Ancient Tu B’ Shevat observed

In recent years, there has been much debate whether earth’s temperature is rising as a result of the “greenhouse effect.”

This theory, supported by much of the scientific community but questioned by the Bush administration, holds that increased use of fossil fuel causes carbon dioxide to trap extra heat in the atmosphere.

Since plants use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, trees serve as one of the best antidotes to this threat.

Of course, our ancestors never heard of the greenhouse effect, but in the middle of the 19th century Americans became aware of the necessity of replacing trees destroyed by the settlers who cleared land for farms, pastures and cities.

In 1872, Nebraska declared the first Arbor Day, setting aside April 10 for planting trees. The custom spread to every state, though dates vary depending upon local climates.

An ancient Jewish festival predates this custom by many centuries.

“Tu B’Shevat” (Hebrew for “New Year of Trees”) was originally connected with the law of tithes (returning 10 percent of all possessions to God).

Since a tree shouldn’t be harvested until its fourth year, it became necessary to keep track of the ages of trees using this date as a milestone.

From this custom came the practice of setting aside a particular day to focus on trees and all they provide.

The 15th of Shevat, a month in the Jewish calendar, came in early spring in Israel when the sap of trees was just beginning to flow and flowers bloom, symbolizing rebirth.

In Israel today it is marked by a festival of tree-planting. The Jewish National Fund, an international organization, has collected millions of dollars for the reforestation of Israel.

Nearly everyone who is able participates in digging holes, tamping the earth around saplings, and giving them their first drink of water.

Afterwards comes a party marked by eating fruits from trees native to the Middle East such as dates, figs, pomegranates, almonds and oranges.

South County’s Congregation Emeth has established its own traditional way to observe Tu B’Shevat. For several years, members have donated a tree to a public site in honor of the occasion.

After consulting with the recipient to choose a suitable variety, members gather at the appointed place.

Following special readings, songs and prayers, the adults supervise as the congregation’s children the plant trees in the ground.

In the past, trees have gone to various Gilroy and Morgan HIll parks, Wheeler Manor and St. Louise Regional Hospital, among other locations.

This year’s celebration has been delayed until Jan. 30, when some coast redwoods will be planted near the Jewish section of the Gilroy cemetery, First Street between Wren and Santa Teresa.

In the words of Rabbi Yitzak Miller, “This is an opportunity to participate with God in a loving act of restoration, renewal and creation that will bring pleasure, shade and beauty for many years.”

For more information call (408) 847-4111.

Chuck Flagg teaches English at Mt. Madonna High School. Write to him at P.O. Box 22365, Gilroy, CA 95021.

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