Which came first, the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, or the American holiday Arbor Day? The answer isn’t as straightforward as one might think.
Technically, Tu Bishvat is older, since it is first mentioned in the Mishnah, which was compiled around the year 200 CE. That preceded America's settlement by Europeans by some 1300-1400 years.
But Tu Bishvat – which this year beings on Sunday evening and simply means "the 15th day of the month of Shvat" - wasn't a holiday. It was the start of the tax year, referring to tithes of fruit by farmers to the Temple, a close reading of the single Mishnaic reference shows (Rosh Hashana 1:1).
Actually, to this day the rabbis are arguing whether the tax year for tithing fruit trees should start on Shvat 1 or Shvat 15. In any case, even by the time the rabbis wrote about Tu Bishvat in the Mishnah, the day's entire existence had become theoretical. No more tithes were paid to the Temple after the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE. Even so, later generations decided that if the fruit-tree tax were to be reimposed, it would be on Tu Bishvat.
Rabbi Luria moves to Safed
During the Middle Ages, this defunct tax day began to be perceived as a semi-holiday, probably because the Mishnah gave it a festive-sounding name, “Rosh Hashanah of Trees” (“New Year of Trees”).
In Ashkenazi communities it became customary to drop the Tachanun supplication from the daily prayer on Tu Bishvat, as is done on actual Jewish holidays, which further cemented the transition of the tax day to a holiday. There is some evidence that in Jewish communities in Israel, special prayers for abundant yields from trees were added to the daily prayers, at least for a time, on that day.
But the holiday traditions only began to take shape when Rabbi Isaac Luria moved from Cairo to Safed, in the second half of the 16th century, and revolutionized the Jewish religion, before dying of an epidemic two years after arriving in the Galilee town.
The goal of a Jewish life is to release bits of divinity that he called “sparks” from the lower planes of reality back to the Godhead. These sparks, Luria explained, had become entangled in reality during the act of creation.” Once all these sparks were returned - and most already had been– creation would really be complete and the Messianic Age would commence. Sparks are released from the lower levels of creation through “corrections,” a variety of actions encoded in scripture and reality.
One example of these so-called corrections that Luria found in the Talmud is eating and blessing fruit on Tu Bishvat. Thus it became a tradition to eat fruit (often dried fruit) on that day.
Sabbatai Zevi Day
Luria’s interpretation engendered expectations that the coming of the Messiah was imminent, and in the mid-17th century, a charismatic young Jew from Izmir in the Ottoman Empire, proclaimed that he was just that. Influenced by the teachings of Luria, the probably insane but evidently charismatic Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676) gained a large following.
World Jewry became excited, thinking that the End of Days was nigh. But in 1666, Turkish authorities arrested Sabbatai Zevi on the grounds of disturbing the peace, and gave him the choice of converting to Islam or execution. Learning that he chose to convert, most Jews realized he was a false messiah. Some of his more ardent believers remained faithful to his message even after his death a few years later at age 50.
His persevering believers developed a number of special customs. One was to celebrate Tu Bishvat as Sabbatai Zevi Day, mainly because he was often called “the tree of life” by his followers. A ceremonial holiday meal, modeled on the Passover seder, was created by one of his followers, the anonymous writer of “Hemdat Yamim” (first published in 1731). This meal included eating 30 fruits, drinking four cups of wine and reading a variety of texts having to do with trees.
Although that rabbis knew this was a Sabbatean book, it was adopted into Orthodox circles, and thus the "Tu Bishvat seder" made its way into Judaism, mostly in Sephardic communities.
Meanwhile, in Nebraska
So it is clear that at the close of the 18th century, Tu Bishvat had gained some holiday status, but not much. Most of what makes Tu Bishvat the holiday it is now resulted from tectonic shifts that took place over the 19th century, starting with the Haskala movement - the acquisition of non-rabbinic learning - among European Jews.
Haskala involved mainly the proliferation of European literature among Jews, and some Jewish writing heavily influenced by European culture.
European culture itself was changing. The Romantic Movement was taking hold (mostly in Germany and Great Britain) and was changing the perception of nature from a place of danger, counter to human society and to be avoided at all costs, to a place of sublime beauty to which sophisticates should go in order to have experiences that would improve them. In parallel, nationalism was taking hold in Europe, with national movements and sentiment popping up everywhere.
The Haskala had Jews adopting both this new appreciation of nature, and nationalism, which in the second half of the 19th century blossomed into the Zionist movement. Both found a temporal home in Tu Bishvat, on which day Zionist fundraisers and other events would take place and the Jewish press would publish poetry and prose on the beauty of nature.
But the actual seed that would blossom into our modern Tu Bishvat wasn’t planted in Palestine or in Eastern Europe. It was planted far away in a place where few or maybe no Jews lived - Nebraska.
In 1872, Julius Sterling Morton, editor of an important Nebraskan newspaper and an early environmentalist began an annual tree-planting celebration that he called Arbor Day. Over the next two decades, the new holiday spread across the United States, and then went overseas including to France, Japan and Australia.
Word of this new holiday reached Eastern European Jews in 1892, when the Hebrew newspaper Hamelitz, published in Saint Petersburg reported on the “new Yankee holiday” in a very positive light. A week later, the newspaper published another article saying that Arbor Day “was not new to us [Jews] and its name is ‘New Year’s of Trees,’ which was an important holiday for our ancestors and is still important to this day.”
The writer claimed that on Tu Bishvat in antiquity Jews planted trees, and called on his Jewish brethren to send money to the Jewish settlers in Palestine so they could plant trees too.
Perhaps it was these articles that caused Chaim Arye Zuta, a Jewish schoolteacher in Dnipropetrovsk (then in Russia, now in Ukraine) to take his pupils out and plant trees on Tu Bishvat at the turn of the 20th century.
In 1903, Zuta moved to Palestine and a year later in 1904, he published an article in another Jewish newspaper, Hahashkafa, calling on Jewish schools in Palestine to take their pupils out to nature on Tu Bishvat and plant trees. Apparently, no-one listened, until 1906, when the Association of Hebrew Teachers of Palestine held their annual convention. One of the members suggested that Tu B’Av (that is the 15th day of Av, another very minor Jewish holiday) be celebrated as “Nature Day” with teachers taking their pupils out on hikes. But Zuta energetically advocated that Tu Bishvat was a far better day for this and that tree-planting should take place in addition to hikes.
His colleagues were persuaded and on Tu Bishvat 1907, the first Tu Bishvat planting event took place at the Mikve Israel Agricultural School outside of Jaffa.
The next year, in 1908, another Tu Bishvat planting event took place in Jaffa, and then again in 1910 in the new Jewish city - Tel Aviv (then called Akhuzat Bait). In 1913, after Zuta was appointed principal of a Jerusalem school, he organized a mass planting event, with the participation of most Jewish schools in Jerusalem, with 1,500 pupils reportedly taking part.
After World War I and during the British Mandate, the practice spread to the rest of the Jewish schools in Palestine, and once Israel was established in 1948, Tu Bishvat became an official holiday, on which schoolchildren are taken out to nature to plant trees. However, the scope of this endeavor has diminished significantly since it was found that children aren’t the best tree planters and that forestation is better left to professionals.