“Shout for joy, O foundations of the earth; break out with glad song, O mountains, O forest and all its trees” (Isaiah 44:23).
When I was a little girl in Talmud Torah elementary school in Montreal, come January, the coldest time of the year with feet of snow piled outside the classroom windows, the Hebrew teachers would sell leaf-shaped stickers to put on a paper tree. They were five or ten cents each and, in this way, as a class, we would buy trees to plant in Israel each Tu B’Shevat.
The price of trees in Israel hasn’t gone up that much since then. They cost $18 each. Not a bad deal for something that will live hundreds of years, God willing. Israel has suffered many fires that have obliterated much forest land, but, since its inception in 1901, the Jewish National Fund has planted over 240 million trees in the land (as well as over a thousand parks) and Israel is only one of two countries in the world that has more trees today than it did a hundred years ago (the other one is the United States).
Trees are the source of many blessing:
We are prohibited from cutting down a fruit tree, except for specific reasons, and it is from this prohibition that the halacha of baal tashchit is derived.
Trees play a part in the mitzvah of shiluach haken, which usually involves climbing a tree to send away the mother bird. And, of course, we make a bracha on fruits and nuts deriving from trees. Since the Shehecheyanu blessing is also made when eating the first fruit of the season, trees get credit for that one too.
The Jewish people’s relationship to trees goes way back as far as the Garden of Eden where man’s first mitzvah involved a tree. Maybe that’s why Jews are so enthusiastic about tree planting.
The Torah likens man to the tree of the field. The same way one is not permitted to eat the fruit that grows on a tree for the first three years, it is the custom for little boys not to be given their first haircut until the age of three. To continue the analogy, it is hoped that the child will, like a tree, grow tall and be fruitful, spiritually and physically, and someday have a family of his own, adding branches to the tree. In some communities, a boy before his first haircut is referred to as an orlah, as we refer to a tree in its first three years. The irony, of course, it that many people wait to give their child their first haircut on Lag B’Omer which is celebrated by burning many trees.
Tu B’Shevat is the beginning of the new year for trees, the day on which agricultural matters are determined for such matters as ma’asser – tithes taken from produce grown in Israel – and orlah – produce of a tree during its first three years of growth.
On Tu B’Shevat, we pray for a beautiful etrog for the following Sukkot.
It is customary to eat a “new fruit” on Tu B’Shevat, and to make the bracha of Shehecheyanu. It is also customary to eat from the seven species of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil and honey from dates. Many people make a festive meal from them.
Israel has many different types of trees owing in part to the many different climates in its small space of land: Palm, eucalyptus, olive, date, pistachio, oak, sycamore, citrus, apple, acacia, juniper mulberry, pine and almond.
One of the country’s most famous songs, Churshat HaEcalyptus by Naomi Shemer, is about trees.
The Torah is also compared to a Tree of Life, as both the Jewish people and their Torah have deep roots. (It’s noteworthy that the largest Jewish populations live in the countries that plant the greatest number if trees).
Coming full circle, to commemorate my 36th high school reunion, our graduating class, consisting of many of the same kids who bought those 5-cent leaf-stickers in the 1960s, held a tree-union where we donated trees to honor the school. Three gardens, a total of 300 trees, were planted in the Jerusalem Hills, the Carmel Forest up North (which was still recovering from the devastating fires of 2010) and the Nachal Ashan Forest in the South. The majority of the class of 66 students participated. Most of the students hadn’t been in contact with each other in 36 years. Diverse and far-flung as we were, we managed to unite once again to honor our alma mater by planting trees in Israel as we had done so long before.
Though donations are accepted year round at JNF, the organization only plants during the short rainy season in Israel peaking at Tu B’Shevat, when schools and youth groups descend en masse on the forests to plant and enjoy Israel’s trees.
The nation that plants together enjoys sitting under their fig tree together, or something like that.
Happy Tu B’Shevat!
To plant trees in Israel and get a nice certificate, visit usa.jnf.org/jnf-tree-planting-center/