We have just celebrated the New Year of 2018, and we are trying to stay warm in a very cold winter, especially after the “bombogenesis” storm that hit the East Coast and chilled most of the eastern part of the country recently.
For me, this is a depressing time of year. I can’t easily get out to walk, because the roads I walk on are icy and dangerous. And I even hate going out into my backyard, into the woods, because our trees (like everywhere) are bare of leaves and covered with gray bark. Even the evergreens look dull. It’s just gray and sad outside. I sure need some cheering up.
So maybe some cheer is on the way, for the Jewish community at least. On Jan. 31 we will celebrate the New Year for Trees, Rosh Hashanah Le-Ilanot, or Tu Bi-Shevat.
This is the date each year when the first flowering trees in the land of Israel begin to flower (so that they will produce fruit later in the year). The first tree to blossom in Israel is the almond tree, and it blooms around Tu Bi-Shevat.
In the Hebrew month of Shevat, in January or February each year, in Israel it is last of the rainy season, and spring is starting. So Tu Bi-Shevat enables us to celebrate the promise of spring when the trees will again blossom and leaf. This holiday is the beginning of the annual cycle for trees—their New Year. Trees start to awaken from their winter sleep and start their rebirth, as they do every year.
Why do we have a special holiday for trees? Judaism has always had a special love for trees. The Torah requires that when the ancient Israelites besieged a city, they were forbidden to cut down fruit trees. In our weekly Sabbath prayers, we sing about how the Torah is the “Etz Hayyim,” the Tree of Life. It is a special “mitzah” (good deed) to plant trees, and it is a Jewish custom to plant trees to celebrate weddings, births and other joyous occasions, and to plant trees in memory of our departed loved ones.
In fact, tree planting is so important that Rabbi Yohanon Ben Zakkai said that if you are planting a tree when the Messiah comes, you must first finish planting the tree before you go greet the Messiah.
For Jews who live outside the land of Israel, in the Northern Hemisphere, Tu Bi-Shevat comes at a much needed time. By now we are all tired of winter, cold and snow (well, most of us are), yet it seems a long time before spring will come. Everywhere we go, we see bare trees and little greenery.
By celebrating Tu Bi-Shevat, we are reminded that trees do come back to life after a long winter, and the same will happen here in Central Pennsylvania. This holiday, in the midst of all this cold, gives us a much needed reminder that spring will come again. We know, intellectually, that spring will come again, but winter can be a dreary time, so a holiday celebration and a sense of hope is much needed at this time.
How is Tu Bi-Shevat celebrated? It is customary to eat fruits that grow in Israel, such as figs, dates, carob, raisins and almonds. Many Jewish families and Jewish schools hold a Tu Bi-Shevat Seder, a sort of ritual meal, in which they celebrate the fruits that grow on trees and the greatness of God who makes trees.
Many Jews observe Tu Bi-Shevat by giving money to plant trees to help re-forest the Earth or by planting trees themselves. We know we need more trees to keep the Earth healthy. By planting trees we are giving a gift to future generations, so that they can enjoy the changing of the seasons and can appreciate the many blessings from trees—fruit, shade, beauty and fresh air.
May you all stay warm and well in Central Pennsylvania as we get through the rest of winter. Spring will come ... I have to keep reminding myself! Spring will soon be starting in the land of Israel, so spring will also arrive here, at the appropriate time, and trees will start to grow green again.