In the Jewish scheme of the world, trees have always occupied a key and revered role. According to the Creation story, seed-bearing plants and fruit trees were put on the Earth before any other living thing (Genesis 1:11-12). In other words, the first thing God did once He had firm land was to plant trees!

The Tree of life, which God placed at the heart of the Garden of Eden, became a symbol of Jewish existence, a core value of individual and communal living: continuity.

The Talmud sages held wonderfully imaginative discussions about trees in life and legend. They believed that mankind, which they often compared to trees, owes its existence to them and should treat them with special recognition. Serious consequences would result from destroying a tree. The Torah (itself called a Tree of Life in Proverbs 3:18) prohibits the destruction of fruit trees, even in times of war (Deuteronomy20:19-20), and to prevent the loss of Israel's natural forests, the sages prohibited the Jews from allowing goats to graze freely. Today in Israel, anyone who wants to destroy a tree must apply for a license, even if the tree is on his or her own property.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who lived in Jerusalem when it was being sacked by the Romans, cleverly taught the priority of planting. "If you should be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you the Messiah has arrived," he advised, "first plant the sapling, then go out and greet him."

Planting a tree — a concrete, practical act — has represented hope since ancient times. On Tu Bishvat in Palestine, trees were planted for children born during the previous year: for a boy, a cedar, with the wish that the child would grow to be tall and upright, for a girl, a cypress, which was graceful and fragrant. Later, branches from the cypress and cedar of a bride and groom were used to make the huppah (canopy) for their wedding ceremony. The planting was associated with two of the most important times in an individual's life, birth and marriage, two occasions when we concentrate on the possibilities for the future. So powerful is this connection that even in the Theriesenstadt concentration camp, children planted a tree.

Planting was also considered a way to create eternity. As the Talmud relates, the righteous man Horn once encountered a man planting a carob tree. "How long will it take to bear fruit?" he inquired. "About seventy years," the man replied. "So you think you will live long enough to taste its fruits?" The man explained, "I have found ready-grown carob trees in the world. As my forefathers planted them for me, so I plant for my children."

As a result of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) reforestation projects in Israel, the land once desert now supports successful farming endeavors, and millions of trees cover the hills. Visitors to Israel, on Tu Bishvat or at other times, can participate in the Plant a Tree with Your Own Hands Program. A popular alternative is to purchase tree certificates through local and national JNF and Hadassah offices.

Each inexpensive certificate represents one tree planted in Israel in memory or honor of an individual or on a special occasion. (Only large plantings, not individual trees, are actually designated on site.) Outside Israel, symbolic plantings are often done for the holiday, with trees planted in one's yard or community, or houseplants started from seeds, particularly parsley, which will sprout in time for Passover.

Since leaving Palestine, Jews throughout the world have maintained connections with the Land of Israel on Tu Bishvat by eating fruits produced there.

For the kabbalists [mystics], this symbolic gesture has tremendous spiritual ramifications. According to their explanation, every piece of fruit — which can be considered the parent generation — holds the seed of the next generation, in other words, the potential for new life. If, when we eat the fruit, which releases the seed, we do so in a holy way — with proper blessing and gratitude — then we are helping God to renew nature, and the flow of life continues.

For a detailed analysis of the evolution of Tu Bishvat over the centuries, click here.

Today, with Israel's agricultural richness and exports, we have many choices for Tu Bishvat feasting, in addition to the dried figs, dates, raisins, and carob of previous generations. Oranges, avocados, bananas, pomegranates, olives, and almonds are wonderful staples for Tu Bishvat meals, either in their natural forms or as recipe ingredients.

Creativity in connection with Tu Bishvat did not stop with the kabbalists' seder [a ritual modeled on that of Passover]. Colorful practices for eating, distributing, collecting, and even trying to influence fate with fruit developed, largely in Sephardic [Mediterranean Jewish] communities.

For a sample Tu Bishvat Seder plan, click here.

Fruit Superstitions

Hoping to affect nature, the Kurdistani Jews placed sweet fruits like raisins in rings around trees, then prayed for an abundant fruit season. Some barren women, similarly believing in the power of sympathetic magic, would plant raisins and candy near trees or embrace trees at night, praying for fertility and many children.

Young girls eligible for marriage were "wedded" to trees in a mock wedding ceremony [a custom based on pagan roots]. If, shortly after, buds were found on the tree to which one girl was "married," she knew her turn would soon arrive. (In Salonica, it was believed that the trees themselves embrace on Tu Bishvat, and anyone seeing them do so would have his/her wish fulfilled.)

Fruit Feasts

Persian Jews climbed onto their neighbors' roofs and lowered empty baskets into the houses through the chimneys. The baskets would be sent back laden with fruit. Some designed rituals that were even more elaborate than the seder. One custom of the day was to give children bags of fruit to be worn as pendants around their necks. Although in Bucharia and Kurdistan the holiday was known as "the day of eating the seven species," the Jews there actually ate 30 different types of fruit (the Indian Jews counted 50!).

The wealthy of villages of some countries, like Morocco, hosted lavish feasts for all the residents at which as many as 100 different kinds of fruit, nuts, and vegetables were eaten, or they would invite all the townspeople into their homes and fill their hats with fruit. In Morocco, this home feast was often preceded by a banquet in the synagogue after Ma'ariv [the evening service]. During the day on the 15th, the children would visit relatives to fill their sacks with gifts of fruit.

The Ashkenazim [European Jews], much less colorful by comparison, recognized the day primarily by eating fruits that gave them a connection with Israel (perhaps from an ornamental dish, such as the 19th-century Austrian hand-painted ceramic Tu Bishvat plate now in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem). The wealthy would eat dates, raisins, figs, and occasionally, a costly orange — a splurge even for them. Others would have bokser (Yiddish for "carob"), which grew in great abundance and was therefore less expensive. (When fresh, it is chewy and tastes faintly like the date. After it's been off the tree for awhile — which is how the Diaspora Jews eat it — it loses much of its appeal.)

After their Hebrew lessons in the heder [religious school], the children would give up bags of fruit brought from home, the contents of which would all be mixed and re-divided, so that rich and poor alike would share the same sweets. American Hebrew schools distributed bags of the same types of fruits to their students, an observance that continues today.

According to the tradition of the Hasidim, God decides the fate of trees and their fruits on Tu Bishvat. Therefore, they pray that God will grant a beautiful etrog [citron fruit]for the next Sukkot, and following the fall festival, they make preserves of the citrus fruit to eat on Tu Bishvat.

Reprinted with permission from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook (Jason Aronson). Additions by Jonathan Hirshon.

Image header © 2003 by Jonathan Hirshon

© 2008, Temple Emanu-El of San Jose, except as noted for additional content used with permission and/or as attributed to original author. All Rights Reserved.