For those of you who are not Jewish, or are, but don’t live in Israel and only know the main religious holidays, Tu BiShvat (the 15th of the month of Shvat, according to Hebrew calendar) is the New Year for trees.
I have made a special greeting card for you, see above this post.
It is the time of year, in Israel, best suited to plant new trees. And Israelis are very protective and conscious of their trees. Cutting down a tree is a crime here, unless specifically authorized.
We have barely any natural, non-planted, forests in this land. When the Jewish return movement began in the 19th century, they have discovered the land, which once was famous for being part of the Fertile Crescent, and in the biblical times was flowing with milk and honey, has become a barren place, a place where only those trees which needed no tending, no care, survived. Olive groves, and some occasional palms, and that’s about it. The “desert” everyone imagines when Israel is mentioned is nothing like the Sahara desert, but there was just rough brush, no trees, no woodlands.
The Jewish National Fund planted all the forests we have over the decades on lands it had purchased, and it still does, annually. Especially – after the Arab terror acts you never hear about over the media: those against our forests. They happen every summer, and our hearts ache and bleed over the trees destroyed almost as much as over the people killed. There is a kinship between us and the trees. “For man is a tree of the field…” (Deuteronomy 20:19).
So, Tu BiShvat is the holiday when everyone who can, including schools, kindergartens, clubs, organizations, volunteers etc. go out and plant these trees, purchased by the JNF, or donated by others. At left: planting trees with JNF on Tu BiShvat festivities. Picture from JNF website.
At this time of year we have the almond trees in bloom, and it has become the symbol of the holiday. It is so beautiful, the white-and-rose flowering trees, with barely any leaves yet, like young brides.
There is a Seder (special order of holiday dinner) for Tu BiShvat, less elaborate than the Passover Seder, but just as ripe with symbolic use of different types of fruit of various types of trees. It is also customary to eat dried fruit, but this custom has its roots in diaspora, for there really was no way to have all this plenty of fruit in the dead of winter in Europe…
And though there is a great plenty of songs about almond trees in bloom, and seeing them standing there by the road all in white (this year they are a bit late to bloom, not yet quite there) fills my heart with some special kind of joy, – for me the most symbolic and true Tu BiShvat song of all is the soulful “Fifteen fruits”, which had been written and composed by Neomi Shemer for the play “The Travels of Benjamin III” (Masa’ot Binyamin Ha-Shelishi) by Mendele Mocher Sforim. It is a satirical story telling of the travel of Benjamin and his friend, to the Land of Israel, to bring the blessed fruits for Tu BiShvat. And his loving bride Zelda is waiting for him. This is her song, one filled to overflowing with not only the wish for her husband to return, but with longing for her country, for Israel.
Below I bring you a simple translation of the song’s words, to the best of my ability (I am not much of a poet, and Neomi Shemer – she was one of the best) and the recording of Ruhama Raz performing it. I hope you may hear what I hear in it and love it, as I do. Oh, and if any wants to suggest and improved translation – contact me and I shall be glad to replace it.
Snow upon my town resting all whole night long.
To the lands of warmth has my loved one gone.
Snow upon my town, frosty is the night.
From the lands of warmth he shall bring a date.
Honey of the fig; sweetness of carob;
And camel caravans, heaped with goods the load.
Here he shall return, the sun of mine own soul,
And from there shall bear me an apple gold*.
Snow upon my town, like a prayer shawl,
From the lands of warmth what thou bringst to show?
Snow upon my town, snow upon my face,
And inside the fruit all my longing lays.
*In Hebrew, the word for “orange” is abbreviation of “golden apple”. In the song it is written in full, non-abbreviated form.
There is also this recording of the W.T. Woodson’s Select Vocal Ensemble, under the direction of Michael L. Ehrlich, performing this song a-capella at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va., Nov. 17, 2006, for the state music educators’ convention (VMEA). Arranged by Gil Aldema. A very different, more solemn, performance.
So – Happy Tu BiShvat all! Plant a tree in Israel! (This you may, in fact do at the website of the Jewish National Fund, and even, perhaps, win a trip to Israel.)