Tu Bishvat was a relatively late arrival – a rabbinic, not a biblical institution – on the Jewish scene. There were halachic reasons for celebrating it in Shvat because this was the changeover time for tithing fruit trees, but it might have been located in Tishrei, when early in the history of creation, God planted trees.
The first reference to the festival is in the Mishna Rosh Hashana, which reports that the new year for trees was on 15 Shvat according to Beit Hillel and 1 Shvat according to Beit Shammai. Little theology seems to have entered the debates, which were more concerned with distinguishing between the products of one year and those of the next. Some say that Beit Shammai reflected the view of those who dwelt in the valleys where the weather was warmer and the produce ripened earlier than in the hilly regions, whose inhabitants argued for a later date.
Trees play a central role in the Bible.
They are so important in the creation narrative that they are called “the trees of the Lord” (Psalm 104:16). At the same time, trees are a symbol of man (Deut 20:19).
It is easy to see them representing human characteristics, since they seemingly stand straight, have a backbone, arms, legs and a head of hair.
In pagan religions, trees are deities.
Canaanite “high places” have their sacred trees that are worshiped (often in orgies that cast morality to the winds), as opposed to Judaism, where the tree – however impressive – is no more than a symbol: it is not the tree that is worshiped, but its Maker. Even rational philosophies become emotional about trees. Cultures ancient and modern hang their hearts on trees, as Christians do with gifts on the Christmas tree.
In Jewish mysticism, the Kabbala places great importance on the tree of life and its sefirot, which stand for concepts such as wisdom, loving-kindness, splendor, eternity and kingship.
Human beings, who need symbols to suggest important things in life, can learn countless lessons from trees, which evoke so many ethical analogies. Trees give shelter, suggesting the human duty to protect one another. Trees give fruit, just as human beings should be productive and enrich their society. Trees give dignity and beauty, values that should adorn human character. Trees look up to heaven: so should we. No wonder there is a blessing we say upon seeing trees: Rabbi Yehuda ben Yehezkel said, “He who sees trees in blossom should say a benediction” (Talmud Brachot 43b).
WHAT A tragedy it is that in today’s topsy-turvy world there are groups and cults that cannot give thanks to the Creator for His wondrous physical and social world and instead spread hatred, fanaticism and destruction wherever they go.
It is not only the theology and ethics of the trees that we learn from Tu Bishvat, but the halachic principle of bal tash’hit, not destroying people or things. “Is the tree a man that you should attack it?” asks the Torah with dry humor (Deut. 20:19).
How many other peoples instituted a new year for trees to celebrate God’s gift of creation, His watchful eye over His world, and His command that its denizens should support and preserve it? Jews always observed the new year for trees even when, as in many parts of Europe, they had little contact with nature, so little opportunity to maintain a green belt. They took it for granted that the whole of Creation, physical and moral, spiritual as well as intellectual, had a high place in God’s thinking and was the jewel in His creative crown.
Since then, the ancient agricultural society that underlies Torah and rabbinic teaching has come alive again in modern Israel. In Israel we plant trees, a sign of our commitment to the future.
Like Honi the Circle Drawer in rabbinic times, we know that the trees we plant today will bring enjoyment and benefit to the generations of the future.
In Jewish teaching, nature matters, but man is higher than Nature. The world is made for man, not man for the world. Nature is given to man to enjoy and utilize (Gen. 1:28). God told Adam, “See how lovely and praiseworthy are My works: all are there for your sake” (Midrash to Ecclesiastes 7:13).
THOUGH NATURE preceded man in the order of Creation, it was fundamentally the arena for human action.
However, God warned, “Take care not to spoil or destroy My world.” Samson Raphael Hirsch says, “If you destroy, you lose your right to the things around you, and you sin against Me” (comment to Deut. 20:20; Horeb, ch. 56).
There are at least six principles regarding man and nature: • Man and nature should work in partnership, but – • If man’s greed or apathy imperil nature, nature must be protected.
• Conversely, if nature threatens man, man must be protected.
• If nature wreaks a tsunami, man must battle its ferocity. However – • If man and nature become enemies, man’s rights must be upheld.
• Reasonable human need has priority over nature.
None of this must be left to mere academic theory, irrelevant to our own existential concerns and limited to far-off questions, such as whether to cut down rain forests in South America.
For example, a letter in the haredi (ultra Orthodox) newspaper Hamodia some time ago argued that the environmentalists must not be allowed to oppose cell-phone towers on the Adirondack Northway in New York state on the grounds that the towers would spoil the landscape, since they would prevent fatal accidents by improving communications in time of emergency.
I have a personal reason for being concerned with this issue and its implications.
Some years ago I was involved in an episode in Australia in which a set of ethnic and religious groups charged me to put their case to the government authorities.
The problem arose out of a situation at suburban Sydney’s Rookwood Cemetery, which is probably the largest burial ground in the southern hemisphere.
Burials – including many for the Jewish community – had been taking place there for well over a century, but so far not all the massive cemetery space had been utilized. The utilization of hitherto undeveloped areas reserved for future burial purposes was being opposed by environmentalists on the basis that using the land for burials might threaten significant species of trees and other vegetation.
AS SPOKESPERSON for a religious/ethnic coalition, I argued that legitimate human need should come first, that nature was made for man, not man for nature. I said that normally the needs of nature are those of man, but if the two clashed, human need must prevail. I said that – whatever happened with the trees – the dead cannot be left lying in the street. The battle was bitterly fought.
I suspect that we would have done better to have quietly begun a program of “spot clearing” much earlier. In the end, my argument won only a qualified victory; the burial-rights campaign was left with only about 50% of the original area.
The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney.