Tu B’Shvat 5784 – a festival for the trees, and for us too

My dear and beloved friends,

Many will ask where the festival of Tu B’Shvat (the 15th of Shevat) came from. Over the years I came to realize that many of my friends around the world don’t understand the real meaning of this “strange” holiday.

Tu B’Shvat is suited especially for the Land of Israel, the home promised to the people of Israel. It’s not a “holiday for trees” or a time to bow down to trees (GOD forbid). It’s indirectly connected to the Torah.

When planting trees in the Promised Land, the people of Israel were commanded to not harvest their fruit for the first three years (Lev. 19:23). The reason is explained there: “…so that its yield may increase for you.” (v. 25) Botanists have confirmed that this practice makes the trees stronger and more fruitful. Thus, Tu B’Shvat serves the practical purpose of marking the best day for planting saplings, making it easier to count full years for each tree so that we can keep the Torah commandment.

But there is so much more to learn from this focus on trees.

Trees are a symbol and a reminder of the promise made by the Creator to “plant” the people of Israel in the Land, so that their roots would spread down into the holy ground. Again, people can misunderstand; the ground is not holy in itself – any more than the people are intrinsically holy. The promises of the Holy One make the Land holy, and our actions which show our faith in those promises make us holy.

GOD first connected the people to the Land by calling Abraham: “Go from your country…
to the land which I will show you, and I will make you into a great nation.” (Gen. 12:1-2) It was next to a landmark oak tree – Elon Moreh – that the LORD first appeared to him and promised, “To your descendants I will give this land.” (v. 6-7) After Abraham made a peace covenant with the nearby Philistines, he planted another tree at Beersheba and “called on the name of the LORD” (Gen. 21:33).

The promise to plant Abraham’s descendants in that same Land began to materialize at the splitting of the Reed Sea. It’s interesting that this great event appears in the Torah portion for the Shabbat that follows Tu B’Shvat. The Song of the Sea (Exod. 15), which all the people sang after their miraculous deliverance from bondage, was inspired by the Holy Spirit. And in verse 17 is the declaration that the LORD will bring the people to the Land “and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance.”

Looking closely at this prophecy reveals the “fruit” that would result from GOD’s planting: the LORD would make His dwelling place in His holy mountain, build a holy sanctuary with His own hands, and “reign forever and ever” from there.

When the people of Israel were exiled from the Land, both Land and people became desolate. The Land stopped producing its fruit, and it would only regain its fertility when the LORD brought them back from exile (Ezek. 36:8). Likewise, the people were to come alive again when the LORD reconnected them with their Land (Ezek. 37:14).

The planting imagery repeats often in the Scriptures. The Psalms remember how GOD “planted” the people of Israel and caused them to “possess the land” (Ps. 44:2-3). King David was promised that in his days the people would have rest from their enemies, “and I will establish a place for My people Israel, and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place and not be disturbed again.” (2 Sam. 7:10) Even when the Babylonians came and destroyed Jerusalem, GOD told those who were left to not be afraid: “If you will indeed stay in this land, then I will build you up and not tear you down, and I will plant you and not uproot you.” (Jer. 42:10) Jeremiah also comforted the exiles forcibly taken to Babylon with GOD’s promise to eventually “bring them back to this land; and I will build them up and not overthrow them, and I will plant them and not uproot them.” (Jer. 24:6)

These promises are relevant for our day as well. The prophet Amos saw far ahead to the second exile “among all nations,” after which the LORD would return Israel to the Land to both plant in it and be planted in it: “I will also restore the fortunes of My people Israel, and they will rebuild the desolated cities and live in them. They will also plant vineyards and drink their wine, and make gardens and eat their fruit. I will also plant them on their land, and they will not be uprooted again from their land which I have given them.” (Amos 9:14-15)

Those who plant their families in the Land are promised that they will pass the blessings to their children: “They will build houses and inhabit them; they will also plant vineyards and eat their fruit…. They will not labor in vain, or give birth to children for disaster; for they are the descendants of those blessed by the LORD, and their descendants with them.” (Isa. 65:21-23)

The Creator Himself loves the Land of Israel: It is “a land for which the LORD your GOD cares; the eyes of the LORD your GOD are continually on it, from the beginning even to the end of the year.” (Deut. 11:12) Whenever He remembers His Covenant with the forefathers, He also remembers the Land (Lev. 26:42).

From all these Scriptures, we learn how important it is for the Jewish people to live in the Land of Israel and to eat its fruit. The Torah explicitly commands us to thank Him for both at the same time: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your GOD for the good land which He has given you.” (Deut. 8:10) Experiencing this gift with our senses makes it easy and natural to bless Him – almost as if eating the fruit of the Land supplies a special praise “vitamin” to our souls.

When we personally plant trees in our garden, we learn a lot about patience, dedication, and faithful care. It takes several years for a young tree to sink its roots deep enough to withstand dry spells or high winds. Until then, it needs special attention so that it doesn’t dry out or fall over. Fruit trees can take even longer before they start to produce good-quality fruit; and they must be watered, fertilized, and pruned properly in order to resist pests and diseases.

This hints at our own part in being spiritually planted by the LORD. It requires patience, faithfulness, and discipline to produce the fruit of righteousness. The one who delights in the Creator’s good laws “will be like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither; and in whatever he does, he prospers.” (Ps. 1:3) But the one who trusts in himself or in other people “will be like a bush in the desert, and will not see when prosperity comes, but will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, a land of salt that is not inhabited.” (Jer. 17:6)

In the Final Redemption, GOD’s holy people will be like sturdy trees thriving on His Land: “For you will have the LORD as an everlasting light, and the days of your mourning will be over. Then all your people will be righteous; they will possess the land forever, the branch of My planting, the work of My hands, that I may be glorified.” (Isa. 60:20-21)

The people of Israel were exiled because of their sin, but their roots remained embedded in the Land. GOD compared their condition to “a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains when it is cut down.” (Isa. 6:13) Both of these trees (elah and elon, respectively) are natural to Israel and can live for hundreds of years. They are very hard to kill; as long as their roots are left intact, cutting them down will make them grow back taller than ever. In the days of the Messiah, we will experience the same longevity: ” For as the lifetime of a tree, so will be the days of My people, and My chosen ones will fully enjoy the work of their hands.” (Isa. 65:22)

Thus, when we bless the Creator for the beauty, fragrance, strength, and fruit of Israel’s trees, we look forward to “the days to come” when “Jacob will take root, Israel will blossom and sprout, and they will fill the whole world with fruit.” (Isa. 27:6) “On that day the Branch of the LORD will be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth will be the pride and the beauty of the survivors of Israel. And it will come about that the one who is left in Zion and remains behind in Jerusalem will be called holy — everyone who is recorded for life in Jerusalem.” (Isa. 4:2)

This “Branch” is agreed by the sages to be the Messiah, Son of David: “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch from his roots will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him…. Then on that day the nations will resort to the root of Jesse, who will stand as a signal flag for the peoples; and his resting place will be glorious.” (Isa. 11:1-2, 10)

From this, we know that all believers in the LORD from the nations are entitled (and even required!) to rejoice with the people of Israel over the fruit of this good Land, where one day we will gather together on GOD’s holy mountain.

May we encourage one another to grow deeper in our faith as individuals and communities, so that we can see our GOD do wonders on our behalf.

Be blessed by the Most High from the land of Zion and Jerusalem!

From the “house of good deeds” – Sabra House,


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