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Happy New Year …Trees!


Until Jews began to return to Eretz Israel in 1948, noone thought of them as farmers. For nearly 2,000 years, we had been dispersed throughout the world, and in many places were not permitted to own land or engage in agriculture. But in ancient Palestine, we were an agricultural people. We treasured the olive tree, the grape vine and the date palm. The Bible encouraged us to plant “all manner of trees” and forbade the destruction of trees of a conquered land.

On the first day of the seventh month, Rosh Hashanah we are judged and our fate for the coming year is inscribed in the Book of Life. So we are taught that trees are similarly judged on the New Year of the trees, which occurs on 15th day of Shevat (this year February 13), called Tu b’Shevat, considered the first day of spring in Israel.

This semi-holiday has always been associated with tree planting. In ancient times, one planted a tree at the birth of a child cedar for a boy; cypress for a girl. Special care was given to these trees on Tu bShevat, and when the children married, branches of their own trees were cut for the chupah (wedding canopy).

It is said that on 15th day of Shevat, the sap begins to rise in the fruit trees in Israel. So we partake of the fruits of the Land  apples, almonds, carobs, figs, nuts, dates and pomegranates. The pious among us stay up very late on the eve of the holiday reciting passages from the Bible that deal with trees and the fertility of the earth. We read the

story of how trees and plants were created (Gen. 1:11-13); the Divine promise of abundance as a reward for keeping the Commandments (Lev. 26: 3-18; Deut. 8:10-13) and the parable of the spreading vine, which symbolizes the people of Israel (Ezek. 17).

Sephardic Jews have their own special manual entitled “The Fruit of the Goodly Tree.” It was first published in the Judeo-Spanish language,  Ladino, in Salonica, composed  by Judah Kala’i. Each verse is recited as the relevant fruits are eaten, and some of the verses translate as follows:

“G-d increase our worldly goods,
And guard us soon and late,
And multiply our bliss like seeds
Of the POMEGRANATE.
 
For our Redeemer do we wait
All the long night through,
To bring a dawn as roseate
As the APPLE’s hue.

Sin, like a stubborn shell and hard
Is wrapped around our soul;
Lord, break the husk and let the NUT
Come out whole.

Etc.

Each of the fruits has its own symbolic meaning. The rosy apple stands for G-d’s glowing splendor; thenut represents the three kinds of Jews  hard, medium and soft. The almond stands for swift divine retribution, for it blossoms more quickly than other trees. The fig means peace and prosperity, and the humble carob stands for humility, a necessary element of penitence.

No religion has closer ties to agriculture and ecology than Judaism. In fact, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai once declared: “If you hold a sapling in your hand and hear that the Messiah has arrived, plant the sapling first and only then go and greet the Messiah.”

Dvora Waysman is an Australian-born writer living in Jerusalem. She is the author of nine books, including Woman of Jerusalem; The Pomegranat Pendant and Esther. She can be reached at ways@netvision.net.ilor.  Her website is: www.dvorawaysman.com

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