Tu Bishvat: "Responsibility for the Land"
Rabbi Reuven Hammer
In the early days of pioneering Zionism, secular settlers in Kibbutzim and elsewhere made attempts to recast religious holidays into new molds that emphasized the return of Jews to the soil. We were no longer an urban people, but a people that had returned to the land. Thus they emphasized the agricultural aspects of these days, singling out nature for praise and ignoring God and other religious aspects.
The most well known of these attempts was the plethora of Passover haggadot that spoke about Pesah solely as "the holiday of spring" and never mentioned the name of God or the idea of redemption. Shavuot, building on the idea of "first fruits," was especially important and was used to emphasize the harvests. Even children born during the year were paraded as "first fruits" and still are in some places. Obviously the aspect to the giving of the Torah was put aside. Few if any of these attempts have truly succeeded in remaking the holidays as far as the general Jewish public is concerned. The one exception is Tu Bishvat which is almost upon us. It was totally reinvented. From being the "new year of the trees," it became the holiday of tree planting, something never envisioned in the traditional sources. The success of this reinvention may be attributed to many forces, the most important being that it had the Jewish National Fund and all its resources behind it. In addition it filled a real need – the reforestation of a denuded land.
Originally Tu Bishvat was merely a date on the calendar used to calculate the new year of fruit trees. It is one of four dates mentioned in the Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:1 as new years: the first of Nisan, the new year for the reign of kings and the festivals, the first of Elul, the new year for counting tithes on animals, the first of Tishre, the new year for years, and the first of Shvat, the new year for the tithing of fruit trees. This was the ruling of the school of Shammai. The school of Hillel, however, said that it was the fifteenth of Shvat, and that became the law.
Since all the other dates are the first of the month, the time of the new moon, it is curious that Bet Hillel insisted that this one be on the 15th, the full moon. Prof. Louis Ginzberg, the great Talmudist who taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, once gave a lecture at the Hebrew Univeristy in which he explained this anomaly. According to Ginzberg it has an economic and social reason, based upon the fact that the Shammaites represented the richest landowners and the Hillelites represented the poorer classes. The trees in the land owned by the rich were in the lower and more fertile areas of the country and blossomed early. The trees belonging to the poor in the higher, rockier, areas did not blossom until the middle of the month. Ginzberg also explained many other differences between the two schools on the basis of socio-economic differences between them. Therefore the anomaly of a "new year" which begins on the 15th of the month.
Concerning the remaking of Tu Bishvat, before the Zionists, Kabbalists in the 16th century had instituted many other customs for that day, including the eating of fruits and even a Seder for Tu Bishvat, emphasizing the texts in our tradition that speak about trees. Thus inserting the idea of planting trees was a relatively easy step to take.
Tu Bishvat now serves to call our attention not only to trees, but to nature in general. By celebrating the fruits of this land, it reminds us of the blessing we have in dwelling in a rich and fertile place, but it also calls upon us to do whatever has to be done to preserve the earth, the soil and the fragile environment in which we live.
The secular Zionists were right about the fact that having a land of our own, we should be more and more aware of the blessing of the land and of the need to preserve it. We may not all be farmers and tillers of the soil, but we are all benefactors of the good earth that is ours and therefore responsible to preserve it. Secularists may think that this has nothing to do with religion, but believers see the land as a gift from God the Creator and view themselves as partners with the Creator in the work of creation. God placed Adam in the garden "to till it and to preserve it" (Genesis 2:15). Similarly, God did not give us this world in order for us to destroy it, but so that we could preserve it and even improve it. That is what To Bishvat should mean to us today.