From the desk of Rabbi Howald

A Message from
Rabbi Michael D. Howald

A Message from
Rabbi Michael D. Howald

This year, Tu B’shevat, the Jewish holiday sometimes called the “New Year for Trees” comes during the middle of January. During a month when the trees of the American Northeast are bare of leaves and buds, we will celebrate Tu B’shevat as the time when fruit trees begin to bud in the land of Israel. Tu B’shevat, however, is not just about anticipating the transition from winter to spring in the milder climate of the Mediterranean. The holiday of Tu B’shevat also reminds us of the historical and mystical significance of the modern restoral of the land of Israel, both for those who live within its borders and for those who live beyond its boundaries.
Until the rise of the Zionist movement in the 19thcentury, Tu B’Shevat was a relatively marginal observance on the Jewish calendar. The early Zionists saw in Tu B’shevat two themes worthy of elevation, the benefits of labor and physical activity in connection with agriculture and the desire to restore the land of Israel to what they imagined was its ancient pastoral glory. The New Year of Trees, accordingly, became the “Festival of Trees” on which Jewish inhabitants of “the Land” planted trees in anticipation of the restoration of the state of Israel. Beginning in the late 19thcentury, accordingly, the modern observance of Tu b’Shevat became associated with the planting of trees in Israel, an activity with both agricultural and sacred value. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) raised money for this purpose, often through coins dropped into blue metal boxes by Jewish school children all over the world who saw in the planting of trees, on both Tu b’Shevat and other days, the building up of the Jewish nation they hoped to soon achieve.
The national effort to plant trees on Tu b’Shevat contributed to the creation of some of the now forested areas of Israel. Just as in the United States, however, the 15thof the Jewish month of Shevat (the meaning of the “Tu” in “Tu b’Shevat, which is spelled with the 9th(ט)and 6th(ו)letter [9+6=15] of the Hebrew aleph-bet) is not the optimal time for tree planting in Israel. To supplement or even change the focus on the planting of trees on Tu b’Shevat itself, the kibbutzim movement in Israel reintroduced the idea of a structured meal on Tu b’Shevat consisting of fruits and wine from the land of Israel. In doing so, the kibbutzniks adapted a mystical ritual seder from the 18thcentury deeply steeped in the symbols and rituals of Kabbalistic Judaism. The kibbutzniks who created the first 20thcentury Tu b’Shevat seders largely dropped this mystical symbolism in favor of a ritual rejoicing in the agricultural richness of the modern land of Israel.
Today, Tu b’Shevat is still an occasion to think about the planting of trees in the land of milk and honey. The JNF promotes the purchase of trees on Tu b’Shevat to those who live outside the land of Israel as a way of establishing a connection to the land of our ancestors. Even if the planting may actually occur weeks after the 15thof Shevat, a contribution to the JNF on Tu b’Shevat reminds us of the importance of trees to the environment as well as the significance of the land of Israel in our traditions and texts. As you would expect of the “People of the Book,” moreover, numerous Tu b’Shevat seder books are now published every year. Some lean toward the mystical significance of the day and other emphasize ecology and concern for the world of nature. No matter which message they emphasize, however, almost all Tu b’Shevat seders published today recall the restoration of the land of Israel by the hard work of planting and pruning done by thousands of early Zionist pioneers. By including this message, the Tu b’Shevat seder of today remembers those who longed to see modern Israel as the land where each person would sit under their vine and fig tree and eat of the abundance of the Land. As we observe Tu b’Shevat in New York City during the month of January, we can rejoice in this meaning even as we shovel snow off our driveways!

Rabbi Michael D. Howald