Posted on January 9, 2019 by Sarah Gluck & Lisa Friedman
This month, we celebrate Tu BiShvat, Jewish Arbor Day, also known as chag ha-ilanot, the Birthday of the Trees, or New Year of the Trees. Tu BiShvat falls on January 21 this year, and our joyful TBE celebration will be held on Saturday, January 26. Because Tu BiShvat falls in the middle of our winter season, we must consciously remind ourselves that the holiday originated in Israel, where the beauty of spring begins to reveal itself at this time of year. As the seasons change, the hills of the desert become, for a short while, a brilliant green; wild cyclamen bloom pink, white, and red in the rocky soil; and the fragrant blossoms of almond trees scent the air.
Tu BiShvat has a long and varied history, with antecedents in biblical and talmudic times. The theme most commonly ascribed to Tu BiShvat today is the environment. Tragically, there are far too many places the world over, including right here at home in the U.S., where neglect and exploitation of the earth has led to natural disasters in increased numbers and magnitude.
The holiday of Tu BiShvat asks us to be thoughtful about the earth and the environment, and so we must do what we can. Just like the Lorax, the creatures in the Dr. Seuss story of the same name, let us seek to protect the trees and nature as a whole. Though we may not be able to plant outdoors in New Jersey in January, we can dedicate ourselves to thinking every day about how we can contribute to caring for and preserving the environment. There are many ways, both big and small, to be more environmentally active. This Tu BiShvat, let’s dedicate ourselves to learning more and becoming more involved.
There are some wonderful stories and sayings from our tradition that highlight the importance of trees and our responsibility to take care of the natural world, while still utilizing its gifts. One of the most famous is the story of Honi the circlemaker.
Once Honi was walking along the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked, “How long before it will bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” the man answered. “Are you sure you will be around in seventy years to enjoy its fruit?” The man answered, “I found this world filled with carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted before me, so I will plant for my children.”
Finally, Tu BiShvat helps us connect to the Source of all being. It reminds us that nature is a gift from God, and that we should be grateful. This month, we can be even more mindful of the natural world and express gratitude, as the poet Leah Goldberg (1911-1970) does so beautifully in this poem (which you can find on page 87 of our TBE siddur):
Teach me, O my God, to praise and to pray
For the mystery of a leaf withering away,
For the splendor of ripe fruit,
For this freedom — to see, to feel, to breathe,
To know, to hope, to falter.
Teach my lips a blessing and a song of praise
For the renewal of Your time each day.
Lest my day — today — be the same as yesterday.
Lest my day become for me — routine.
May our gratitude for the beauty and bounty of nature be renewed each day, and may our commitment to act as the earth’s loving stewards never become routine.
Happy Tu BiShvat!
Sarah Gluck and Lisa Friedman
Note: Like the Fourth of July, the name of the holiday is simply the date on which it falls: the 15th of the month of Shvat. Tuis the letters tetand vav, which have the respective numeric values of 9 and 6, put together (right to left) and pronounced as a word. BiShvatmeans “in [the month Shvat.”
Originally published in the January-February 2019 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.