Tu B’Shevat: New Year of the Trees

Tu B’Shevat, or the “New Year of the Trees,” comes early this year, arriving at sunset on Jan. 16. Reckoning by the Hebrew calendar however, it will be right on time as Tu B’Shevat literally means the 15th of (the Hebrew month of) Shevat. From the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil in the biblical Garden of Eden to the description of the Torah as an Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) in Proverbs, trees are one of the root metaphors (no pun intended) in Judaism. It is fitting then that there is a day set aside to honor them.

First recorded in the Mishnah around 200 CE as one of four new years, the day’s original intent was to determine a tree’s age for the purpose of tithing to the Kohanim (priestly class) and the poor. A tree is considered to be one year older on Tu B’Shevat. New buds, which began to appear at this season in Israel, belong to the coming year’s harvest, an important distinction when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the agricultural origins of Tu B’Shevat faded from relevance. In an effort to revive the holiday, a group of 16th century Jewish kabbalists, or mystics from the city of Safed in Northern Israel, developed a Tu B’Shevat seder meal in honor of the Etz Chaim. The meal incorporated the seven species of Israel mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8. Figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, grapes, wheat and barley were consumed and accompanied by four cups of progressively darkening wine, which symbolized the march of the seasons from winter (white wine) to autumn (red wine). Tu B’Shevat observance has taken on new meaning in modern times. Beginning in the 20th century with the rise of Zionism, and continuing with the founding of the modern State of Israel, the Jewish National Fund has helped to make the desert bloom by planting millions of trees throughout Israel. Tu B’Shevat has become a popular day to donate to the JNF to plant a tree in Israel, typically in the name of a loved one.

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, Tu B’Shevat has become a sort of Jewish Arbor Day with people celebrating by becoming more eco-conscious. With its bounty of fruit orchards and vast tracts of forest, not to mention its Earth-friendly ethos, Oregon is the perfect place to celebrate “The Birthday of the Trees.” Tu B’Shevat is also a day that really speaks to children. What better day to teach kids about the importance of trees than on their birthday? A good place to start is one of Portland’s two excellent arboretums. The Columbia Children’s Arboretum features a meandering meadow surrounded by tall trees, wetlands and a variety of wildlife, including ducks, geese, turtles, beavers and northern river otters. The Hoyt Arboretum is home to nearly 10,000 trees comprising more than 1,400 species, and an extensive network of trails. This urban forest is one of Oregon’s crown jewels. Or visit Portland’s Forest Park. With more than 5,000 acres of trees, including old growth forest, it is home to nearly 200 species of birds and mammals!

Tu B’Shevat is also an opportunity to teach kids to reduce, reuse and recycle. Go green and start composting if you don’t already. Volunteer with your children to work in a community garden or plant a tree in your backyard. Encourage your kids use their tzedakah money to make a donation to the Jewish National Fund. Why not host a Tu B’Shevat seder? It can be as elaborate or as simple as you see fit. Hazon.org and pjlibrary.org both offer rich and deeply meaningful haggadot, available for free download. Kveller.com has a delicious Tu B’Shevat recipe for fig and goat cheese sandwiches stuffed with dates and pomegranate syrup!

Our kids love to make art for every holiday. Ask young children to draw pictures of what Tu B’Shevat means to them, and you’ll be amazed by the results! Crafting Jewish by Rivky Koenig features nine classic Tu B’Shevat crafts that are fun and easy for kids and parents alike. Be sure to check with local synagogues and Jewish groups for Tu B’Shevat events. Wrap up the day with some appropriate bedtime tales. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein and The Lorax by Doctor Suess are both classics, and simply and elegantly convey the value of trees. A Tree is Nice by Janice May Udry and Happy Birthday, Tree! by Madelyn Rosenberg are just two books that can be found on the PJ Library’s Tu B’Shevat reading list.

Over the course of Jewish history, Tu B’Shevat, or the “New Year of the Trees” has been many things to many people. While Tu B’Shevat observance has evolved over the generations, the day remains one of renewal and revival. It is written in the Torah that “A man is like a tree in the field.” Like the seeds we plant and nurture on Tu B’Shevat, our children will become what we help them to become. Teach them well and Chag Sameach!


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Rich Geller works at the Beaverton Trader Joe's and is a freelance writer living in Portland, OR. He has written for The Bloomfield Journal, The Hometown Crier, The Hood River News, The Rosette Gazette, The Jewish Review, Art and Artifact, Oregon Jewish Life, Arizona Jewish Life, and Metro Parent. As a student at Portland State University, Rich worked at both Ooligan and Collectors Press while pursuing a Masters in Writing with a concentration in Publishing. In the Spring of 2011, Rich's first book, WonderDads Portland - The Best Dad/Child Activities in Portland was published. Rich is married to Leslie Geller, and has three children, Leo, Ethan, and Sela.