For most Israelis, Tu B’Shevat - The New Year of the Trees marked on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat dating back to the Mishnah period [initial period of writing down the Oral Law by Rebbe Yehudah HaNasi] - is all about the consumption of dried fruit, with little else. But in pre-state Israel, the holiday took on a much bigger meaning. This celebration of nature and the so-called birthday of newly planted trees saw much more pomp and circumstance, with Zionist themes and values taking center stage: parades, lectures on the importance of reclaiming the land for settlements, galas, and of course, large gatherings to plant new trees.
The Jewish National Fund (JNF), which celebrates its 110-year anniversary this year, has become practically synonymous with this holiday. It is also known as the creator of the world’s first virtual forest, which allows internet users to plant a new seedling with the stroke of the keyboard. The actual planting is carried out by JNF forest rangers who plant the seedlings in various woodlands and other would-be forests across the country.
But in this era of digital planting, revisiting the immense significance this holiday carried for the fledgeling Jewish community in British Mandate Palestine may be in order. The holiday’s elevated status is clearly evident in public notices and pamphlets that the first Jewish immigrants produced at the time to mark this occasion. The National Library of Israel at the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus has been home to these documents.
One of the public notices, which is also among the earliest from that period, dates back to 1920. It has a song dedicated specifically to Tu B’Shevat. Alongside there is an announcement that the first Hebrew battalion and pupils from Hebrew-language schools will participate in various events that are open to the public. Another item is a photo from 1914 depicting a Star of David on a small packet of seeds prepared by the Jerusalem chapter of the Teachers Association of the Land of Israel (the precursor to today’s Israel Teachers Union).
“From the outset, the Zionist Movement made Tu B’Shevat into a JNF-led holiday that primarily saw the purchase of new plots in the Land of Israel,” says Dr. Hezi Amiur, who is the curator of the Israel Collection at the library.
Amiur says the planting of trees was originally designed as a means to secure more land for the would-be Jewish state, not as a way to help mother nature. “One of the ways to maintain a Jewish hold on the land was through planting man-made groves. In many cases they complemented newly established communities as a way to cement their hold on the land. Other means involved fundraising drives and school field trips where pupils would go on parades that culminated in seedling planting and key-note speeches by Jewish leaders alongside some stage production,” says Amiur. “The over-arching theme of Tu B’Shevat was the reclaiming of the nation’s land and maintaining a presence there, with tree-planting events designed to guarantee that the land remains in Jewish hands. Today people are mainly focused on the planting itself, whereas back then Zionist values and themes occupied a much greater role in the holiday’s events.”