How to Celebrate New Year’s for the Trees, Or: Obscure Jewish Holiday of the Month

Yesterday marked the Jewish holiday ‘Tu B’shvat,’ also known as ‘Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot’ (roughly ‘New Year’s for the Trees‘).

This is generally considered a fairly minor holiday, but it’s always been one of my favorites: no fasting, I don’t need to miss work and there’s no formal repenting process. Good deal.

Girl hugging a treeBut seriously. In America, most celebrations of Tu B’shvat take a pretty delicious form: families gather to eat figs, dates, raisins, carob pods, almonds and other fruits and nuts. My childhood memories of the day’s festive quasi-meal center around my dad cracking open a pomegranate for the bewildered Greenberg boys (this was long before every other soft drink, energy bar or breakfast cereal was ‘pomegranate flavored,’ and this grenade-y thing never stopped looking like something served at the Mos Eisley Cantina to me).

So it’s a nice time for family and dietary fiber. Wonder what it all means?

Well, according to ancient tradition, Tu B’Shvat focuses on “the date for calculating when the agricultural cycle began or ended for the purpose of biblical tithes involving trees and fruit,” (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Ah, tithes. That doesn’t seem terribly relevant to the diasporic age. How do we celebrate this thing now? More importantly, how do we shoehorn it into an NWF blog post?

The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) actually has some nice thoughts on the topic, and they do most of my work for me:

Tu B’Shvat—the New Year of the Trees—has been referred to in recent years as the Jewish Earth Day. It is a time when the frozen ground thaws and the trees begin to drink water from the soil […] It is a time when we honor the cycles and recycling of nature.

That honestly sounds pretty relevant for any time of year, century or millenium. Hear hear, cycles of nature!

(jams entire fistful of figs into his mouth)

Also from COEJL:

“…The land is not ours do to with as we please. We must be responsible stewards of both the land we inhabit and its produce.

According to the biblical tradition, this requires sharing the bounty of the land […] and maintaining the integrity of the land so it will sustain future generations.

Since this is, as mentioned, New Year’s for the Trees (note the source of the aforementioned fruits and nuts), I say we celebrate in kind when we’re done overeating.

One great way of doing this is planting a tree yourself come spring—tips available on this Arbor Day-centric NWF page. Another is reading up on tropical deforestation and its scary climate change effects.

One more COEJL bit, from Barbara Lerman-Golomb, an associate executive director:

Tu B’Shvat takes place in winter, but it foretells the coming of spring. Therefore, it is a time for renewal of our commitment to serve and protect all of creation. As in the Talmudic tale of Honi who planted trees in his time that would bear fruit for his grandchildren, let us begin making choices today that will sustain future generations.

Yes, Honi. I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

Published: January 21, 2011