Herzl's Tree

A well-known story that weaves together Tu Bishvat, tree-planting and the rebuilding of Israel

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Theodor Herzl was the founder of modern Zionism. While it has the appearance of a legend, Herzl himself recorded the fact that he planted a cypress tree on his visit to Motza, located outside Jerusalem (“Jerusalem Visit,” Sefer HaYamim Shel Herzl, Nov. 1898). The author of this article states that this version of the tale  is based on “Herzl’s Cypress,” by Eliezer Shmuelit (Sefer HaMoadim 5, 446). Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through History (Jason Aronson).

Most everyone knows that the holiday of Tu Bishvat is associated with the planting of trees in Israel. Throughout the centuries, trees have been planted in Israel on Tu Bishvat as a celebration of the special qualities of the land, as well as its connection to the Jewish people. Prior to the scorching of the land by Roman legions following the Judean revolts over eighteen hundred years ago, Israel was adorned with lush forests and bountiful produce.

tu bishvatIn the latter half of the 19th century, when the Turks ruled the land, the first waves of Zionist immigrants began to arrive. Their objective was to develop the land and restore it to its former splendor. When Tu Bishvat arrived, they would gather together and mark the day with tree-planting ceremonies. Soon, clusters of young saplings were transformed into forests. Each forest that was planted brought the dream of a Jewish State a little closer--a dream that seemed distant while the land was under the harsh rule of the anti-Zionist Turks.

Just as every forest was precious, so too was each tree. The story of one particular tree symbolized the plight of Zionism in its earliest days and proved that adversity might be an obstacle but not a deterrence. No impediments would prevent the development of the land of Israel.

While visiting Israel in 1898, Theodor Herzl sought an audience with German Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was also in the Holy Land. After visiting the coastal settlements of Mikve Yisrael and Rishon LeTzion, Herzl traveled toward Jerusalem. As he passed through the Judean hills, he noticed its splendor as well as its barrenness due to neglect over the centuries. However, he noticed an island of green amidst the desolation. It was a small Jewish settlement, the only one in the area. The settlement, named Motza, possessed a population of 200 people and was located several miles west of Jerusalem. Its abundance of olive, date, and apricot trees, along with clusters of grapevines, gave it its fertile appearance.

Herzl and his entourage proceeded toward the village, where he was warmly received. As he rested in the shade, he gazed upon the land of Judea. The sun began to set and a variety of lights of brilliant colors reflected upon its hills. Captivated by the sight, he told members of his entourage that he wished to plant a tree at that location. Herzl ascended the hill and planted a young cypress tree. The tree grew rapidly. Six years later, it stood tall and statuesque signifying to the settlers the Jewish people's return to Zion.

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Larry Domnitch

Larry Domnitch is a freelance writer and Jewish educator. He has a master's degree in Jewish history from Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School.