Introduction to Tu B’Shvat

The Academy of Hillel taught that the 15th of Shvat is the New Year for Trees. Talmud Tractate Rosh ha Shana. Reckoned to be the day when trees stop absorbing water from the ground and instead draw nourishment from their sap. Tithes for the fruit of trees had to be given from each year’s growth separately and it was consequently necessary to determine when the New Year begins for this purpose. Most of the rains had fallen before this date, so that the fruit that blossomed after the date belonged to the next year for tithing purposes. Time to collect money to plant trees in Israel. In Israel it has become an agricultural festival. Custom to eat fruits from the seven species for which land of Israel is praised. (Deut 8:8) A land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and date honey.

Trees and Zionism

Trees very significant in Bible and in Israel. The major prophecy of Israel’s restoration speaks of the planting of trees as a sign of this. (Ezekiel 36:1-11) Desolate land – Mark Twain. Turks caused destruction of trees in Palestine.

According to Ezekiel 36 during the time of this exile the land would become ‘desolate wastes’ with ‘cities that are forsaken’ (Ezekiel 36:4). This was exactly the condition Mark Twain, the American author of ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huckleberry Finn’, found when he visited Palestine, at that time a backwater of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, in 1867. He described it in his book, ‘The Innocents Abroad’: ‘Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince . It is a hopeless, dreary, heart broken land . Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. Palestine is desolate and unlovely.’ Of Jerusalem he wrote: ‘Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt abound, lepers, cripples, the blind and the idiotic assail you on every hand. Jerusalem is a mournful, dreary and lifeless. I would not desire to live here’.

By the late 19th century Zionist pioneers, mainly from Russia and Ukraine, began to immigrate into Palestine and to purchase land from absentee Arab landlords. They drained the swamps and planted trees and began the process of turning the barren land into a fertile place. The population of Jerusalem swelled from about 15,000 in 1865 to 45,472 in 1896, of whom 28,112 were Jews. The prophecy of the physical rebirth of Israel was beginning:

When the Land of Israel will give fruit bountifully, this is an indication of the impending redemption, and there is no greater indication than this.

JNF planted trees. Became fertile. Trees vital to environment, soil. Keeping of Tu b’shvat in diaspora in Russia and Poland. Frozen waste in January. Connection to Eretz Israel kept alive in Jewish spirit.

“Rabbi Abba taught: There is no more revealed redemption — no greater indication of the impending redemption — than that which the verse (Ezekiel 36:8) states: “And you, mountains of Israel, you shall give forth your branches and you shall bear your fruit for my people Israel, for they shall soon come.” (Talmud – Sanhedrin 98a)

Rashi explains: When the Land of Israel will give fruit bountifully, this is an indication of the impending redemption, and there is no greater indication than this.

Trees and environment

Bible has a great deal to say about trees. Created on the third day of Creation with seed for food. Gen 1:11-13, 29. Adam derived from adama = earth. Trees rooted in the earth, produce food. Remind us of our dependence on the earth.

‘Man’s very name — “Adam” — is derived from the word Earth, adama. While man is at once the pinnacle of creation, the master and caretaker of the world, he is also dependent on the earth for his most basic needs. The Torah, in outlining the negative commandment of destroying fruit trees, refers to man himself as a “tree of the field” (Deut 20:19) Our sages learn from this verse a prohibition against any needless destruction. In other words, fruit trees serve as the archetype for man’s relationship and responsibility to his environment.’

Care for trees is a sign of human respect for creation, environment. (Deut 20:19) Fruit trees not to be used in making war implements. Destruction of trees by burning is a sign of God’s judgement on the world. (Joel 1:11-12, 15-20) Also sign of end times. (Revelation 8:7) Extract from book.

In the Revelation 8:7 we read of one third of the trees being burned up. Today trees are being deliberately burned in the great rain forests of the Amazon and Indonesia for commercial profit. This contributes to global warming, which in turn causes an increase in forest fires and further destruction of tree life around the world. Ola Ullsten, former Swedish prime minister and co-chairman of the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development said the latest evidence indicates that over half the world’s boreal forest could disappear due to the effect of climate change as conditions shift. Boreal, or northern, forests are a belt of mostly coniferous trees running through much of Canada, the United States, Russia, Scandinavia and parts of Mongolia and China. They make up about one-third of the Earth’s forests.

As a result of forest fires in the USA in the summer of 2002, wild animals have been driven from their homes in desperation at the dried up streams and burning forests and are coming into people’s homes in search of food. The situation is just like the description of the end times in the Old Testament prophet Joel: ‘Alas for that day! For the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty. Has not the food been cut off before our very eyes- joy and gladness from the house of our God? The seeds are shrivelled beneath the clods. The storehouses are in ruins, the granaries have been broken down, for the grain has dried up. How the cattle moan! The herds mill about because they have no pasture; even the flocks of sheep are suffering. To you, O Lord, I call, for fire has devoured the open pastures and flames have burned up all the trees of the field. Even the wild animals pant for you; the streams of water have dried up and fire has devoured the open pastures.’ (Joel 1:15-20 NIV)

Trees and redemption

In Genesis 2 trees central to human condition. Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and tree of life. Gen 2:15-17; 3:1-12. Result ground cursed, way to tree of life barred. ‚   Before eating of the tree Adam and Eve knew only good. After knew good and evil. Evil separated them from God – hid from the Lord. God seeking them ‘Adam where are you?’ Prevents them eating of tree of life in this condition. Live for ever in sinful state. What God proposes is a rescue package, redeem them, break serpent’s power through ‘seed of the woman’. (Gen 3:15) Points forward to Messiah’s death on the wooden Roman execution tree. (Galatians 3:10-13) Sacrifice for our sins. Only solution.

Seder for Tu b’shvat:

It was through a mistake in eating fruit that caused Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden. Eating fruit is a metaphor for our interaction with this world. Correct usage leads to a perfected world and spiritual bliss. Misuse leads to destruction and spiritual degradation. The seder of Tu B’Shvat is our opportunity to rectify the past iniquity and return once again to our rightful place within the Garden.

All say:

Adam and Eve erred by eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. To correct this mistake, we eat our fruit today with pure intentions, as if from the Tree of Life.

A participant says:

Rabbi Chaim Vital wrote: “My teacher [the holy Arizal] used to say that one must intend while eating the fruits [at the Tu B’Shvat Seder] to repair the sin of Adam who erred by eating fruit from the tree.”

Can’t be done. Only through faith in Messiah who died on the tree to pay the price of Adam’s sin can we be ‘repair that sin.’ Everything else is like putting on the fig leaves of our own righteousness. Needs the shed blood of the sacrifice.

For those who do this there is the joyful expectation of the Messiah’s return and the Messianic Age in which nature will return to Eden conditions. Trees clap their hands. (Psalm 96; Micah 4:1-4; Romans 8:18-22) Maranatha!

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