Trees play an important role in the Bible. A symbol of faith, strength, righteousness, and rebirth, our intimate connection to trees is displayed throughout Scripture. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Israel—the land of the Bible—has its own celebration in honor of trees. And while it has no direct connection to the Bible, it is inspired by the Mishna—the cornerstone of Judaism and the first major collection of Jewish oral traditions.
The holiday of Tu Bishvat is known colloquially as the “New Year of Trees,” or Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot. It occurs on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, usually in late January or early February. In ancient times, Tu Bishvat was a prescribed date on the Jewish calendar that helped farmers establish exactly when they should bring their fourth year produce of fruit from recently planted trees to the Temple as first-fruits offerings.
Today, Tu Bishvat gives Israelis much reason to celebrate, especially as it is only one of two countries that entered the 21st century with more trees than it had 100 years ago. Israel’s forests are not native to the land, which means everything has been planted by hand. From the 19th century through World War I, the Ottoman Empire wrought significant deforestation across Israel in order to build railways. Over time, as Israel entered a more modern era, the holiday became a symbol of the connection between the land of Israel and its people. An initiative to plant trees took root and spread throughout the country. Now, approximately 250 million native and imported trees are scheduled to be planted in the next 10 years.
Tu Bishvat Celebrations
In addition to the tree planting, Tu Bishvat celebrations incorporate the eating of dried fruit and nuts, a reinstituted custom from the Diaspora when fresh fruit was not readily available. Though dried fruit and nuts are stocked in grocery stores and markets throughout Israel year-round, if you are in Israel during the holiday, you’ll definitely see more decorated displays of dried fruit and nuts in stores and markets.
More recently, a Tu Bishvat Seder meal has gained popularity. Customary among the Jewish community living in the Diaspora, this seder is rooted in the traditions of the Pesach (Passover) seder. Songs and prayers unique to this seder are sung and recited. Both fresh and dried fruit are served, as are four cups of red and white wine.
In 2021, Tu Bishvat falls on January 27-28, a perfect time to enjoy the crisp winter air of celebrations in Jerusalem, and to witness the almond trees in full blossom. The holiday does not impact businesses or transportation, which encourages visitors to participate in a tree-planting event through the Jewish National Fund, or plant one through its “click and plant” program.
Whichever way you choose to celebrate Tu Bishvat, it is a beautiful and sacred way to honor the land of Israel through the conservation and nurturing of a vital resource, to honor those who gave their lives for it, and to keep it vibrant and thriving.