebrew month of Shvat, which falls around this time of the year. During the times when the Temple was still standing in Jerusalem, Tu BiShvat was the day when famers brought up their yearly tithes for the service of the priests. By this time of year, trees have soaked up all the winter rains and sap is flowing up through the branches announcing the beginning of a new year of growth. The festival became known as Rosh Hashana L’Ilanot, the New Year for Young Trees.
This was also the day of the First Fruits for trees that had turned four years old and produced their first harvest (Lev 19:23-25). After the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish people in exile celebrated the holiday by enjoying the variety of fruits and grains grown in the Promised Land as mentioned in the Bible. Special blessings are given over grapes, olives, pomegranates, figs, dates, barley and wheat.
The almond tree buds
One of the most beautiful sites in Israel is the budding of the almond trees up and down the country beginning around Tu BiShvat
The almond tree has special meaning for Tu BiShvat and throughout Scripture. The Hebrew word for almond, shaked, means “watch” or “wake.” The almond tree is one of the first of the year to bud and its brilliant purple and white flowers fill the landscapes around Israel as they “awaken” and proclaim the end of their winter hibernation.
The Prophet Jeremiah uses shaked in a play on words to highlight God’s faithfulness. “And the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘I see an almond (shaked) branch.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You have seen well, for I am watching over (shaked) my word to perform it.’” (Jer. 1:11-12)
The blessing of trees
The Bible teaches us that God created the trees and their fruits for mankind to be a blessing and provide food. Jewish sages over the centuries understood the importance of protecting trees and all of nature. “The Holy One led Adam through the Garden of Eden and said, ‘I created all my beautiful and glorious works for your sake. Take heed not to corrupt and destroy My world. For if you destroy it, there is no one to make it right after you.’” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13) For more on how the Jewish sages view the importance of protecting nature and the world’s ecology see Jewish Views on Climate Change.
The scripture also forbids destroying trees recklessly, even during war, when lives are at stake. “When you besiege a city for a long time… you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees of the field human, that they should be besieged by you?” (Deut. 20:19)
The phrase “are the trees of the field human?” suggests that since the trees cannot escape a city under siege, they should be shown mercy. God cares about trees and does not want them to be abused, not even during a war.
During the night of Tu BiShvat, religious Jews read from a booklet containing verses from the Torah and other Jewish literature called Pri Etz Hadar, Fruit of the Splendid Tree.
“Blessed is the person who delights in the Law of God and meditates on it daily is like a tree planted by the streams of water that yields fruit in its season. All that he does will prosper” (Psalm 1:1-3). At the end of the reading of the Torah in the synagogue, it is customary to sing, “It is a tree of life to those who take hold of it, and whoever holds it close will be made happy” (Prov. 3:18). “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and whoever saves lives is wise” (Prov. 11:30).
Trees help Israel
Israel may be the only country in the world where forested lands are expanding more rapidly than desert, barren lands. The national culture of tree-planting celebrated on Tu BiShvat has turned the desert into a blossoming and beautiful life-filled land. Just like sowing into God’s Word will bear much fruit and beauty in our lives.
After the miraculous return of the Jewish people to Zion in 1948, one of the first things the pioneers did was plant trees in the land that had been left barren for generations. Until this day, Israeli school children go out into the fields to plant trees all around the country on Tu BiShvat. Kind of like the US Arbor Day. Jews in the Diaspora, and many Christians as well, contribute money for the tree-planting on the New Year for Trees.
You too can contribute to plant trees in Israel. Check out some of Israel Today’s projects making the desert bloom once again.
Here is a blessing you can recite for Tu BiShvat:
“May it be your will Lord our God and God of our fathers, that you renew for us a good and fruitful year in our land.”