Although Israel has grown into a modern post-industrial economy, the country still has strong agrarian roots, most famously, the agricultural socialist community of the kibbutz. But earlier than that, the Bible proscribes things to do to mark the passing seasons. There are rights and rituals for nature in Judaism and it all started thousands of years ago.
So it’s no surprise that the relatively minor Jewish festival of Tu B’shvat, which starts tonight, has been growing in importance. In recent years Tu B’shvat, the New Year of the Trees, has taken on a more ecological significance and represents an opportunity to reflect on one of today’s key environmental questions – the impact of what we eat on our environment. (Read 5 reasons to be grateful for the trees).
Israeli arbor day
For religious Jews the New Year of the Trees is the time when you start counting the age of a tree. All trees share the same birthday. This is important to know when it is acceptable to eat the fruit of a fruit tree, as a Biblical command does not let you eat fruit from a tree grown in the land of Israel that is less than 3 years old. At the age of four year, fruit from four year fruit trees were tithed at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Some it went to poor people who didn’t have food.
In the 16th century, the kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed and his disciples instituted a Tu BiShvat seder in which the fruits and trees of the Land of Israel were given symbolic meaning. The main idea was that eating ten specific fruits and drinking four cups of wine in a specific order while reciting the appropriate blessings would bring human beings, and the world, closer to spiritual perfection.
In a special essay, Professor Richard Schwartz, author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, reflects on how this festival encourages a more sustainable outlook to our food:
“While other Jewish holidays honor or commemorate events and people, Tu B’Shvat honors trees, fruits, and other aspects of nature,” he explains. “While people generally take the environment for granted, on Tu B’Shvat there is an emphasis on the proper stewardship of the environment.”
One of the special things about the fruit and vegetables in Israel is that they are almost entirely locally-grown. In such a tiny country, it’s rare for anything to travel more than 100 miles from farm to fork (apart from a few foreign commodities like coffee). That’s fantastic compared to my native UK where most food is imported and the proportion of home-grown food is falling each year.
While Israel’s self-sufficiency is an example to other countries – slashing pollution from transport and food storage – ‘food miles’ are not the end of the story. What about how the food is grown and the effects of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, or the health and welfare of farm animals and workers?
“While there has been increasing interest in Tu B’Shvat recently, this holiday that is so rich in symbolism and important messages for today is still not considered to any great extent by most Jews,” says Schwartz.
“Let us hope that this will soon change and that an increased emphasis on Tu B’Shvat and its important lessons will help revitalize Judaism and help shift our precious, but imperilled, planet to a sustainable path.”
Some activities around this time can be planting trees, fruit trees especially.