Thursday, January 17, 2019

Tu B'Shevat - Part Two

Today’s date is Shevat 11, 5779.  A special day is approaching – the Fifteenth of Shevat or “Tu B’Shevat” beginning at sunset Sunday and continuing through sunset Monday.  The previous post addressed the full lunar eclipse and the “Super Blood Wolf Moon” that will occur Sunday night.  This time, let’s look at the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, also known as the “New Year of Trees.”

This minor holiday was first mentioned 2000 years ago in the Mishnah, a compilation of oral rabbinic law.  At that time, it marked the beginning of a new “fiscal year” in regards to agricultural tithes.  After the destruction of the temple in AD 70, the relevance of such festivals waned.

Beginning roughly 500 years ago, after the Sephardic exiles settled in what would become present-day Israel they developed a Tu B’Shevat Seder that contemplated the mystical aspects of God and the interconnectedness of Man and Nature.  The Seder included the consumption of fruits and nuts native to Israel: dates, almonds, pomegranates, figs, olives, and more, preceded by the recitation of the Shehechiyanu blessing:

Blessed are You Lord our God,
Ruler of the Universe
Who has given us life,
Sustained us, and
Allowed us to reach this day. 

Meanwhile, what has become known as the world’s first Arbor Day, took place in the small Spanish village of Villanueva de la Sierra (in 1805) launched by a local Catholic priest.  The Spanish writer, Miguel Herrero Uceda  described it:

While Napoleon was ravaging Europe with his ambition in this village in the Sierra de Gata lived a priest, don Juan Abern Samtrés, which, according to the chronicles, "convinced of the importance of trees for health, hygiene, decoration, nature, environment and customs, decides to plant trees and give a festive air. The festival began on Carnival Tuesday with the ringing of two bells of the church, and the Middle and the Big. After the Mass, and even coated with church ornaments, don Juan, accompanied by clergies, teachers and a large number of neighbours, planted the first tree, a poplar, in the place known as Valley of the Ejido. Tree plantations continued by Arroyada and Fuente de la Mora. Afterwards, there was a feast, and did not miss the dance. The party and plantations lasted three days. He drafted a manifesto in defence of the trees that was sent to surrounding towns to spread the love and respect for nature, and also he advised to make tree plantations in their localities.

Who knows, maybe this example inspired those who were resettling Israel.  Eventually, Tu B’Shevat took on new significance as the vision expanded for restoring the long-neglected land, to make it once again a “land of milk and honey.”  The Jewish National Fund (JNF), Israel’s second-largest landowner after the government, was established in Switzerland in 1901 with the purpose of buying and rehabilitating land in Palestine. It largely oversees tree plantings in Israel.  A that time, it was estimated that 2% of Israel was forested.  Now, thanks to the planting of more than 250,000,000 trees, approximately 8% of the land is forested.

David Ben Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel, once declared, “I do not know if there is a more fruitful enterprise whose results are as useful as the planting of trees.”

Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of Trees, has become a special day for reforestation efforts, a sort of Jewish Arbor Day.  The holiday is mentioned in the “folk” song “Hashkediyah Porahat” (“Tu B’Shevat is Here”):

Let’s make the land a garden,
With water from the Jordan;
And our land will flow once more
With milk and honey, as of yore.
Tu B’Shevat is here,
The Jewish Arbor Day,
Hail the trees’ New Year,
Happy holiday!

Often, and perhaps again this year, the tree planting ceremony would include a special prayer such as this “Prayer for a Tree Planting on Tu biShvat,” by Rav Ben-Tsiyon Meir Ḥai Uziel (some time before 1942):

Our father in Heaven,
builder of Zion and Jerusalem,
and founder of the kingdom of Israel,
look down from your holy domain in Heaven,
and bless your people Israel,
and the land that you presented to us
that you promised to our ancestors.

Take pleasure in your land
and bestow abundance upon it
from the goodness of your lovingkindness —

Give dew for a blessing
and cause beneficial rains to precipitate in their season
to satiate the mountains of Israel and her valleys
and to water upon them, every shrub, (and) tree, and our plantings.

Make deep their roots and grow their crown
so that they blossom according to your will
among all the trees in Israel
for blessing and for splendor.

And strengthen the hands of all our comrades
who toil in the labor of the holy Earth,
and make her desolate areas fruitful.
Bless, YHVH, their might
and may the work of their hands be favored by you.

A brief aside – it could be my imagination but there was a time in America when Arbor Day, and the planting of commemorative trees in general, carried greater significance than it does today.  I suspect that such stuff is unfashionable in today’s institutions of “learning” for a myriad of obvious reasons.  Sad, but just another sign of the decline of our civilization.  How refreshing that Tu B’Shevat carries on such a fine tradition.

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