Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

It’s fascinating to note that any number of authorities credit the Spanish village of Mondoñedo with establishing the world’s first “National Arbor Day” in 1594 when, in fact, Jews were celebrating Tu B’Shevat as “the New Year for Trees” at least a millennium earlier.

The fifteenth day of the month of Shevat was designated for calculating the age of trees both for harvesting and tithing purposes, and this “Jewish Arbor Day” was celebrated at least as far back as Talmudic times.

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There are generally four historical epochs related to Tu B’Shevat: (1) the Talmudists (circa 2nd century); (2) the Kabbalists (circa 16th century); (3) the Zionists (end of 19th century to early 20th); and (4) the environmentalists (end of the 20th century).

I will focus on the third category through the presentation of several associated items from my personal Judaica collection.

Though considered a “minor holiday” on the Jewish calendar, Tu B’Shevat has always been a time of great joy, particularly in Eretz Yisrael, and it is today celebrated especially as a beloved children’s holiday marked by field trips, nature outings, and planting trees; public ceremonies and parades; the decoration of homes, schools, and synagogues – and singing holiday songs.

Shown here as Exhibit 1 is a card issued by the Jewish National Fund circa 1920s featuring the renowned “Tu B’Shevat Song” known to every Israeli schoolchild – and to many Jewish children and adults in the United States:

The almond tree [shkediya] is blooming,
and the golden sun is rising.
Birds atop every roof
herald the coming holiday:
Tu B’Shevat has arrived,
the festival of trees.

Few people outside Israel, however, know the other two stanzas:

The land is crying out:
the time of planting has arrived!
Each person should take a tree for himself,
and we will stride out with shovels.
Tu B’Shevat has arrived . . .

We planted every hill and valley,
from Dan to Beer-Sheva:
And to our land we shall return and inherit –
a land of refined fresh olive oil and honey.
Tu B’Shevat has arrived . . .

While Tu B’Shevat is, according to the Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah) the new year for all trees, the festival has become particularly associated with the almond tree. This is because they are the first to blossom and, as Rashi writes on Jeremiah 1:11-12, “As the almond tree hastens to blossom before all the other trees, so too will I [God] hasten to perform my word.”

Thus, the blossoming of the almond tree on Tu B’Shevat symbolizes both new growth/rebirth after a long cold winter and God’s continuing relationship with the land of Israel and the Jewish people.

Noting that that the original Hebrew word for almond tree was “shaked,” the Hebrew Language Academy determined that the author of this song, Levin Kipnis, probably coined the word shkediya in 1919, thereby facilitating a linguistic distinction between an almond and an almond tree.

Kipnis (1894 – 1990) was a fascinating figure. Known as “King of the Children,” he established the fundamentals of Israeli children’s literature and, through his work, had a seminal influence on the teaching of Jewish holiday traditions and historical figures throughout the Israeli elementary education system.

The author of some 600 Hebrew poems and 200 books, most of them written for children, he was also the founder of children’s theatre in Israel. He received several prestigious awards, including the Israel Prize, for children’s literature (1978).

Born in the Pale of Settlement of the Russian Empire, Kipnis was educated in a cheder. Showing early artistic talent, he wrote mezuzot to help support his family. He made aliyah in 1913 and attended the prestigious Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, established Little Library for Children publishers in Jaffa, and published story and song collections for children as well as Ganenu (“Our Kindergarten”), the first periodical for preschool teachers.

* * * * *

With the rise of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century, Tu B’Shevat gained new relevance as the ardent agrarians of the First Aliyah encountered a land with soil largely unfit for planting, and the holiday became broadly linked to agricultural restoration efforts. One of the first agricultural celebrations of Tu B’Shevat in the land took place at Rishon L’Tzion, the first settlement established by pioneers from outside Eretz Yisrael (1882).

The new settlement faced grave crises, both financial and agricultural, until 1889, when the famous Carmel Oriental wine cellars were installed by Baron Edmond Rothschild. A year later, on Tu B’Shevat 1890, Rav Ze’ev Yavetz, one of the founders of the Mizrachi movement, took his students to plant trees in the agricultural colony of Zichron Yaakov.

Shown here as Exhibit 2 is a beautiful turn-of-the-century depiction of children celebrating Tu B’Shevat at Rishon L’Tzion.

The custom to plant trees on Tu B’Shevat was subsequently adopted in 1908 by the Association of Hebrew Teachers in Palestine and later by the Jewish National Fund – which, I would argue, was actually the world’s first environmental organization. In the early 20th century, JNF devoted the day to planting eucalyptus trees to stop the malaria plague in the Hula Valley, and it continues to schedule major tree-planting events in large forests every Tu B’Shevat, in which over a million Israelis participate.

