The azure vault spans far beyond,
immaculate save a soaring speck –
a solitary bird – while the humming
of a passing bee suspends the sleepy silence.
Squatting on the fertile ground,
engrossed in digging dark soft loam,
she pauses: with her inner eye she sees
the tree, full grown and lush with fruit.
Heavy footsteps break the peace,
a voice calls out, “Messiah’s here!
Come, meet him at the city gate
and speed him on his way!”
Tenderly she plants the sapling,
smoothing down the mounded earth
and sprinkles water-drops like dew
and then she hastens to the gate.
The one-day festival of Tu BiShvat is not mentioned in the Torah, but appears in the Mishnah as one of the four New Years in the Jewish calendar. The discussion of when the New Year occurs was a source of debate among the rabbis, as we read in the Mishnah: “There are four beginnings of the year. The first of Nissan is the beginning of the year for kings and holidays. The first of Elul is the beginning of the year for animal tithes. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say [animal tithes start] on the first of Tishrei. The first of Tishrei is the beginning of the year for years, for the Sabbatical years, the Jubilees, for planting, and for vegetables. The first of Shevat is the beginning of the year for trees, so says Beit Shammai. Beit Hillel says it is the 15th of that [month]. ” (BT Rosh Hashana: 2a).
The rabbis of the Talmud ruled in favor of Hillel on this issue. Thus the 15th of Shevat became the date for calculating the beginning of the agricultural cycle for the purpose of biblical tithes. This day is also called “Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot – New Year of the Trees.”
In the Middle Ages, Tu BiShvat was celebrated with a feast of fruits in keeping with the Mishnaic description of the holiday as a “New Year.” In the 16th century, the kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed and his disciples instituted a Tu BiShvat seder in which the fruits and trees of the Land of Israel were given symbolic meaning. The main idea was that eating ten specific fruits and drinking four cups of wine in a specific order while reciting the appropriate blessings would bring human beings, and the world, closer to spiritual perfection.
On Tu BiShvat 1890, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz, one of the founders of the Mizrachi movement, took his students to plant trees in the agricultural colony of Zichron Yaakov. This custom was adopted in 1908 by the Jewish Teachers Union and later by the Jewish National Fund (Keren HaKayemet L’Israel), established in 1901 to oversee land conservation and afforestation in Israel. In the early 20th century, the Jewish National Fund devoted the day to planting eucalyptus trees to stop the plague of malaria in the Hula Valley.
In contemporary Israel, the day is celebrated as an ecological awareness day, and trees are planted in celebration.
In an article from 1982, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1358, entitled What to Do Until the Messiah Comes: On Jewish Worldliness, Dr Stanley N. Rosenbaum says the following, “In Walter M. Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, the symbolic Jewish character says, “I was told to wait, and I wait.” With admirable tenacity, Benjamin survives for centuries on the edges of a fast-flowing civilization, contributing little save his own Wandering Jewish presence, a lonely witness to the unredeemed state of the world. His Messiah does not come and he doubts now that he will. Either way, his is the perennial Jewish problem: what to do in the meantime.
“What Jews seem to have done in the past, whenever chance allowed, was to heed Jeremiah’s advice to the Babylonian exiles to plant gardens, build houses and live in them; to seek after the good of those countries on whose shores we are cast.”
Dr Rosenbaum points out that “… not all Jews, now or ever, believed in a Messiah. While modern Orthodox maintain that Messiah is implicit in Torah itself, scholars suggest that the idea, and the hope, grew as a function of Israel’s national powerlessness after the destruction of the First Temple. In the Middle Ages, Joseph Karo, compiler of the authoritative Shulchan Aruch, excluded Messiah from those beliefs required of Jews. No doubt his ruling came partly in response to the new, outdoor sport of disputation, the church-sponsored debates between Christian apologists, usually converts from Judaism, and local Jewish leaders. The latter were constrained to confute Christian claims concerning Jesus without refuting Christianity. If the rabbis lost, they were expected to convert; if they won, they could be exiled, tried for heresy or killed.
“Then again, Karo may have been reacting to the exploits of David Reubeni, the latest in a long line of pseudo-messiahs. Jewish history shows no shortage of claimants.” Dr Rosenbaum suggests that probably more of these have been forgotten than those of whom we have heard. He adds that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, whom he notes was
a contemporary of Jesus, is quoted as saying, “If you are planting a tree and you hear that Messiah has come, finish planting the tree, then go and inquire/receive him.” (Avot deRabi Natan 2:31)
Dr Rosenbaum surmises, though, that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s remark was based not on scepticism but rather on the practical way in which Judaism works in the world. He emphasizes that notwithstanding Jewish philosophers, Judaism is a religion of deeds, and he cites the phrase in Shemot 24:7, “Na’aseh venishma – we will do and we will understand.” The work of redeeming the world, he maintains, is ours, and he cites Franz Kafka who wrote, “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary.”
Dr Rosenbaum concludes, “… The Jewish job of redeeming the world remained. It still does. Some of us were told to wait, and we are waiting. We will do, and then, perhaps, we will understand.”