T’u B’shevat: Israel’s Arbor Day

In Blogs, Jewish Culture and Customs by Bruce ScottLeave a Comment

“T’ u B’shevat, or not T’u B’shevat: that is the question” – Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1.

Okay. Maybe that’s not a direct quote from Hamlet, but it’s still a good question.

T’u B’shevat (pronounced Too Bi-sheh-vaht) is the Israeli festival equivalent to Arbor Day. It’s celebrated and observed on the 15th (T’u) of the Hebrew month Shevat (comparable to January/February).

If you go to Israel today you can find more than 40 types of fruit and nut trees, including orange, grapefruit, lemon, date, apple, pomegranate, carob, olive, almond, and pistachio. No open market in Israel (or hotel buffet, for that matter) is complete without a massive display of fresh fruit and nuts. Israelis commemorate T’u B’shevat by planting scores of trees––particularly fruit trees.

Jewish people inside and outside of Israel often observe T’u B’shevat by eating a distinctive meal of fruits and nuts, especially of those seven species mentioned in the Bible (Deuteronomy 8:8). Having a “T’u B’shevat seder,” patterned after the Passover seder, is also a custom that has grown in popularity.

Israel has no natural forests, at least any which survived the Romans and centuries of neglect. All of Israel’s forests are hand-planted.

Though T’u B’shevat is a holiday, work is still permitted among Orthodox Jews. However, there are no eulogies for the dead, nor is there any fasting. No public reading of the Torah is performed. Instead, Psalms 104 and 120––134 are examined. Some spend the evening studying various rabbinical commentaries on passages dealing with fruit and trees. Others may pray for the favorable growth of their future etrog (citrus fruit) used during the Feast of Tabernacles.

You won’t find the holiday of T’u B’shevat in the Bible. In fact, the Bible records only two events as taking place in the 11th month of Shevat––Moses reiterating the Law of God to the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 1:3), and the word of the Lord coming to the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 1:7). Neither of those events occurred on the 15th of Shevat.

So where did T’u B’shevat come from? The source is not known, but most likely the holiday has rabbinical origins. The earliest we find it mentioned is in the Mishnah (a collection of rabbinical commentaries redacted around AD 200). In the Mishnah, T’u B’shevat is identified as one of four Jewish New Years, specifically the new year pertaining to fruit trees (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1.1).

In the Torah, God had commanded the people of Israel to bring to Him their first fruits, meaning a select portion of their harvests, as an act of dedication, thanksgiving, and acknowledgment of His provision (Exodus 34:26). These included first fruits from fruit trees (Nehemiah 10:35).

In order to fulfill this command, the problem for the rabbis was figuring out when you consider the fruit from a fruit-bearing tree as being first fruits. It seems they determined it was better to use a fixed date (the 15th of Shevat) than to try to keep track of each tree. Therefore, all ripened fruit before the 15th of Shevat was tithed the previous year. Any fruit that ripened from the 15th of Shevat onward was considered the tithe for the new year. The 15th of Shevat was possibly chosen as the dividing line between the old and the new year because most of Israel’s annual rainfall occurs before that date.

Aside from offering first fruits, God had given other instructions to Israel pertaining to fruit trees. First, He specified when the people could eat the fruit of their labors:

When you come into the land, and have planted all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as uncircumcised. Three years it shall be as uncircumcised to you. It shall not be eaten. But in the fourth year all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to the LORD. And in the fifth year you may eat its fruit, that it may yield to you its increase: I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 19:23–25).

Second, God required that fruit trees not be cut down for military purposes during the siege of an enemy city, “for the tree of the field is man’s food.” Only non-fruit-bearing trees could be used for such an objective (Deuteronomy 20:19–20). Fruit trees, therefore, were for food, not for war.

Israel’s ancient enemy and occupier, the Romans, did not heed that injunction, however. During the first and second Jewish wars (AD 66-73, 132-135), the Romans devastated the countryside, stripping it of its trees, and turning it into a wasteland for almost two millennia.

But then, the Jewish people came back from their Dispersion and began to replant. In fact, the Jewish National Fund, a major organization in Israel focusing on reforestation and water solutions, has planted more than 240 million trees in Israel since the organization’s inception in 1901. Visit the Jewish National Fund website to learn more about what they do.

Israel has no natural forests, at least any which survived the Romans and centuries of neglect. All of Israel’s forests are hand-planted.

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And this brings us back to our faux-Hamlet’s question, “T’u B’shevat, or not T’u B’shevat?”

One of the best and easiest ways of showing support for the State of Israel is by helping to plant trees there. You don’t have to make a special trip. You can purchase a tree through The Friends of Israel and know that it will be planted in Israel. 

Plant a tree today. To learn more call us at 1-800-257-7843.

This is especially needed because of the 1,773 fires that raged throughout Israel in November 2016, destroying more than 4,900 acres of forests. Some of the fires were caused by weather conditions, but others were caused by acts of terror.

This year join our Jewish friends and help celebrate T’u B’shevat. Eat a pomegranate. Pop an almond. And plant a tree in Israel.

Our faux-Hamlet will be glad you did.

About the Author
Bruce Scott

Bruce Scott

Bruce Scott is the director of Program Ministries at The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry and is the author of The Feasts of Israel: Seasons of the Messiah.

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