On the Wing of a Coin and a Prayer

Did you know that the traditional Jewish prayer book, the Siddur, includes a prayer for rain as a central tenet of the Amida, the standing prayer which religious Jews say three times daily. “Grant dew and rain as a blessing,” Jews recite in the winter until Passover, the rainy season in Israel. Then, in the warmer months, they pray, “Grant blessing on the face of the earth, and from its goodness satisfy us, blessing our year as the best of years. Blessed are You, Lord, who blesses the years.”

And so the tradition grew up of celebrating the trees that, dependent on rainfall to be productive, give us fruit. Beginning at sunset on the evening of January 24 and continuing through January 24th is the Festival of the Trees, popularly referred to in North America as the Birthday of the Trees. It is a very joyful festival, representing God’s grace to the earth – ADAMA (remember, ADAM, created from the earth, was the first human being). So human beings and what is brought forth from the earth are connected in the Hebrew language.

Tu b’shevat, which means the 15th of the Hebrew month Shevat, and this year is in the Hebrew year 5776, is first referred to in the late Second Temple period (515 BCE to 20 CE) when it was the cut-off date for levying the tithe on the produce of fruit trees.

According to some readings of Jewish law, fruit that ripens in the first three years that a tree gives fruit is considered orlah. This means that it is not kosher and thus not acceptable for Jewish people to eat. Tu b’shevat marks the “new year” or “birthday of trees.” Fruit that ripens in the third year on or after the 15th day of Shevat is kosher. Traditionally, the fruit that ripened in the fourth year was taken to the temple as a tithe (a form of taxation). This is now paid symbolically using coins. Only in the fifth year, you were allowed to keep and eat the fruit of your tree.

BUT if you planted a tree on the very day of Tu b ‘shevat, you could eat the fruit in the fourth year of its ripening. It was better than clipping a coupon because if you planted it even a day later, nope, the tax went to the Temple. You had to wait until the fifth year to eat your fruit.

In the 1600s CE, some Jewish people who didn’t have any land on which to plant trees any longer began to hold a symbolic seder, a meal, on Tu B’Shevat. The meal would consist of different types (15 varieties) of fruit and nuts, each of which had a specific spiritual meaning. Over the years, the custom fell away.

Then in the 1930s, Jewish Zionists who fled from horrific persecution to Israel – Eretz Yisrael means the land of Israel — revived this custom. And, in the effort to make the land, which had deteriorated into rocks and marsh, and desert, in an effort to make the desert bloom, they planted trees on Tu b’shevat.

When I was a little girl, it was usual for Jewish families in Canada to place a little blue and white box on the dinner table. Into this little box, we placed our coins every Sabbath to support the planting of trees in Israel. When I got married in 1958, my in-laws bought a hundred trees for me, and a hundred trees for my husband. It still gives me satisfaction to think that, in 2016, my trees are part of a forest in the Promised Land.