Exhibit 3 is an extremely rare 12-page booklet for a children’s Tu B’Shevat celebration in Eretz Yisrael (1919) which contains, among other things, a beautiful Zionist story about indigenous plants and lovely poems, two of which are displayed here. The first, titled Tu B’Shevat, describes an almond tree in the vineyard:

Before the chilly winds have ceased, or gusting stills, there is a lovely almond tree [“sheked”] in the vineyard clothed with many buds.
The bee flutters around and around the tree
and sweet nectar is gathered from every bloom and netz.
You, too, should go to the vineyard, my child, my wee child.
Because today, if you didn’t know, is the 15th of Shevat!

The second poem, How Much Whiteness in the Tree, beautifully uses the metaphor of snow on the almond tree for the white purity of atonement on Rosh Hashanah (the Talmud famously describes Tu B’Shevat as one of “four New Years”):

How much whiteness in the tree! How many blooms and netz!
The almond tree, the almond tree which suddenly popped up, is blooming!
Every branch, every large branch,
resembles a single blossom that spreads around it nectar and scent.
But the wind will return and will shed many buds,
look: the blossoms of snow will fall!
The snow-covered buds will circulate in the valley and mountain,
and all will be pardoned in honor of Rosh Hashanah.

Exhibit 4 is a four-page 1920 leaflet, a Tu B’ShevatChag Ha’ilanot” program for the celebration of National Arbor Day by the students of the Yaar Netter, the Netter Forest Schools in Yaffo, and the Judean settlements. The schedule on the verso (not shown here) features students’ plays and sports competitions, including participation by the First Jewish Battalion.

Zionist Leader Charles Netter (1826 – 1882) is best known as the founder of Mikveh Israel, the first modern Jewish agricultural settlement in modern Eretz Yisrael (1870) and for founding the school that educated many members of BILU and the First Aliyah. How meaningful, then, for the students of the schools established by the founder of Jewish agriculture in Eretz Yisrael to be celebrating Tu B’Shevat.

It was a great honor indeed for the schools to have the participation of the First Jewish Battalion. Created as the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers (August 1917), it was made up of Jews from the East End of London, most of them Russian immigrants, who were sent to the fields and mountains of Eretz Yisrael to fight during World War I.

Exhibit 5 is an early 1920s JNF card depicting the celebration of Tu B’Shevat in Jerusalem. An arch is draped in celebratory wreaths as a group of adults and children, with rabbinical and community leaders at the center, hold shovels astride the ditches they have dug in which to plant trees.

Exhibit 6 is a card depicting the first Tu B’Shevat in the newly-born state of Israel (1948); children are shown with a banner on which appears the famous Hebrew verse from Leviticus 19:23: “When you arrive in the Land of Israel, you shall plant…”

In keeping with the theme of Tu B’Shevat marking the blossoming of the Jewish nation in its homeland, many of Israel’s major institutions have chosen this day for their inaugurations; for example, the cornerstone-laying of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and of the Technion in Haifa both took place on Tu B’Shevat (in 1918 and 1925, respectively).

Shown here as Exhibit 7 is an entrance card for the opening session of the Constituent Assembly, essentially Israel’s first Knesset, which took place on Tu B’Shevat, February 14, 1949.

Also dedicated on Tu B’Shevat 1949 was the Yaar HaMeginim, the Defenders’ Forest. Shown here as Exhibit 8 is a rare circular distributed about a year before the dedication:

The JNF seeks to plant millions of trees in a forest to be named “Defenders’ Forest.” Through the planting of trees, we will bring thanks and recognition to the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces who with bravery and dedication stood to guard our lives and our honor, and we will leave a perpetual green memorial to our heroes-guardians, who sacrificed their lives on the altars of our future.

The planting of the Forest of the Defenders was begun with holy trembling on Tu B’Shevat by way of the Israel Defense Forces. The Nation that Sits in Zion will continue [the planting] and complete it. Every home in Israel should assume the holy obligation to participate in this work, and at least one tree should be planted by each family…. Besides being a work of honor and memorial, it will dress our land in splendor with an abundance of trees and green and will serve as a source of work for thousands of new olim.

Finally, the Talmud in Tractate Gittin (57a) relates that it was the custom for parents to plant a cedar tree (erez) for a newborn boy and a pine (oren) tree for a newborn girl and, when the child married, to use its branches to construct the chuppah (bridal canopy).

In a contemporary application of this old tradition, some parents in Eretz Yisrael would mark the birth of a new child with the planting of a tree on the following Tu B’Shevat. Shown here as Exhibit 9 is a partial list of babies born in Tel Aviv-Yaffo whose parents planted a tree in their honor in the JNF Children’s Forest on Tu B’Shevat 1963.

Wishing all a chag sameach – and a shanah tovah.

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