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Tu B’Shevat: Its History and Reinvention (Yitro – 02/03/18)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Tu B’Shevat: Its History and Reinvention
Tu B’Shevat was this past Wednesday. In Jewish tradition, it’s not a major holiday, but rather a day marking the beginning of a new tax year with regards to fruit tithes. Fruit picked before Tu B’Shevat belongs to the previous year’s reckoning, fruit picked after Tu B’Shevat belongs to a new year.
For those living in the diaspora, Tu B’Shevat had very little relevance, for fruit grown outside of Israel does not need tithing. In truth, even in Israel, it was not generally celebrated as a holiday until 1903 when Chaim Aryeh Leib Zuta (1868-1939) landed on Jaffa’s shores. Zuta was a well-known figure among the nascent Hebrew culture of Eastern Europe and was one of the first advocates of the “reformed heder,” a schooling system that taught modern secular subjects alongside traditional religious ones.
As a child in the cold steppes of Eastern Europe, he yearned to be in the warm Holy Land to celebrate its trees and bless them for their new year. He witnessed a merry celebration in Ekaterinoslav (today’s city of Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine) in which children planted trees in a festive spring ceremony. As jolly as the celebration was, Zuta was gloomy, saying, “Blessed is the nation that plants trees in its own land! Alas, the students from my people walk and plant saplings in a foreign soil, where they do not belong, and my heart is mournful!” Zuta hoped that “there, in the land of Israel, the new year for the trees is indeed the 15th of Shevat…and is probably a big deal.”
How disappointed he was to find out that there was no planting of trees or significant celebrations being practiced in the land of Israel. Zuta was the first to suggest a Jewish Arbor Day. In his mind, he was not inventing a tradition but rather innovating it. At the 1906 convention of the Association of Hebrew Teachers in Palestine, Zuta proposed making it obligatory for schools to celebrate a tree-planting holiday on Tu B’Shevat. The next year, the first public tree-planting ceremony on Tu B’Shevat took place at the Mikveh Yisrael agricultural school with the participation of some 300 students from five schools in nearby Jaffa. Since then Tu B’Shevat has grown in scope especially with regards to the idea of planting trees in Israel, something essential for the nascent country.
Yet the Ukrainian celebration that inspired Zuta was actually a 19th-century invention from the American Midwest. As industrialization progressed around the world and forests began shrinking, proto-environmentalist movements began waging pro-forest campaigns. Nebraska proclaimed April 10, 1872, as “Arbor Day.” More than a million trees were planted; three years later, the state legislature enshrined Arbor Day as an annual holiday. Planting ceremonies included parades of schoolchildren carrying saplings, songs composed for the holiday, and the recitation of biblical passages. Within two decades, most of the U.S. and Canada had enacted an Arbor Day meant to inspire children and adults with a love of nature, environmental awareness, and local and national patriotism. By the end of the century it had spread to Australia, New Zealand, France and Spain. It even reached the industrialized parts of the Russian empire.[1]
Here at MHJC we had originally hoped to celebrate Tu B’Shevat by conducting a Kabbalistic Tu B’Shevat Seder, but we didn’t get enough takers. I spoke to one of my rabbinic colleagues at another synagogue, and his congregation chose to commemorate this day by calling it Jewish Arbor Day, where they had a “seder” about caring for the environment.   We too can do something similar that speaks to the ecological concerns of our congregation.
Nowadays, as our Hebrew skills become weaker, many of us are intimidated by Hebrew verbiage. Tu B’Shevat, even the words “Kabbalat Shabbat” scare people off. “Jewbarressment” is a significant hindrance to people entering the synagogue, they don’t know understand the Hebrew letters on the walls, or when to sit or stand, or even what’s a “Chumash.” But the theme of Tu B’Shevat is important, especially in our times of “beautiful clean coal” and the U.S. not joining the Paris Climate Agreement. We need to have a day that connects us as Jews to the environment and our responsibility to the planet. Tu B’Shevat is the natural day on the Hebrew Calendar for this, and perhaps always was. We need to market it in a twenty-first century way, just as Zuta repurposed it to meets the needs of his time in the developing land of Palestine.
Twenty first century marketing is not only something that synagogues should learn (and I would love your input and assistance with this), but as parents and grandparents, if we want to interest our youth, we’re going to need to reframe many traditional practices into some contemporary cause or theme as well. Judaism has many beautiful practices and ideologies, many of which touch a soft spot among us, but we’re going to need to modernize our marketing if we going to be able to sell them to the younger generations.

[1] The Little-known Christian, Nebraskan roots of Tu B’Shvat, Hizky Shoham,

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