tu bishvat

“a carved tree in rock creek park”; photo by rachel tepper (first prize in Washington DCJCC’s “Every Person is a Tree” 2012 Tu Bishvat photography contest)

Today is the Jewish holiday called Tu Bishvat, literally the 15th of the month Shevat. It’s the new year for trees. (There are technically four “new years” in the Jewish calendar: The new year for kings, Rosh Hashanah; the calendar new year, Nisan (the first month); and the new year for tithing animals (the least well known one), Elul.) Originally a date to help farmers obey a Torah prohibition not to eat of a tree’s fruit until its fifth year, it’s come to be a minor festival. Today in Israel Tu Bishvat is celebrated with tree planting ceremonies, while in the Diaspora some give money to plant trees in Israel. There are also Tu Bishvat seders, as well as various ecological or environmental programs.

This is not a holiday that I’ve given much thought to in the past, but when I started this blog I committed myself to reading, reflecting, and writing about the Jewish holidays each year. Consulting several sources, I have learned more than I knew. I’ve attended at least one Tu Bishvat seder in the past, and we talked about the holiday last night at my b’nai mitzvah class, saying blessings over almonds, raisins, and olives). When I got home, I made almond mandelbrot.

But if I am being honest, I don’t feel much connection to this holiday right now. Lots of rabbis and other Jewish educators have said beautiful things this year and in the past about the meaning of Tu Bishvat and the Jewish people’s connection to trees, but I am just not there. I haven’t read or heard anything so far this year that has spoken to me. It’s probably best to just acknowledge that and see what happens next year, when, G-d willing, I’ll be in my first year of rabbinical school. How will things have changed by then?

Until then, I’ll join the ranks of at least two Tu Bishvat curmudgeons. In 2009 I began a weekly adult education class via the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, offered by the local Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. Over a year we covered both the “Rhythms of Jewish Living” and the “Purposes of Jewish Living” curricula; the former concerned the Jewish lifecycle. In late winter, one of the class instructors, the Hillel rabbi at an area university, shared his theory about Tu Bishvat. He felt that the rise in prominence of Tu Bishvat among Jewish holidays in modern observance was the Hebrew school cycle. Holiday-wise, there’s not much between Chanukah and Purim, so Tu Bishvat becomes more important just because of when it occurs in the Jewish calendar: Tu Bishvat as a glorified Jewish Earth Day. He was adamant about his interpretation of recent history — a point generally lost on us — and rather upset by it. Maybe I’ll be, too, after six years of rabbinical school? However, I don’t think that I’ll ever be as upset as my friend Ben over the spelling of this holiday. But I do appreciate his grammatical fervor.

To end on a high note, I do love this story about Theodore Herzl when he planted a tree near Jerusalem. It seems to prove his famous dictum: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

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