By Rabbi Amy Feder
For weeks, our daughter Molly has been telling people how excited she is that this year, her birthday is on a Jewish holiday: Tu B’Shevat. But after telling countless classmates, teachers, and grocery store clerks, she finally asked me: what exactly is Tu B’Shevat?
My answer, which was that it’s basically the Jewish Arbor Day, was apparently not all that helpful, since she had also never heard of Arbor Day. Really, I explained, Tu B’Shevat is the New Year or Birthday of the Trees. It’s celebrated on the 15th (spelled tu, in Hebrew letters) of the month of Shevat, marking the beginning of spring in Israel and the time when trees are planted. Even though it’s still fully winter here in St. Louis, in Israel you can start to feel the thaw beginning to wear off, with winter rains subsiding and trees beginning to bud.
This is a holiday that reminds us of our connection to Israel and to the land, so many people mark Tu B’Shevat, as well as other simchas, with donating trees to be planted in Israel. It’s pretty amazing to think that because of this emphasis on tree planting, Israel is the only country in the world with an almost constant net growth of trees! Some of my favorite memories are of either planting trees in Israel myself, or going to see forests where I knew trees had been planted in honor of special times in my life.
Back in the States, or anywhere outside the land of Israel, people celebrate Tu B’Shevat with a seder, similar to the one we have on Passover. This one, which was created by Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) in the 17th century, was meant to give people both a figurative and a literal taste of Israel even when they couldn’t be there. We eat fruits and nuts native to Israel, like figs, barley, dates, and olives, that connect us to Israel and are a taste of spring.
Since Tu B’Shevat is the Birthday of the Trees, it’s also a great opportunity to talk about environmentalism as a Jewish value; if you were a tree, what would you want for your birthday? Each year, I like to read Dr. Seuss’s book The Lorax on Tu B’Shevat, about a little creature who speaks for the trees. As an adult, it feels even more meaningful to me than it does as a child; the books reminds us, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better-it’s not.” That’s a pretty powerful lesson not just for Tu B’Shevat but all the time, a reminder that each of us is responsible to care for the world around us. Happy birthday to the trees-what can you do for them, and for all of us, in this new year?