Trees are pivotal to our earth and on Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for Trees, we recall the strong connection between the environmental movement, the Jewish tradition and our love of trees. As Rabbi Eliezer stated, “When a fruit bearing tree is cut down, the voice cries out from one end of the world to the other.”
Tu B’Shevat, which is otherwise known as the New Year for Trees, is an ancient Jewish holiday that is held in Shevat because according to the Talmud, “most of the rains have already fallen and the resin has come up in the trees, and as a result, fruit has begun to form.” Tu B’Shevat is widely celebrated by the Jewish environmental movement, who view this winter holiday as an indicator of their ancestors concern for the earth. There are numerous examples illustrating the connection between trees, the Jewish tradition and environmentally friendly values.
For example, in Midrash Kohelet Raba 7:28, it is written: “When G-d created the first man, He took him and showed him all of the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world—for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.” This passage corresponds to the environmental value that humans being are stewards for the earth because everything was created in the image of G-d. We as human beings are supposed to care for the plants, animals and of course the trees. It is part of our responsibility for we are living on this planet that G-d entrusted to us.
This value is deeply engrained in the Jewish faith and the daily lives of the Jewish people reflect this. As the Babylonian Talmud related, a man named Honi was walking along and saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked the man: “How many years does it take to bear fruit?” The man replied that it took 70 years. Honi asked him, “Do you really believe that you will be alive for another 70 years?” He answered: “I found this world provided with carob trees and as my ancestors planted them for me, so I plant them for my descendants.”
To date in the Land of Israel, we continue to plant trees whose fruit we may not get to eat from in our lifetime. However, just as the early Zionists cleared out the swamps and planted beautiful greenery that we enjoy today within our country, every Tu B’Shevat, we Jews continue to plant trees that future descendants of Jews will enjoy in the Land of Israel because we want our country to be a beautiful and prosperous place to live.
For this reason, whenever Jews wage war, they are forbidden from destroying fruit trees because other people besides the enemy can benefit from its fruit. Rashi taught that since the tree is not an enemy, we don’t have the right to destroy it or make it suffer. As Rabbi Eliezer stated, “When a fruit bearing tree is cut down, the voice cries out from one end of the world to the other.” Rabbeinu Bachya took it a step further, arguing that trees are so important to people that they should be compared to people, which means that destroying trees destroys human life because it destroys the lives of people that depend upon them.
Jewish teachings about trees don’t only apply to biblical Israel but to our world today in general. Today, we are overusing trees in order to make furniture, paper, homes, paper bags in grocery stores, receipts and a variety of other things. This adversely affects the rainforests, the global climate and human civilization itself. Obtaining Jewish wisdom about the importance of trees to our environment can help us to be more cognizant about how we utilize our resources and in doing this, on this Tu B’Shevat, we can work to improve our environment to make this world better for all.