Today, February 10-11, Israel celebrates the biblical holiday of Tu b’Shvat. Meaning simply the “15th day of the 7th month,” Tu b’Shvat is also known as the New Year for Trees. The holiday originates from Leviticus 19:23-25:
“When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, regard its fruit as forbidden. For three years you are to consider it forbidden; it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit will be holy, an offering of praise to the Lord. But in the fifth year you may eat its fruit. In this way your harvest will be increased. I am the Lord your God.”
By itself, the command about trees can appear almost random or obscure. The context in which God gives it, however, offers insight to its deeper meaning. Leviticus 19 opens with, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” The chapter goes on to restate five of the Ten Commandments. Then it lays out seemingly disconnected and brief instructions about payroll, trees, hair cutting, tattoos, sorcery, weights and measures, and more. It closes with a declaration of the supreme lordship of YHVH.
By the close of Chapter 19, we can see how otherwise random commands are in fact connected. Each expresses an aspect of God’s holy character and His fiery passion to commune with His people. Because He is holy, His people must be made holy in order to fellowship with Him. Together, the diverse Levitical commands – including tree dedications – are intended to purify the people and their land for YHVH. (Consummate holiness and intimate relationship with Israel was not going to be possible until the future, atoning ministry of Messiah. Meanwhile, heart-fueled adherence to the law, coupled with prospective grace, would make a holy love relationship possible.)
The biblical context of Tu b’Shvat reveals it is a day to honor, worship and celebrate our Creator’s sovereign, supreme grace. By the sheer power of His Word, God formed the tangible realm we call earth. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1) And in every detail of creation, He wants to mediate holy love. Thus, trees provide essential sustenance through their fruits, medicinal qualities, and wood used for shelter, to build fires, and for other applications. Trees serve an array of ecosystem functions. In addition, they grace the earth with intrinsic beauty. The three year period of tree dedication serves to remind us of our mere stewardship, not ownership, of this planet. Like every good and perfect gift, trees are given us from Sovereign God to lovingly sustain us.
In Genesis 2:17, God gave life-and-death instructions to humankind about eating the fruit of one specific tree. In the greatest tragedy of history, Adam and Eve disobeyed the holy command. They ate the forbidden fruit of the tree of life. Not life, but death, resulted. In a somewhat similar, but far less consequential way, you and I also have opportunity to honor God’s word about refraining from fruit. We can set apart the first fruits of not just one, but every new tree stewarded to us. As the trees mature, we can eat with thanksgiving and joy. (Of course, following the Levitical command is not a matter of salvation or even necessarily, sanctification, but of individual conscience and freedom of worship.)
In the Scriptures, people are sometimes compared to trees. “Blessed is the man … whose delight is in the law [or Word] of the Lord…. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.” (Psalm 1:1-3) In the Messianic Age, “all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12). Trees are good (Genesis 1:11-12). God really likes them and so should we.
In this reflection on trees, you’ve probably noticed by now that Leviticus 19:23-25 says nothing about the 15th day of the seventh month. Why, then, do we count every tree’s birthday on that particular date and regard Tu b’Shvat as a new year for trees?
Consider with me the unique challenge of implementing this specific, divine decree. When Israel entered the Promised Land, how could she possibly know, let alone remember, the age of every tree? How could the people keep track of the multiplied thousands of trees yet to be planted? To avoid a genuinely unmanageable administrative nightmare, the nation’s leaders decided each tree’s birthday would be counted on the 15th day of the 7th month of the year. Tu b’Shvat was chosen because the heavy winter rains would generally be over by then. Trees such as the almond tree would have begun to blossom. Soon these trees would bear fruit which could be eaten that year — if those trees were of age. It seemed good and right to consider the onset of spring the time to collectively assign age to trees across the land. As a result of this reckoning, Tu b’Shvat also became a type of spring harvest celebration. The people thanked God for their trees and prayed for a plentiful harvest of fruit that year.
Technically, Leviticus 19:23-25 applies only to the Land of Promise. Nevertheless, Tu b’Shvat was observed, year after year, throughout the Jews’ 2,000 years of exile. The day served as an annual reminder of God’s future, promised restoration of Israel. Sadly, during the intervening centuries of Islamic rule, most trees in the land were chopped down and intentionally destroyed. But, at the turn of the 20th century, Zionist pioneers began re-planting trees in large groves and forests to help revive the land. By God, the plan worked!
Christians around the world can join in the celebration of Tu b’Shvat. You can rejoice with thanksgiving for the good gifts your Creator has planted in your life. You can honor His Word, if you are led, pertaining to the trees He has stewarded to your care. You can also rejoice and partake in His promised restoration of Israel.
Israel today still needs trees. Last year’s terrorist fires sadly destroyed many thousands of trees and other forms of plant and animal life. You can easily help meet the ongoing need for trees, vegetation and other natural resources by purchasing them online. To tangibly and inexpensively bless Israel in this manner, please visit the Jewish National Fund at jnf.org. The Jewish National Fund will do the physical planting, but you will receive a printable certificate for your tree in the Holy Land. Trees can be purchased any time of year, or in honor of a special person or special occasion.
This Tu b’Shevat, be blessed to remember that the fruit of the righteous is a tree of life. (Proverbs 11:30) Be doubly blessed to remember the glorious, future tree of life that will someday yield spectacular fruit all year round, and heal nations. (Revelation 22:2) Be blessed with LIFE!
(The photo of trees below was taken today from the window of my new office. Behind the stately fir trees, you can see olive trees in the back yard of our neighbor, the President of the State of Israel, Reuven Rivlin.)