For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
Song of Songs 2:11-12
Tu BiShvat, the New Year for Trees, is a minor festival that occurs on the 15th day (tu equals number 15 in Hebrew) of Shevat, because, in Israel, most of the winter rains will have passed and the sap of the new growth has begun to flow as the dormant tree wakes from its winter sleep. Also known as Jewish Arbor Day or Tree-Planting Day, this year Tu BiShvat falls on February 3rd. It began as a tax day for calculating which fruit would be included in the tithe brought to the Temple. Following the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews in the Diaspora commemorated the festival by eating "first fruits" from the Land of Israel on Tu BiShvat, and by discussing Jewish values such as repair of the world, and alleviating the suffering of living creatures. Many communities celebrate a Tu BiShvat Seder, to give thanks for trees, harvests, and the natural world. It’s an opportunity to reflect on our responsibility to care for the environment, and on our sacred obligation to share the fruits of God’s earth with our neighbors.
In Israel, Tu BiShvat has become a day for planting trees, and for pursuing environmental concerns such as the recurring water crisis in the land of Israel, and the problems of climate change, soil degradation and desertification, and loss of biodiversity. Kibbutz Lotan, a community in Israel's Negev conceived to fuse egalitarian ideology with Reform Jewish values, has become an internationally recognized institute for practical environmental education. The Center for Creative Ecology (CfCE) at Kibbutz Lotan is one of Israel's premiere environmental education, conservation and research institutes.
Leah Zigmond, former Eco Center Academic and Educational Director at Kibbutz Lotan, writes: After God created the world, the Torah tells us there were no trees in the fields or herbs in the gardens, for God had not yet sent rain or created a human to work the soil. Only after forming man from dust and blowing life into his nostrils did God plant a garden. As it is written, "…God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work and to protect…" (Genesis 2:5-2:15). …Note that God's act of planting the garden was unlike the creation of other natural spaces in that God simply commanded the latter spaces into existence. The garden, a metaphor for the earth, requires ongoing tending. Note, too, our original purpose as humans, according to the Torah: Our first job title was gardener. Caring for the earth is surely holy work, Jewish work.”
While the young trees in the Biblical Garden may still be dormant in early February, hyacinth and narcissus bulbs have already sent up new shoots, and when the snow-cover recedes, we will be able to spot the tiny pink flowers of the early-blooming wild cyclamen under the crabapple tree. And in another sure promise of spring, our North American relative of the “turtle (dove),” the male mourning dove will soon begin giving his plaintive call in our back yards.
Michael Schlesinger is Temple Sinai’s Biblical Gardener. Mike has been gardening since he was eight years old. He used to grow grape vines and make wine when he lived in California. He now tends to our garden, continuing the traditions started by Catherine Walters.