In Jewish tradition, the tree is the symbol of life. The Torah is referred to as Etz Chaim—the Tree of Life. This month, we will celebrate the holiday of Tu Bishvat when trees play a starring role in our celebration. We can observe this holiday in a variety of ways, each of which center on trees, nature and the environment. This is our chance to be green and increase our devotion to being responsible caretakers of the earth.
The holiday of Tu Bishvat is celebrated on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. It is called Tu Bishvat simply because the Hebrew letters Tet and Vav, which spell the word Tu, add up to the number 15. Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numerical value. Basically the holiday is named for the date it falls on. On Tu Bishvat, we celebrate the New Year for trees. In fact, another name for the holiday is Rosh Hashanah L’Ilanot: the New Year for Trees. In the midst of our North American winter, we are reminded that in the Land of Israel it is the beginning of spring. The first tree to blossom in Israel is the almond tree, signifying the start of the new agricultural year. What a special thing that we are able to mark another new year, a year for trees, as a cause for joyous celebration. Tradition tells us that just as the fate of human beings is decided on Rosh Hashanah, the fate of the trees is decided on Rosh HaShanah L’Ilanot.
Over time, Tu Bishvat has become a holiday to commemorate our connection to the land of Israel. This could be a good time for interfaith couples to discuss what that means to you, and why you do or do not feel this connection. Many celebrate by having a seder for Tu Bishvat and eat foods that are indigenous to the land of Israel, such as dates, figs and almonds. Similar to a Passover seder, four glasses of wine are consumed, representing the four seasons.
Traditionally, children plant saplings and donate money to the Jewish National Fund, the agency responsible for planting trees in Israel. This is still a popular way to celebrate, but new themes have emerged as our environmental awareness as a society has increased. The ethical Jewish value of caring for the earth has become integrated with the universal value of what it means to do this. Whether you grew up in a Jewish home or not, couples and families can easily engage in this universal value together.
In the first book in the Torah, the Book of Genesis, we read that God brought Adam into the Garden of Eden to cultivate and guard the land. These verses suggest that our role is to be responsible guardians over the land. Later on in the Book of Deuteronomy, there is a verse that reads, “When in a war against a city, and the fighting goes on for a long time before capturing it, you must not destroy the trees…you may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.” (Deut. 20:19) This quote, “you must not destroy” or Bal Tashchit in Hebrew, has become the source for all things environmental and has grown into a major theme for the holiday of Tu Bishvat.
One of the many beautiful things about Judaism is that over time, various interpretations get woven into a larger tapestry of meaning, and allows for many levels of observance of a holiday, all of which add to this rich tapestry. Tu Bishvat, a holiday that has really no requirements for observance has evolved into a wonderful celebration that includes experiencing the fruits of the land of Israel, exercises in how we can become better guardians of our earth and prime opportunities to increase our environmental consciousness. Each Tu Bishvat, we are afforded the opportunity to deepen our commitment to what it means to take care of the earth.
Let’s use this holiday as an opportunity to play our part in fulfilling the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit and keep taking steps in preserving our earth and conserving our resources.