Photo Credit: Courtesy
Ari Lipinski and his wife Yael planting a tree.

Tu B’Shvat, the new year of the trees, has been celebrated by the Jewish people every year for over 2,000 years. Historically, it used to be a date relevant for the calculation of the tithe (the agricultural tax on the fruits of the trees of the Land of Israel) and the bikurim, the first fruits of the Seven Species of Israel to be brought to the Temple between Shavuot and Sukkot. In recent years, during the week of Tu B’Shvat more than half a million tree saplings are provided to the public by the JNF-KKL, Israel’s afforestation authority, and are planted all over the country.

Tu B’Shvat is an official holiday, and the Knesset was inaugurated on Tu B’Shvat 1949 after the State of Israel was proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion on the May 14, 1948. Only during a shemitta year does no planting take place. In the last 120 years, Jews have planted over 240 million trees in Israel. Israel is therefore the only country which today has more trees than it had 100 years ago! In most countries, forests were sacrificed due to the needs of urbanization. In some regions of the world, even rainforests have been destroyed and replaced by other agricultural crops for profit purposes in spite of the grave global ecological consequences of reducing these “green lungs.”


Planting a tree in the Holy Land has a very long tradition: The Torah recounts that 3,800 years ago, Abraham planted a tree there. As we read in Genesis (21:33), “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there the name of the L-rd, the everlasting G-d.” What was the unique message integrated into this event that made it important enough to tell us about it in the Bible? Furthermore, having in mind that the text of the Torah is very deliberate, why was it necessary to tell us the specific type of tree which Abraham planted?

This is a wonderful illustration of how much wisdom is built into the original Hebrew Torah text. The fascinating answer to the above-mentioned questions might not be found by reading the text in any language other than Hebrew.

The original Hebrew name of the tree which Abraham planted is “eshel.” What happened just before Abraham planted the eshel tree? There was a water conflict between Abraham and his people and the Philistines in the northern dry zone of the Negev desert in the south of Canaan (Israel). Abraham’s men searched and found water wells in the desert and invested efforts to dig the wells. The Philistines destroyed their work. The Philistines did not need the water – they destroyed the wells only for the purpose of harassment. Finally, Abimelech, king of the Philistines, came with his general, Pichol, to meet with Abraham and negotiate a peace accord.

The essence of the agreement was absolutely surprising. Even though the Philistines came with an army – the king and the general would not come without soldiers protecting them on the way – and Abraham was without an army, the two sides agreed that Abraham could keep all of his seven wells. In spite of the fact that Abraham had no army, he got it all. There was not even a compromise achieved by the Philistines. One could expect that if the king and his army chief came to negotiate a water treaty, they would surely have tried to get at least a few of the seven wells in question. But they did not. They left after a peaceful solution was agreed upon.

The peace treaty was sealed by Abraham giving King Abimelech a present of seven sheep. What was the first action of Abraham after he succeeded in keeping the wells? He did not immediately celebrate his victory. Rather, his first action was to plant an eshel tree near Beersheba. Only after he had planted the tree did he express loudly his gratitude with a prayer: “…and called there the name of the L-rd, the everlasting G-d.”

Now we can answer the two important questions above. From the exact sequence of events, we understand first of all that Abraham insisted on keeping the wells because he wanted to plant a tree, namely an eshel, near Beersheba.

So now we get to the second question of why the very name of the tree planted by Abraham had to be expressly mentioned. The word “eshel” in Hebrew consists of three letters, alefshinlamed. The famous Torah commentator Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1509) quotes the Midrash and explains that the three letters are actually the abbreviation of the three Hebrew words ochel (food), sh’tiya (drink), and linah, or levay in old Hebrew (overnight stay). By understanding the encoded three words which the name of the eshel tree contains, we can understand that Abraham wanted to publish the fact that G-d is the Creator. Abraham planted a tree, deliberately an eshel, so that people who traveled in the region could see it from a distance. An eshel tree could be seen from far away in the northern Negev which was a barren landscape. In the desert everyone was looking for shade and a place to rest. So people would be attracted to come to Abraham’s place.

We know of Abraham that he was famous for his generous hospitality. When he would give people food and water free of charge in the desert, they would thank him. Abraham would then tell them to direct their gratitude to G-d, as the Creator who had made all the food and water available. Since this concept was totally new to the population in the area at that time, a long conversation would follow until it was already nightfall. Then Abraham would invite the visitors to stay the night.

The quintessence of the story is that Abraham wanted to make it well-known to people that they should recognize G-d as the Creator and be grateful to Him. In order to get the audience for this message, he planted an eshel tree to make his place known and easily found. Abraham’s planting of an eshel tree near Beersheba was the best “PR measure” for monotheism. As a matter of fact, we still remember his PR initiative even 3,800 years later!

The Hebrew name of the eshel tree contains another hidden significance: In gematria, the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in eshel is 331. The sum of these numbers is seven. Seven is a holy number in the Torah since Creation. This is surely no coincidence.

I wish us all a happy and peaceful Tu B’Shvat and may you be blessed with the opportunity to plant a tree in the Land of the Bible with your own hands.

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Israeli-born Ari Lipinski, MBA, IDF Major (ret.), is the author of several books about Israel, Jewish Bible commentaries, and the kibbutz, and gives online lectures about these topics. He studied in Israel (Bar-Ilan) and England (Hartford) for his MBA. He was a member of Kibbutz Netzer Sereni for 15 years and served as the chief envoy of the JNF-KKL and of Bar-Ilan University in Germany. He is a contributor to, an online encyclopedia about Judaism, the Bible, Israel, and the Shoah. Ari lives with his family in Israel. For more information, please contact him at [email protected].