A Religion That Plants Trees Every Year – OpEd


Prioritizing gardening over the Messiah coming may seem bizarre, but that is precisely what the Rabbis say. The first century Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai taught: “If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone says to you that the Messiah has come, stay and finish the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 31b)

All American states have an official Arbor Day, observed usually in a month with the best climatological conditions for encouraging the planting and care of trees. 

Since the Land of Israel has a very mild winter, only five American southern states observe Arbor Day at about the same time of the year as do the Jewish people, who have been observing an Arbor Day for over 2,000 years: Florida and Louisiana (in January); and Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi (in February)

The Jewish Arbor Day is called Tu B’shvat. Tu B’shevat is the beginning of the new year for trees. On this day many Jews both men and women, have the custom to eat fruits in honor of the new year for trees.

Where did the custom come from to make a special blessing on Tu B’shevat. The answer could be based on the Talmud Yerushalmi which says one should eat new fruits at least once a year in order to make this special blessing and it is done on Tu B’shevat because it is the new year for trees.

The Midrash says that the tree of life had five hundred thousand kinds of fruit, each differing in taste. The appearance of one fruit is not like the appearance of the other, and the fragrance of one fruit is not like the fragrance of the other. Clouds of glory hover above the tree of life, and from the four directions winds blow on it, so that its fragrance is wafted from world’s end to world’s end.” (Yalkut Bereishit 2) This teaches Jews about the importance of biological diversity. 

Tu b’Shevat does not become a holiday celebration of any sort, other than planting saplings, until about 500 years ago, when the Kabbalists in Safed developed the Tu b’Shevat seder modeled on the Passover seder. The Tu b’Shevat seder, like the Passover seder, has four glasses of wine, each connected to a season of nature, as well as one of the “four worlds” of the Kabbalistic universe. Like Passover, at a Tu b’Shevat seder we eat special foods, especially those from the Land of Israel.

The holiday became a celebration of our connection to the land of Israel and her fruits. The JNF increased this connection by collecting money for planting trees to reforest the land of Israel (over 240,000,000 trees planted so far).

Environmentally aware Jews choose this day as a day to increase our awareness and care for the environment. Doing so has clear roots in the Torah. While some would say that the commandment in Genesis chapter 1, that we are to subdue the world, implies we can do as we please, this commandment is limited by another – not to destroy. A verse in Deuteronomy tells us even during war, we are not to destroy fruit bearing trees. Rambam extends this prohibition to any form of gratuitous destruction.

Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century guide for education about all the Torah’s mitsvot, explains the spiritual goals of taking care of the environment as follows. “The purpose of this mitzvah (bal tashchit) is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we avoid all that is evil and destructive. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah.”  

Proverbs 11:30 teaches us that doing good deeds for others and for God is the way to save our lives from a perverse and negative tongue filled with criticism of others and ourselves. “The fruit of the righteous is a Tree of Life, and the one who is wise saves lives.” 

Proverbs 3:18 tells us that by making a strong commitment to following God’s teachings we will live a life of goodness and love. “She (wisdom) is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her tight will be happy”

A Tu Bishvat Seder; a ritual celebrated by eating 15 kinds of nuts and fruits and drinking four different kinds of wine (some rabbis considered the grapevine a short tree because it can live for many decades) can be conducted on Tu Bishvat eve or day (February 6, 2023 this year), recounting the importance of trees and fruits from the land of Israel and the personal spiritual significance of Tu Bishvat.

Also we should remember on Tu Bishvat that for the two years that Anne Frank remained hidden in the “secret annex” of her father’s workplace, a lone attic window offered her the only glimpse of the outside world. She often took comfort in the beauty of the white horse chestnut tree in the courtyard and longed for the freedom of the birds perched on its branches. Anne wrote: 

“The two of us [Peter van Pels and Anne Frank] looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak,” from her diary on February 23, 1944.

Let us learn from this 15 year old Jewish girl who lived and died during WW2 and wrote in her diary: “It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. 

I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the day will come when I shall be able to carry them out.” ~Anne Frank”

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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