‘One day Honi Hameagel, a righteous miracle worker, saw an old man planting a carob tree. Knowing that a carob tree took 70 years to bear fruit, and that therefore the old man would not live to see the results of his labor, he asked why he was planting a tree whose fruits he would never enjoy. ‘Carob trees were here when I was born, planted by my father and his father,’ answered the old man. ‘Now I plant trees for the enjoyment of my children and their children’s children.’” (Talmud Ta’anit 23a)
Although trees offer desperately needed shade, and add that extra dash of beauty to our lives, we rarely take the time to admire their barks, their leaves, their towering heights.
Yet trees are the oldest forms of life, and, aesthetically pleasing, they are ecologically essential.
If trees could talk, they would be able to tell us wonderful stories about our history, our nation, and the lives of those who came before us.
Here are just a few:
Cedars outside the Jewish Agency building, Jerusalem, corner of King George and Keren Kayemet Streets
Fourteen meters tall, the three Himalayan cedar trees in front of the National Institutions complex on King George Street were planted in 1931. And although they are “only” 83 years old, they have witnessed more than their share of history – for the three major pre-State organizations have had their headquarters here since the early 1930s.
Shaped like a horseshoe, and constructed in modified Bauhaus style, the building on the left as you face the courtyard houses Keren HaYesod (United Israel Appeal); the Jewish Agency is in the middle, and the wing on the right holds offices of the Jewish National Fund.
The lovely cedar trees witnessed all kinds of historical event, for this is where Israel’s Knesset held its first half a dozen sessions, and it was here that Dr. Chaim Weizmann was sworn in as the new country’s first president. And, of course, the trees overlook a large courtyard that was the scene of many a festival and demonstration. When the United Nations decided to partition Palestine on November 29, 1947, Golda Meyerson (Meir) stood on a balcony and spoke to the large, excited crowd down below.
Oak and olive at Kibbutz Tzuba – Off Route 395 about 15 minutes west of Jerusalem
When a tree becomes old and hollow, there isn’t enough original wood left to allow testing for age. That’s what happened with two elderly specimens at Kibbutz Tzuba, both of them estimated to be over 500 years old. Indeed, the gnarled ancient olive tree is so hollow that if you are agile enough you can climb inside — and the oak is simply stunning.
The trees’ long survival is probably due to the fact that Muslims once buried their dead nearby. In fact, it is thought that long ago, bodies were purified in the shade of the ancient olive.
Jujube at Ein Hatzeva, off Highway 90 about 150 kilometers north of Eilat
History aficionados and biblical archeology buffs will enjoy Ein Hatzeva, which features amazing excavations as well as a unique and spectacular tree.
Overlooking a crucial crossroads leading south, west and northeast, Ein Hatzeva has housed a variety of administrative centers and fortresses over the millennia. The latest was a military outpost set up at the establishment of the state; the earliest dates back to the time of King Solomon. Many a caravan stopped here to rest over the millennia, for Ein Hatzeva’s abundant spring and strong citadels offered water as well as protection from local gangs.
Although the site contains remains of several Israelite fortresses, and a massive Solomonic gate, the majority of ruins on view at Ein Hatzeva today are from the Roman era. It was part of the Roman limes (pronounced “lee-mez”), a line of frontier fortifications from the third century with a fort that measured 46 meters by 46 meters.
An enormous jujube tree, the oldest of its kind in the country, stands near the ruins. For well over a thousand years this jujube tree was nourished by Ein Hatzeva’s spring, but modern agricultural development in the region dried up its water. Today the tree is irrigated by the Jewish National Fund to ensure its survival.
Cypress trees at monuments in Hulda Forest, on Route 411, 10 kilometers southeast of Rehovot
It doesn’t blossom in spring and it doesn’t bear nutritious fruit. Yet the Mediterranean cypress, tall, straight and regal, is one of my favorite trees. Long ago, its wood was used for building the Temple, ships, and musical instruments. Locals believe potions and ointments made from the fruit of the Mediterranean cypress can treat diabetes, strengthen the immune system, heal gum infections and fungus, and alleviate toothaches.
You can find dark-green, Mediterranean cypress trees on any Israeli outing. Remnants of wild cypress have been found here and there, but the rest were planted by the Jewish National Fund in forests, parks and at memorial sites.
One of the most touching is located inside Hulda Forest, the JNF’s very first woodlands, where two stunning monuments are separated by a long path lined with magnificent Washingtonian palms. At one end stands a work sculpted by famous artist Batya Lichansky; it stands over the grave of Ephraim Chisik, killed defending Hulda in 1929. At the other, an entirely different but no less striking monument is dedicated to young Lieutenant Tal Tzemach, born at Kibbutz Hulda. Tal began his army service in an elite unit and went on to become an officer. He was killed by terrorists in the Jordan Valley 11 years ago, at the age of 21. The simple, very moving memorial features falling white stones, a stone bench, gardens, and tall, ram-rod straight Cypress trees.
Several Mediterranean cultures identify the cypress with the afterlife, prompted by its evergreen quality and the fact that it is roughly shaped like a candle, a symbol of the soul in both Judaism and Islam. It is commonly planted at cemeteries of both faiths throughout Israel – including the military cemetery at Mount Herzl.
Tavor oak at the Halafta Family Tombs, Halafta Junction on Route 85
Back in the early 16th century, Italian rabbi Moshe Basola toured the Holy Land. While traveling through the Galilee, he made a stop at the tomb of Rabbi Yosef Abba Halafta – a site which, he wrote home, stood under a large oak tree. The massive 600-year-old Tavor oak towering over the tomb today is almost certainly that very same tree, for it is believed to be at least 600 years old.
The tree is 18 meters high, and so wide that it would take three people to surround it. Take a seat on a bench below the tree as you pay homage to Rabbi Halafta.
A 2nd-century scholar who taught his students Mishna, he lived during scary times: The Romans who ruled the Land of Israel had a prohibition against the study of Torah and the ordination of new teachers. Famous for his declaration that the shchina (the spirit of God) is present when ten people are engaged in Torah study, Halafta managed to stay under the Roman radar.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.