The verse, “When you have come into the land and have planted…” (Lev. 19:23) turned into a commandment, “You shall plant!” Thanks to the Keren Kayemet L’Yisra’el, the JNF, planting trees in Israel has become a way for every Jew anywhere to make a personal contribution towards the upbuilding of the land, and every time a tree is attacked and destroyed, another is immediately planted in its place.
Originally 15 Sh’vat was a pragmatic date in the calendar, distinguishing between the produce of one year and the next for the purpose of fixing tithes and taxes. It lacked colourful ceremony and emotional associations. It was not yet a yom-tov. It was not until the Middle Ages that the day became richly adorned with poems and prayers.
It was championed by the mystics of Tz’fat, but throughout the Jewish world, in Ashkenazi as well as Sephardi communities, it became a festival when fruits were eaten (Rabbi Chayyim Vital proudly ate 30 kinds of fruit; others chose only 15). The fruit was regarded by the kabbalists as a form of atonement for Adam’s sin; the Chassidim emphasised the day as a means of remembering the holy land amidst the far-flung dispersion. In eastern Europe the festivities lit up the gloom of a northern hemisphere winter.
The thought of trees gave rise to many comments and teachings. Why, the question was asked, was Israel compared to a vine? Because Israel is like a vine which, though plucked up from one place, can flourish in another (Ex. R. 44:1). Why is Israel like an olive tree? Because the olive does not lose its leaves in either summer or winter, so Israel is never abandoned in this world or the World to Come (Men. 53b).
Why is Torah like a tree? Because just as a small tree can set a bigger tree on fire, so a student can sharpen the mind of his teacher (Ta’an. 7a). Why is a Jew like a tree branch? Because as long as a branch is attached to the tree, it can regain its strength; and as long as a Jew is still part of the community, however tenuous the link, his Jewishness can flourish again (the Rabbi of Kobrin).
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, “Every shepherd has his own melody according to the grasses and pastures where he tends his flock. Every blade of grass has its melody and from these the shepherd derives his song. If only I could be worthy to hear the songs and praises that every blade of grass pours forth in its beauty and innocence!”