Judaism is celebrating its New Year’s tonight – for trees.
Almond trees blooming in the Galilee
You will not find Jews sticking candles into tree bark, or trees pounding piñatas held aloft by tall people. But the holiday exists as a milestone, typically with people eating various fruits which were grown in Israel.
Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz wrote an article about how the New Year for Trees – Tu b’Shvat – evolved over the centuries. It began as a note on the calendar and became more significant as Jews were evicted from the holy land. People made a deliberate effort to connect with the land of Israel, so the holiday grew into a minor festival.
Today, we have a have a more environmentally-aware conception of the day. Rabbi Steinsaltz writes that we acknowledge “that all living creatures — plants included — have a connection with the human spirit, a common bond of life. It means that all the forms of life around us are not only meant to furnish us with materials for our subsistence. They actually share a definition of life with us, of growth, or bearing fruit.”
The modern country of Israel has been deeply connected to the land since the early pioneers tilled the land and fought off malaria in the swamps in the north. Today the country stands as a leader in environmentally-friendly projects:
- Israel was one of only two countries to enter the 21st century with more trees than it had entering the 20th century, thanks to the planting of 240 million trees
- Israel developed drip irrigation in the 1960s, which it introduced into Africa to help the people develop crops in desert conditions
- Israel developed the first commercial wind farm in the Middle East in 1992
- Israel developed the first permanent bike-sharing program in the Middle East in 2011
- In 2012, Israel surpassed the European Union as the biggest recycler of plastic
- The country has also helped the entire world reduce its consumption of plastic bottles through its business SodaStream
Here is the celebratory First-One-Through music video with music by the Beatles:
It is remarkable to consider that this same land went through so many cycles in its history. The bible often referred to the land as “flowing with milk and honey”. The biblical commentator Ramban taught that that expression referred to the nectar in the fruit that was so rich and over-flowing, due to an extremely fertile land.
However, just 150 years ago, the land was in serious neglect under the Ottomans. In 1867, Mark Twain remarked while he visited that the holy land was “A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. a desolation…. we never saw a human being on the whole route…. hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”
The modern state of Israel can be proud and reflect on its accomplishments during the New Year for Trees.
Enjoy the holiday.