Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber
Some have referred to Tu BiSh’vat as the Jewish Arbor Day, yet it is so much more. For those of us living in North America, Tu BiSh’vat arrives on the calendar when our environment is in the midst of winter. Whether we live in the frozen north or the rainy south, we are hunkered down with indoor activities. While we may be planning our spring planting and the ground is dormant, let us take some time to reflect on our relationship to trees, which provide us with both physical and spiritual sustenance.
Our relationship to the environment is visceral. The following verses from the second chapter of Genesis lay the foundation of our relationship with the earth.
Then God Eternal fashioned the man—dust from the soil—and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that the man became a living being. To the east, God Eternal planted a garden in Eden, setting the man there whom [God] had formed (Genesis 2:7-8).
We humans are created from the dust of the soil, and the connection between humanity and the soil is reflected linguistically. The Hebrew word for man, adam shares the root with the word for earth, adamah. Trees are our fellow creations.
In chapter one of Genesis, the creation of humanity is followed by the instruction to till and tend the land. We have responsibility for the land and plants. So much so that in the midst of the text outlining the basic rules of how we must treat one another to live in a civilized society, the Holiness Code, we find laws about how to live not only off of but also with trees:
When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden to you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Eternal; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased: I the Eternal am your God (Leviticus 19: 23-25).
Trees require time to mature, and this text acknowledges the growth cycle. Before we can use the fruit, it is set aside as an offering to God (in the fourth year) and only after that, may we use the fruit. “These laws establish an inherent relationship between God and us that is defined by our gratitude for the God-given ability to grow food; the Torah demands our respect both for the tree and for God who causes it to grow” (Steinberg, Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays, p. 79).
In the text above, the status of the trees is dependent upon the year since planting. The rabbis of the Mishnah wonder when the year started. The answer is outlined in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1:
There are four New Years. On the first of Nisan is the New Year for Kings and for festivals; on the first of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of animals—R. Eliezer and R Shimon say, On the first of Tishri—on the First of Tishri is the New Year for years, for Sabbatical Years, for Jubilee Years, for planting and for vegetables; and on the first of Sh’vat is the New Year for Trees, according to the view of the School of Shammai, but the School of Hillel say, On the fifteenth thereof.
In this mishnah, there are four distinct New Years on the calendar: for kings and festivals, tithing of animals, years and trees. In the case of the New Year for the trees, the ruling sided with the School of Hillel and determined that the New Year for the trees would be the fifteenth of the month of Sh’vat. They based the dating on the rainy season; by the fifteenth of Sh’vat, most of the season was behind them. Therefore, any growth on the trees would have occurred in the new year. The number fifteen in Hebrew is written –tu, thus the name Tu BiSh’vat.
These texts illuminate the respect accorded to trees in our rabbinic texts, behavior which reflects gratefulness towards both the creation and the Creator. We acknowledge this relationship spiritually as well. According to the tosefta on Mishnah B’rachot 6:7, we should acknowledge the Divine Presence in the world of nature through the recitation of b’rachot, blessings.
When one sees beautiful people or beautiful trees, one should say the blessing,
“Blessed be the One who has created beautiful creatures.”
In this example, we see an appreciation for the beauty of creation, whether or not the tree provides food. Beauty in the world and taking time to acknowledge it may not feed our bodies, but it feeds our souls. May you have the opportunity to experience and reflect on both kinds of sustenance and our unique relationship to the trees of the earth.
Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber is Adult Learning Specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism and coordinator of 10 Minutes of Torah.
Join us at a URJ North American Forum for three days of networking and learning! Visit urj.org/naforums for details.
Take your study of 10 Minutes of Torah to the next level. Sign up for Eilu V'Eilu. Each month, two scholars debate an issue and answer questions raised by you, the learner.