By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
A deep appreciation for trees is integral to Judaism. Trees are mentioned over a hundred times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Hebrew generic word for fruit also appears over a hundred times. In addition, specific trees and fruits that grew in ancient Israel, including the date, fig, olive, and persimmon, are described and praised throughout the Bible.
Two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge, are central to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, as is a fruit that they were not supposed to eat but did. The tree of life later came to be metaphorically associated with the entirety of Judaic knowledge or with the totality of human generations, and representations of the tree of life are commonly found in synagogues, works of art, and the titles of books or movies. Traditional sayings about the tree of life are commonly inscribed in Hebrew on the walls or doors of Jewish schools and places of worship.
When the State of Israel was reestablished in 1948, much of the land had been stripped bare of trees during the centuries when most Jews had been in exile. A major effort was launched to turn Israel’s desert land into fertile areas of orchards and forests. Trees were planted that were the same species that Jews had nurtured 3,000 years earlier at the time of King David. Children around the world collected coins to support that effort, and each was rewarded with a certificate stating that a tree had been planted in Israel with the funds they provided. The beautiful lush forests and orchards in modern Israel are testimony to the success of that effort. In those early years, many people during their first trip to Israel would ask to see “their tree” – but it was impossible to identify individual trees that had been established with particular donations.
Many Jewish holidays incorporate fruit and nuts into festival meals and traditions. On Passover, a sweet mixture of chopped fruits and nuts, called “charoset,” offsets the taste of horseradish, eaten to remember the bitterness of slavery. On the spiritual New Year, Rosh HaShanah, apples dipped in honey are served to wish the family and guests a sweet year the year round. In the fall at the festival of Sukkot (tabernacles), branches of the myrtle, willow and date palm are bundled together and, along with the fruit of the citron tree. are used in a celebratory ritual.
Not only do trees and fruit play an important role in Jewish holidays, but they have been awarded a holiday of their own – the New Year of the Trees. The holiday is commonly called Tu B’Shevat, which means the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat, the date of the holiday on the Hebrew lunar calendar. On the secular calendar, Tu B’Shevat falls in January or February. While in some places, such as Mexico City, the temperature on Tu B’Shevat can be bitter cold and the trees still dormant, and in other places such as coastal Oaxaca the weather can be witheringly hot and dry, in Israel or Guadalajara Tu B’Shevat is a time when trees begin to flower.
Tu B’Shevat is celebrated in different ways depending on the community. Many communities essentially celebrate an Earth Day, providing information about sustainable growing methods.
Others hold seders, which are meals incorporating seven species of fruits and grains mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. Some communities in temperate climates plant trees, while other communities raise funds for planting trees in Israel. Almost everyone celebrating Tu B’Shevat eats fruit.
One of our favorite Tu B’Shevat celebrations took place in Huatulco with The Eye staff and their partners. Everyone brought a dish made with fruit for brunch – a delicious variety of salads, frittatas, salsas, cakes and cookies. We talked about and sampled four kinds of fruit and compared them to human personalities – hard on the outside but soft inside; soft on the outside but hard on the inside; soft on the outside and inside; and hard on the outside and inside. And then everyone told a story about a favorite tree they remembered from a period in their life.
Tu B’Shevat is a relatively minor holiday. It is not mentioned in the Scriptures but rather was discussed by rabbis in the Talmud – Jewish oral tradition written down around the year 500. But for those of us who love trees, it is a wonderful time to appreciate their diversity and the bounty they provide and to commit ourselves to their protection.