Tree planting on Tu Bishvat is a relatively modern custom, a Zionist effort to reforest the denuded slopes of the Promised Land. Though indigenous species may have been elbowed aside, the many JNF forests have yet to be labeled politically in-correct // Yisrael Goldman

Beginnings

Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees in the Jewish calendar, has gained significantly in popularity over the generations. From a date of mainly fiscal significance for calculating agricultural tithes, it was expanded by the kabbalists of the early middle ages to include a fruit fest with deeply spiritual ramifications. With the advent of Zionism and establishment of Jewish agricultural settlements in Palestine, the holiday morphed yet again, becoming a day celebrating the Jewish nation’s efforts to restore forests on the denuded slopes of the Holy Land.

It seems that the first person to organize celebrations that included tree planting and communal ceremonies for students was the noted Jerusalem educator, Chaim Aryeh Zuta. Zuta’s memoirs describe his efforts to promote tree-planting on Tu Bishvat. A tree planting ceremony that he organized on Tu Bishvat 5673 (1913), in Motza in the Jerusalem corridor received extensive coverage in Ben-Yehuda’s newspaper, HaTzvi. The procession in Motza snaked “up to the vineyard of Cohen, the farmer,” where a celebratory arch had been erected to mark the site of the event.

New immigrants from Yemen celebrate their first Tu BiShvat in Israel 1950

Marching to the Music

Verbal reports aver that the scouts’ youth movement held a tree planting ceremony in the courtyard of the residence of the High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel, at Augusta Victoria, in the early 1920s. The Jewish High Commissioner was highly respected by the residents of Jerusalem, and so it is not unlikely that they would have wanted to honor him by planting trees in his courtyard, but neither Samuel’s memoirs nor those of his son mention any such an event.

In the late1920s, Tu Bishvat processions in Jerusalem became a regular institution.  All decked out in greenery, elementary school children would assemble in the Lemel School yard, and march to the accompaniment of the Tachkemoni School orchestra. Sometimes the procession was led by mounted police, along with representatives of the police band. Each group marched behind its school flag, which was decorated with illustrations of flowers and baskets of fruit.

Tree-planting procession in Tel Aviv, 15 Shvat, 1937Shimon Rudy Weissenstein

Tree-planting procession in Tel Aviv, 15 Shvat, 1937

Photo: Shimon Rudy WeissensteinTree-planting procession in Tel Aviv, 15 Shevat, 1937

To the Ceremonial Arch

The connection between the Jewish National Fund (JNF) and Tu Bishvat only really began at the end of the 1920s. In 1930, the JNF distributed a booklet encouraging tree planting on the new year for trees. It included a description of the children’s procession from the Lemel school to the new neighborhood of Beit Hakerem, where that year’s planting ceremony was to take place:

The yard of the Lemel School is thronged with children, their faces lit with joy. They are crowned with garlands of spring flowers, and flags flutter in the light breeze. Suddenly a shrill whistle pierces the air. The murmurs die slowly away, and all eyes turn to the speaker, as the teacher lectures over the bobbing heads on the significance of the. Half an hour later the whole crowd begins to move – elbowing their way slowly, step by step, between the two walls of spectators lining the street. The orchestra at the head of the procession are playing a lively march, but bringing up  the rear, we can hear nothing but the drum beats. All the houses are decorated with branches and flowers and greenery is everywhere, making it abundantly clear that today is a celebration of nature and of growth. The trees wave their foliage, as if to cry, “Welcome, children, young and old. Welcome! Go out and multiply the trees in the land, for salvation lies in its trees and forests.”

Finally, we leave the bustling, dust-filled city behind, and head for the hills. Sharp blasts of  wind greet us, and the thousands of children burst into song. The procession stretches out, winding its way along the turns of the road like an enormous snake. And  here is the new neighborhood, its red roofs jutting up like flowers from among the rocks [apparently a reference to Beit Hakerem or Kiryat Moshe]. A ceremonial arch, entwined with branches and flowers, waits silently for our arrival. We reach the street where the trees will be planted. A tender seedling stands by each shallow hole, tremblingly gently as it awaits its future. Its fate hangs in the balance – it will live, if handled with appropriate care. The hoes attack the vital clods of earth, and our hearts beat to the rhythm of the blows, as we pray: May this tree take root and flourish. The trees are planted, and the students scatter in all directions. One enjoys the treats he has brought with him, another plays, and  a third runs aimlessly about, just having fun.

The ceremonial arch at Tu Bi-Shevat tree-planting ceremony in Talpiyot, Jerusalem, 1923Photo: Yossi Schweig

The ceremonial arch at Tu Bi-Shevat tree-planting ceremony in Talpiyot, Jerusalem, 1923