If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you the Messiah has come, plant the sapling first, then go look for the Messiah.- Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai
Tu B'Shvat is a reminder that there is more to Judaism than Torah, Bible or Talmud, because this holiday does not appear in any of them. The closest reference is in the Mishnah, the compendium of Jewish law that comprised the first part of the Talmud, where it is mentioned in connection with a tax on fruit trees. However, Tu B'Shvat is really a quasi-pagan festival that probably goes back to the worship of Asheret, the goddess of the trees, in ancient Israel, before monotheism took hold. Literally, all it means is the "fifteenth of the month of Shvat," (corresponding to our February) but it goes by the name Rosh Hashanah Lalanot or the "New Year of the Trees."
Because of its secular nature, the rabbis treated Tu B'Shvat as a very minor holiday. Jewish mystics in the 1600s, known as Kabbalists spoke of a cosmic Tree of the Sefirot or divine emanations. They began to hold seders in its honor, featuring four cups of wine from white to deep red, symbolizing the passage of the seasons and a meal consisting of fruit and nuts. However, the religious establishment generally frowned upon such admiration of the natural world. It was not until the Zionist movement emerged in the late 19th century that Tu B'Shvat was revived. It was then renovated to celebrate the planting of forests in Palestine, in keeping with the efforts of Jewish pioneers to develop the land. In Israel, tree-planting remains the most prevalent observance of this holiday.
With the rise of environmental movements in the US and elsewhere since the 1960s, Tu B'Shvat has taken on yet another dimension. It is now considered the Jewish Earth Day. Our responsibility for the earth has its roots in the Jewish idea that we are partners in creation. Jewish environmentalists have developed the concept of "eco-kosher" as a synonym for "environmentally and socially responsible" or "green." If this concept intrigues you, see Trees, Earth and Torah--A Tu B'Shvat Anthology edited by Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyman and Arthur Waskow. A brief folktale also illustrates the point in a more secular way:
Once when Honi was out walking, he came upon a man planting a carob tree. "How long will it be before this tree bears fruit?" Honi asked. "Seventy years," the man replied. "How do you know you will be alive in seventy years?" asked Honi. "Just as I found carob trees when I came into the world, answered the man, so I am now planting carob trees for my grandchildren to enjoy."
We can use Tu B'Shvat to raise our environmental consciousness and organize activities to oppose deforestation, pollution, global warming and other threats to our planet. For an excellent children's story (and video) about the destruction of trees, and one that adults will also appreciate, consider The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. (Sorry, he wasn't Jewish!)[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]