“In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit.” (Isaiah 27:6)
Today, Israelis are celebrating a new year (Rosh Hashanah) — one of the four new years on the Hebrew calendar: Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot — New Year for Trees.
It is more commonly known as Tu B’Shvat, which means the 15th of the calendar month, Shevat.
In Israel, the Jewish People dedicate this day to the reviving of the Land by planting trees — an idea close to God’s heart, for He Himself planted trees!
“Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there He put the man He had formed.” (Genesis 2:8)
People of all ages, especially farmers and kibbutz dwellers, young adults and school children, will plant tree saplings all over the Land of Israel today.
Let’s discover why the planting of trees is so important to God and to the nation of Israel.
New Year for Trees
Today is not a Biblical holiday; however, it began as a way to fulfil the Biblical commandment to tithe produce.
Leviticus 19:23 says that fruit from a tree may not be eaten during the first three years of its life. “In the fourth year all its fruit will be holy, an offering of praise to the LORD.” (v. 24)
So, how would an early Israelite calculate when a tree is four years old in order to bring its fruit to the Temple as an offering?
The first century Rabbi Hillel appointed the 15th day of Shevat to be the day a tree ages one year (as recorded in the Mishna, Tractate Rosh HaShannah).
What happens on Tu B’Shvat, however, now that the Temple no longer exists?
Tu B’Shvat in Exile
After the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem in AD 70, destroying the Temple, no more fruit offerings could be made. Moreover, the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world and for almost 1,900 years, no one was taking care of the trees in the land.
In 1867, Mark Twain described its barrenness in The Innocents Abroad:
“[Israel is a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds … a silent mournful expanse …. a desolation. … We never saw a human being on the whole route. … hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”
Even in the last few years, Arab arsonists have destroyed large parts of beautiful forests in Israel; if only they knew the Bible and God’s heart for His creation — the trees.
“When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees.” (Deuteronomy 20:19)
With no Temple in Jerusalem where fruit offerings can be made, Tu B’Shvat has come to represent the return to the Land that God gave the Jewish People for an everlasting possession.
“The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:8; also 48:4)
Returning to our God-given inheritance comes with responsibilities to replenish the land with trees.
Sages and Rabbis of the Diaspora (dispersion among the nations) exhorted the Jewish People, “When you first come into the Land of Israel you are to engage in no other work than planting.” (Midrash Rabba, Lev. 25)
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai even said, “If a seedling were in your hand and you were told the Messiah is at hand, come and plant the seedling and then go and greet him.” (Avot D’Rabbi Nathan)
Tu B’Shvat Back in the Land
Israel is Messiah’s country and was created to be a blessing to the whole world.
Today, the land that was once barren and lifeless is now an exporter of fruits and flowers to the world, as foretold in Isaiah 27:6:
“In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit.”
Exports of fruits and vegetables in 2019 totalled $682 million. (Ministry of Agricultre)
The early Jewish pioneers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries followed the words of the Rabbis as they bravely repopulated the land.
Additionally, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was established in 1901 by Theodore Herzl, a leading figure of the early Zionist movement, to oversee land reclamation and development.
The JNF effectively stopped an outbreak of malaria in the Hula Valley (north of the Sea of Galilee) by planting eucalyptus trees. In 1905 olive groves were planted in memory of Herzl and with this, the JNF embarked on the new venture of establishing forests.
Every year, the JNF schedules major tree-planting events in Israel, with over a million Israelis taking part. Since 1905, the JNF has planted over 260 million trees!
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (Isaiah 35:1)
Who would have thought that Israel could be regathered again as a nation after 2,000 years and blossom as Isaiah foresaw, for the LORD’s sake?
“Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55:13)
Torah, Trees, and Messiah
Tu B’Shvat also has deep spiritual significance.
The Torah (first five books of the Bible) is considered a Tree of Life in the Jewish community, a source of divine nourishment and sustenance. Because of this, when the Torah scroll is returned to the ark (its protective cabinet) during a synagogue service, the congregation recites Proverbs 3:18:
“She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.”
The Apostle John tried to help the Jewish People understand that this tree of life — the Word of God they tenderly hold in their arms — cannot be contained to a piece of parchment housed inside a protective case.
That Tree of Life manifested in human skin!
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1, 14)
As the Word of God in flesh, Yeshua (Jesus) spent much of His time explaining through words and miraculous encounters (even raising the dead) that He is the source of everlasting life.
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” (John 10:27–28)
Sadly, many people are trying to enter eternal life by producing fruit on their own merit, without Messiah. But Yeshua said,
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Let us cling to Messiah Yeshua, as a branch on the tree of everlasting life so that we may bring forth divine fruitfulness, for the LORD’s sake.