Tree love

Over the past few months, I’ve talked a lot about my garden minyan. I love davening outside. It’s terrific to pray among these beautiful trees, even though there are weather concerns. I remember seeking shade from July through September. Now I’m looking for the sunny areas to get a little warmth. But as Tu B’shvat approaches I think that it’s appropriate to salute my lovely trees. 

First a little history. For centuries, Tu B’shvat was about agricultural laws. Farmers in Eretz Yisrael needed a calendar reference to date the produce from trees. A fig which was harvested before Tu B’Shvat belongs to last year’s reckoning of Terumot and Ma’asrot (gifts and tithes for Cohanim and Levi’im). A fig which buds after Tu B’shvat belongs to next year’s account. This date is so useful because in Eret Yisrael, historically, there are very few fruits on trees on this date  

However, in the 1500’s, the mystics of Tzfat began to find mystical significance in fruit. Sometime in the Middle Ages the accepted diagram of the Ten Sefirot (mystical levels) changed from concentric circles to a stylized tree. This shift precipitated a new mystical appreciation of trees and their produce. The New Year for Trees shifted from its accounting nature to a celebration of trees. It also began specific traditional observances, culminating in the Tu B’shvat Seder (Pri Etz Hadar). This led to certain commemorations of the day, like not reciting TACHANUN, saying SHEHECHIYANU on new fruits, and eating 15 (or 30) different fruits. 

 In modern times, Tu B’shvat was again reinvented. In 1892, Ze’ev Yavetz, a new immigrant and teacher, took his students to plant trees in Zichron Ya’akov. This practice was adopted by the teacher’s union in 1905 and KKL-JNF in 1908. When I went to afternoon Hebrew School in the 1950’s, we brought a dime every Sunday in the fall, and on Tu B’shvat we got a certificate saying that a tree had been planted in Eretz Yisrael from the dollar we had given. It’s more expensive today ($18 at jnf.org), but still a good investment. 

Finally, in the 1970’s, Tu B’shvat became Israel’s version of Earth Day to commemorate the environment. I think that as many kids clean up public areas as plant trees on Tu B’shvat today. I can appreciate that, because in the 80’s and 90’s, together with my kids, I planted trees every year and none survived very long. I would have done better picking up trash. 

This brings me to the Chasidim. It was a Chassidishe custom to say a prayer on Tu B’shvat for a beautiful ETROG in the coming Sukkot festival. This was very meaningful because getting an ETROG in Eastern Europe was never easy, and often they were stuck using last year’s ETROG. Here’s an excerpt from the B’nai Yissasschar’s version: 

that You shall make a nice, beautiful etrog which is clean of all blemishes and deficiencies, complete and kosher according to all its laws, accessible to us.  

There was another Chassidic reaction to trees and nature from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. He loved communing with nature and meditating amongst the trees. Part of my annual Tu B’Shvat observance is reciting this prayer from Rebbe Nachman:  

Grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass – among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong. May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field – all grasses, trees, and plants – awake at my coming, to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing things, which are made as one by their transcendent Source. May I then pour out the words of my heart before your Presence like water, O Lord, and lift up my hands to You in worship, on my behalf, and that of my children! 

Finally, I want to emphasize an aspect of Tu B’Shvat which I alluded to before but didn’t really explain. Tu B’Shvat is really about Zionism and love of Eretz Yisrael. Remember its origins with TERUMOT and MA’ASEROT only applied in Eretz Yisrael. Even in Europe, many people recognized this and desired to eat fruits of Eretz Yisrael on Tu B’Shvat. This began that most horrible custom of eating dried carob (BOKSER) from Israel, which was impervious to both rot and teeth.  

Thank God today Israel is a garden of amazing produce. It’s both abundant and delicious. But that’s new. Before the modern State, Israel was very desolate. Rav Shlomo Aviner of Beit El correctly points out the significance of this phenomenon: 

And the Sages said concerning the words of Yechezkel: R. Aba said that the end time is very explicit. ‘But you, O mountains of Israel, shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My people Israel, for they are soon to come home (Yechezkel 36:8 in Sanhedrin 98a). Rashi comments that when Israel gives fruit in abundance (AYIN YAFEH) it is for the Jews who are arriving…This isn’t a coincidence. It also isn’t a deep mystery. It’s just a simple, obvious reality to the discerning eye. All the blooming trees in Eretz Yisrael, all of the ongoing community expansion is definitely the redemption (GEULA). 

So, have a wonderful Tu B’Shvat. Enjoy nature and the trees. Just remember the blooming trees are a harbinger of the blossoming of Geula. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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