Almost everything that most people “know” about Tu-b’Shvat is totally wrong and completely false. Tu-b’Shvat, the 15th day of the month of Shevat in the religious calendar, has been deconstructed in recent years and converted into a holiday of ecology and environmentalist political agitprop. It is waved about by the Tikkun Olam Pagan crowd as a political banner to demand that all Jews support the Green political agenda.
The wacko “Eco-Judaism” movement, including its Tikkun dervishes, has made Tu-b’Shvat the holiest of all holidays, a day to hug bushes (other than those named George) and worship tree spirits and nature. And Jewish assimilationist liberals use it as theological ammunition to disarm anyone criticizing environmentalist fanatics.
Let’s be clear: Tu-b’Shvat is not a holiday of ecology, and it has nothing to do with environmentalism. It also is not a day in which Jews celebrate pristine forests, national parks and wilderness areas. It is, if anything, the very opposite – the celebration of agri-business and exploitation of nature for human consumption.
Tu-b’Shvat is nominally the “new year of the trees” (it is called this in the Talmud), but I question whether one in 100 liberal politically active Jews can correctly explain in what sense it is so or what this means, and I certainly doubt that any follower of Arthur Waskow or reader of Tikkun magazine on the planet could explain these things correctly.
Tu-b’Shvat is decidedly not the time when Jews celebrate the blossoming of trees. It is the middle of winter when, even in Israel, almost no trees are blossoming. (The almond tree being an exception.) The custom of going out and planting trees on Tu-b’Shvat is a modern reinterpretation of the meaning of the day, and is in fact rather silly. Tu-b’Shvat is the worst part of the year in which to try to plant trees and get them to grow. I have no doubt that 80 percent of the famous saplings planted on Tu B’Shvat by Israeli school children never really take root and grow.
If anything, Tu-b’Shvat is the “new year of trees” precisely because it is when trees are not blossoming and when it is the very worst time to be planting saplings. Tu-b’Shvat is the time when the agricultural year for produce begins, for religious counting purposes.
For example, religious laws having to do with farm produce – such as the sabbatical of the land every seventh year, or the tithes on annual produce donated to the Levites or the Temple, or the counting of growth years to determine when fruit becomes edible – require a chronological basis for counting. The logical time to start that counting is exactly when nothing in nature is happening or growing, in precisely the same way that the time to start counting a new moon (for the new month) is when it is not there at all. It makes the division into annual cycles easier and more logical for counting and taxation purposes.
Tu-b’Shvat is a happy time simply because farmers are about to begin a new agri-cycle. This is so in exactly the same sense as the “new year for farm animals” – also discussed in the Talmud though completely forgotten by most Jews, it starts on the first day of Elul in late summer. Tu-b’Shvat is a fiscal-tax new year, more like April 15 in the U.S. than some sort of “Save the Earth and the Whales Day.” Not only is it not a harvest day, it is a day when most trees are bare, and when dry fruits are eaten because there are so few fresh fruits in season, even in Israel. (Never mind that in Israel these days almost all the dry Tu-b’Shvat fruits come from Turkey.)
Because it is a day on which the annual business cycle in agri-business begins, there is not the slightest smidgen of an environmentalist political agenda in the real meaning of the day. (In fact, Tu-b’Shvat is really no holiday at all in any sense and does not have any liturgy or prayers of its own, other than the routine blessings over foods that one says every day.)
And because it is a celebration of farming, it certainly cannot be used as religious ammunition by those who demand that pristine rain forests and wilderness areas be preserved and their conversion into farms be prevented. People who want to preserve national parks and natural areas are free to lobby for these, but they will find no theological support for their position in the real Tu-b’Shvat.
So why do so many people think Tu-b’Shvat has something to do with preventing greenhouse gasses or promoting animal rights or preserving rain forests? Because the Tikkun Olam Pagans, the assimilationist proponents of leftism-as-Judaism, both in the Diaspora and in Israel, have hijacked and distorted its meaning altogether.
Want to celebrate Tu-b’Shvat in the manner it was intended? Chop down a tree for lumber, slaughter some farm animals for dinner, build a farm in the forest, and fish to your heart’s content.
Steven Plaut, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at email@example.com
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