JERUSALEM, Israel -- Tu B'Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, begins at sundown on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, or Friday, Jan. 25, at sundown on the Gregorian calendar.
It's a festive holiday that connects the Jewish people with their land and its abundance.
Israelis traditionally celebrate Tu B'Shvat by planting saplings and eating lots of fresh fruit and nuts. Some families hold a special holiday meal, much like the Passover Seder. Teachers often take their students on a tree-planting outing.
The Bible instructs the nation of Israel not to eat a tree's fruit for the first three years. The fourth year's harvest belongs to God and from the fifth year on, its fruit may be enjoyed by everyone. The 15th of Shvat marks the tree's birthday regardless of what month it was planted.
When you come into the land and have planted all kinds of trees for food, then you shall count their fruit as uncircumcised. Three years it shall be as uncircumcised to you. It shall not be eaten. But in the fourth year, all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to the Lord. And in the fifth year you may eat its fruit, that it may yield to you its increase: I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19:23-25)
In Temple times, the Israelites brought their first fruits to Jerusalem as an offering to the Lord.
The Ottoman Turks, who occupied Israel from 1517 to 1917, levied taxes on trees. Forests were systematically leveled and the land denuded from the Golan Heights in the north to the Negev Desert in the south.
When Jews began resettling the land after nearly 2,000 years in exile, the reforesting of barren wasteland began in earnest. Without the forests, soil erosion had transformed the once beautiful landscape into sprawling desert and swampland.
During his historic visit in 1867, Mark Twain described the landscape as a "silent, mournful expanse."
"[Israel is a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given over wholly to weeds -- a silent, mournful expanse," Twain wrote. "We hardly saw a tree anywhere."
Over the next 145 years, the desolation Twain saw changed dramatically and it continues today.
A key player in the reclaiming of the land is Keren Kayemet l'Yisrael (KKL), also called the Jewish National Fund. Since its founding in 1901, KKL has called on people worldwide to mark special occasions and honor family and friends by planting trees in Israel -- from one sapling to a whole forest!
Sadly, the past several years have seen a growing number of forest fires around Jerusalem and in the north.
Police have often suspected arson by Palestinian Arabs, numbers of whom were caught and confessed to nationalistically motived arson.
In June 2012, there were some 300 arson attempts around Jerusalem in one month. In August of that year, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich called the blazes "spontaneous terror acts."
In 2010, police suspected arson in a wave of forest fires that took place at the same time Israel was fighting a massive forest fire in the north.
The Israeli response to the arsonists has been to plant new trees on Tu B'Shvat and throughout the year.