Once a year in elementary school, my class would line up single file, walk down the block to check out a tree that was blossoming outside a small doctor’s office. As children of New York City, where our playground was the fenced enclosure of the school roof (and any rogue soccer balls kicked over the fence were gone forever), we were enthralled by any interaction with actual nature. This day was Tu B’shvat.
We would then go back to the classroom and mildly enjoy dried fruits. Ask anyone from my 5th grade class today what Tu B’shvat is all about and they’ll tell you it’s to celebrate trees. Actually I just asked some of them (I haven’t made any new friends since 3rd grade) and answers varied from ‘something about fruit’ to ‘why are you calling me at 3 a.m. to ask me about Tu B’shvat?’.
Anyways, despite what misinformed former 5th graders will tell you, Tu B’shvat is not just to celebrate trees but is actually the New Year for trees. Which just begs the questions, do trees get to dip their own apples in some beehive-y goodness like we do on Rosh Hashana? What’s this holiday’s deal and how can I, as a born and bred native of the urban jungle fully appreciate what it means to rejoice over some bona-fide arbor?
The “New Year” for trees is referring to the fact that this is the time of year when the sap rises in trees, getting it ready for the Spring season. So while it’s still bitter cold winter (or 60 degrees this year in NY for some reason), trees are always preparing for the future.
But why specifically ‘trees’? Why not a celebration of water? Or animals? Or double stuff oreos? Two reasons.
One is that the Jewish nation and trees have a special connection. In the book of Deuteronomy (20:19), it states that “man is like a tree of the field.” And ‘Tzadikim’” (righteous) are like tree near a source of water. Trees, like us, are at the complete mercy of God to bring rain and protection. The Torah also likens the Torah to water, so Jews and the Torah go together like trees and water. When we commemorate trees, we really recognize our dependence on God.
Another reason to celebrate all things green is possibly to make sure future generations HAVE green to celebrate. Sure, in the times of the Tanach there were forests upon jungles of the stuff. Today? Not so much. According to USDA Forest Service, in the US alone, 6,000 acres of forest are lost every day. Without action, children of the future could be walking to the Natural History Museum to look at trees. Or at least have to beg the Lorax for one precious fern seed to save us from ourselves.
So, whether you live in a Manhattan penthouse or a cabin in rural Appalachia, Tu B’Shvat is still important because it recognizes not only nature but us as a Jewish people. As long as there are trees, God will take care of us. As long as we care about future generations, God will never leaf us (sorry.) Happy Tu B’Shvat!