TU B’SHEVAT FEATURE Winter holiday celebrates the contributions of trees

WAYLAND, Mass., Dec. 22 (JTA) — Many American Jews may find it difficult to imagine April 15, the tax deadline, as a spiritual holiday, celebrated with special ceremonies, prayers and foods. But a Jewish holiday that usually falls in late January or February is connected to the idea of taxation. In addition, the holiday is a time of rejoicing. In ancient Israel, farmers were tithed one-tenth of the fruit their trees produced. By the 15th day of the month of Shevat, or Tu B’Shevat, most of the rain has fallen in Israel and the sap has begun to rise in the trees. The rabbis set this date to mark the end of the agricultural year for fruit trees to distinguish between the end of one year’s fruit crop and the beginning of the next. Tu B’Shevat, therefore, became the New Year for Trees. In ancient Israel, Jews lived an agricultural lifestyle and their income for tax purposes was based on the amount of fruit and other agricultural products they grew, rather than on the amount of money they earned. Today, most people lack the connection to the earth and to the trees of the ancient Israelites. Yet, people’s dependence on the earth and its trees has not diminished. In a short 10 minutes, a classroom of second- or third- graders can come up with dozens of reasons why trees are important: They provide wood to build houses, homes for animals, oxygen for breathing, fruits and nuts, cool and welcome shade, limbs for climbing, a place to hang a hammock and much more. Consider these questions: Just what is it about trees that captures our fancy? What is their significance to each person? To everyone? To animals? To the planet? Why, exactly, are trees so important? For just a moment, shut out the rest of the world. Concentrate on trees. Let one’s imagination wander. Trees. Think about how many apples, oranges, grapefruits, pears, peaches, plums, nectarines, pecans, walnuts have been consumed this year. Bring to mind television views of bulldozed rain forests. Consider what a mutual relationship with a tree would mean. Trees. Look around at all the objects made of wood, such as the furniture in a house to the papers on a desk. Think of once-new saplings, now fully grown, that have pushed back the edges of the Israeli deserts. Imagine being in the Garden of Eden, sitting beneath the Tree of Knowledge. Trees. Feel life-sustaining oxygen produced by green leaves filling lungs at every breath. Recall a touch of rough bark, a vista of foliage, a quiet moment in the shade. Remember the stories of the Jewish people’s patriarchs and matriarchs recounted in the Torah, Judaism’s spiritual Tree of Life. Trees. They are the breath of human life — physically, aesthetically, spiritually. Trees. No one can live without them. Trees. Here in New England, the darkness of the winter solstice has passed and the lights of Chanukah have burned down. Soon, as is happening now in Israel, the sap in the trees will begin to rise. On a cold February morning, perhaps one will chance upon an icicle of frozen sap, hanging from the end of a branch. Pluck it, and taste its sweetness. That sugary water is the tree’s source of life, just as surely as are the lengthening days. Many centuries have passed since Tu B’Shevat last had legal significance. But thanks largely to the mystics of Safed, the New Year for the Trees is still observed. Blessings are said and the fruits of trees are eaten. Jews read about trees, sing about trees, remember humans’ dependence upon them and speak of their importance. Jews drink four cups of wine — white, then light pink, then dark pink, then red — and symbolically journey from the cold snows of winter to the steamy sunshine of summer. What better time than now, as trees reawaken, to celebrate something so vital to the planet as trees? What better opportunity than the New Year for Trees to prepare to greet the first buds of spring? What better occasion than the ancient date for marking tithing to give people the boost they need to make it past the hump of winter, and to the nearing spring day of taxes?

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