Israel and Tu B’Shvat: A Study Guide
An Israeli carries what she needs to plant an olive tree in the Negev for Tu B’Shvat in 2004. (By Mark Neyman, Israeli Government Press Office)

In ancient Israel, Tu B’Shvat was the day when farmers offered the first fruits of their trees in the form of a tithe or tax to the Temple after the trees had turned 4 years old. This custom was derived from the Torah, which says in Leviticus 19:23-25, “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Lord; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit, that its yield to you may be increased: I am the Lord your God.”

The Talmud expands on this in Mishna Rosh Hashana I:

As with much of Jewish law, Hillel and Shammai debated the date to be used as the benchmark for calculating the tithe, with Hillel’s date (15th of Shevat) winning over Shammai’s (1st of Shevat). Both chose Shevat because it marked the end of the rainy season in Israel. The fruits that were tithed were then used mostly as food by the priests and their households.

As with many Jewish rituals, the destruction of the Temple and exile of the majority of Jews from the Land of Israel meant that the date of Tu B’Shvat no longer had practical significance. But the holiday was kept alive, adapted and changed, first by the mystics in Tzfat in the 16th century and later by the Zionists and pioneers in the 19th and 20th centuries:

  • Influenced by Deuteronomy 20:19, “Man is like the tree of the field,” the mystics in Tzfat began celebrating Tu B’Shvat with a seder, similar to the Passover seder, in the 17th century. The custom of eating fruits, especially those from Israel, became a part of the holiday’s observance at this time. 
  • The custom of planting trees in Israel on Tu B’Shvat dates to 1890, when Ze’ev Yavetz, an educator in Zichron Ya’akov, took his students to plant trees. Teachers unions and Keren Kayemet LeIsrael (KKL-JNF) adopted the practice in 1908. Yavetz told Haaretz in 1891, “For the love of the saplings … the school must make a festival of the day that was set aside from ancient times in Israel as the New Year of the Trees. To gracefully and beautifully arrange the trees, saplings, lilies and flowers just like they do in Europe on the First of May.” (Quoted in Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology, edited by Ari Alon, Naomi Mara Hyman and Arthur Waskow, p. 304.)
  • On Tu B’Shvat 1949, Israel’s new legislative body (to be named the Knesset two days later on Feb. 16) met for the first time in Jerusalem after the Jan. 25 election. Most of the representatives, including David Ben-Gurion, stopped on their way to plant trees.

Curriculum Resources:

Study Questions:

  1. What are the values associated with the holiday in Israel and around the world?
  2. What is your school or community doing to support Israel? What is your school or community doing to address climate change?
  3. How are Israel’s innovations benefiting people worldwide? How do these contributions affect Israel’s status in the world?
  4. How can we turn Tu B’Shvat into a celebration of year-round efforts? What practices can we incorporate to create collective memory for the next generation?
  5. Project-based learning: What can you design or apply to your life to conserve or enhance ecosystems around you?


  • Have a debate between Hillel and Shammai over the correct date for marking the New Year of the Trees. 
  • Discuss: Just as Hillel and Shammai disagreed over when to mark the New Year of the Trees, Jews today debate various aspects of Jewish life in Israel and around the world. What are some of those issues? What are ways we can productively express views on those issues and constructively disagree?
  • Discuss: How does the custom started by Ze’ev Yavetz of planting trees on Tu B’Shvat connect us to Israel? What are other ways that we can express a connection? 
  • Author Yom Tov Lewinski described Tu B’Shvat 1949 in Jerusalem: “Still in the early hours of the morning, Jerusalem’s children were seen passing by in large groups, each by their standard, dressed splendidly in Scouts’ uniforms, saplings in hand. The kindergarten children, crowned with garlands and holding flowerpots, crossed the streets singing and shouting for joy: ‘Tu B’Shvat is here. Hail the trees’ New Year.’ At nine o’clock, the orderly processions of schoolchildren and youth organizations began — young planters with shovels and hoes in one hand, and saplings in the other. At ten o’clock, the procession of planters from the young generation was received by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. On that day, thousands of trees were planted throughout the country in honor of the Knesset.” (Quoted in Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology, edited by Ari Alon, Naomi Mara Hyman, and Arthur Waskow, p. 304.) Discuss: Why was Tu B’Shvat chosen as the day that the first Knesset opened? How are the roles of the government and trees similar? What are the connections between the land and the government?
  • Research: How is Tu B’Shvat celebrated in Israel today? How does the Knesset mark its anniversary and connection to Tu B’Shvat?
  • Read the excerpt from Natan Alterman’s poem “With the First Knesset.” What connections does Alterman make between the historic opening of the Knesset and the trees, nature and coming of spring? How is spring a time of change? Just as when we plant trees, we might not see the fruits for years, so the actions of a government can have long-lasting implications and effects that take a long time to become clear.

“With the First Knesset” (excerpt)

By Natan Alterman, 1949

It will again be a day of spring,
A day of changes and wonders.
A breath of mint will be sensed in the air.
And delegates, while skipping through puddles,
Will go,
My friends,
To the parliament.

They will be seated, as accepted, and listen to the speech
(Sitting numbered one-thousand-and-seven) …
Some will doze off for several moments,
Will simply sleep …

And then from an opening window, a sparrow
Will enter the Knesset’s hall,
Dance for a while on the Speaker’s gavel,
And nearly overturn the inkstand …

And as it flies it will be followed by the looks of the delegates
And they will know: She is an invited-delegate
Coming from strong winds that accompanied that same evening in Shevat
In which you were born, Constituent Assembly.

  • “Tu Bishvat Song” was written in 1910 for the first tree planting ceremony in Tel Aviv, which was founded in 1909. The song is sung to the tune of “Oyfn Pripetshik” (Yiddish for “On the Hearth”), about a rabbi teaching the alef-bet to his students and lamenting Jewish life in exile. The song shows how some Zionists equated the planting of trees to the learning of Torah. Discuss: What does the lyricist mean by “This is the Torah”? What are the parallels between spiritual and physical sustenance? Why have children been the primary focus of tree planting on Tu B’shvat?

“Tu Bishvat Song”

By S. Ben-Tzion, 1910

Open fields and green trees, children carry spades, there the teacher to the students teaches alef-bet.

This is the Torah, gentle children study, do not spurn, plant and sow this land, the spring dove returns.

This tree alef, this tree bet — even gimel — a tree, three letters in a green book as far as the eye can see!

This is the Torah, gentle children study, do not spurn, plant and sow this land, the spring dove returns.

On this land our fathers spilt sweat and milk and blood — let spring come, let it blossom, as the nation blooms.

This is the Torah, gentle children study, do not spurn, plant and sow this land, the spring dove returns.

  • Have students research the ways Israel is innovating to combat climate change and present to the class using resources from Israel21c.
  • Hold a nature photography contest after students read and analyze the photography here and here.
  • Take a virtual tour of Israel’s nature, such as the one here.
  • Have students read this article on JNF’s plans for Be’er Sheva, then consider, when altering the landscape and introducing a new ecosystem to an area, what issues to consider and plan for.
  • Read this article about controversies over tree planting and watch this video about forest fires and tree planting. What can we learn about best practices in tree planting to combat the spread of fires, and what can we learn about Israel’s unresolved issues with its non-Jewish populations?
  • Take a virtual tour of an Israeli shuk and identify as many fruits of trees as you can, dried and fresh. Hold your own seder for Tu B’Shvat and include as many of those fruits that grow in Israel as possible.
  • Watch a farmer in Jerusalem talk about best practices in planting trees, then plant your own.