Tradition Today: Saving the planet

Tu Bishvat is a wonderful time for celebrating both something particular to us as Jews and something universal to us as human beings.

KKL_050212_A (photo credit: KKL-JNF)
(photo credit: KKL-JNF)
Before the founding of the state, we used to be treated in Hebrew school every Tu Bishvat to a piece of bokser – carob – from Palestine. It was hard, dry and inedible, tasting something like cardboard. Fortunately the dry bokser did not turn me off Zionism, though it came close. It was not until many years later in Israel that I tasted the fruit right off the tree – soft, chewable and actually quite good.
In the days of the Mishna, Tu Bishvat was little more than a calendar date marking the official time for separating the tithes of tree fruits. There was even a dispute between the schools of Hillel and Shamai concerning when that date was. Shamai used the first of the Hebrew month of Shvat, while Hillel used the 15th – “tu” in Hebrew (Rosh Hashana 1:1). Prof. Louis Ginsberg has explained the difference as stemming from the fact that the wealthier Shamaites owned land in a part of the country where the trees blossomed earlier than those in the stony, hilly areas where the poorer Hillelites lived and farmed.
Later, the holiday became a celebration of the products of the land and a time to eat the fruits that are symbolic of Israel.
For people living outside of the country, this was one way of recalling the land and feeling a connection to it. Kabbalists even developed an entire Seder for Tu Bishvat, which included eating 15 different fruits.
Once Jews returned to the land, the idea of planting trees on Tu Bishvat in what was practically a denuded country arose and, through the efforts of Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel-Jewish National Fund, has become a primary way of celebrating that day ever since.
MORE RECENTLY, environmentally oriented groups have latched on to Tu Bishvat as a time to emphasize the importance of caring for the land and the environment in general.
Although this is far from the original meaning of the day, it fits well with the teachings of our tradition.
Judaism has long had a positive attitude toward the environment.
It begins with God giving human beings the task of filling and mastering the good earth that He has created (Genesis 1:28), then placing Adam in Eden “to till it and tend to it” (Gen. 2:15). It continues with such laws as shmita, the sabbatical year, when the soil is left untilled: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it...” (Exodus 23:10-11). This gives the soil an opportunity to replenish itself, while reminding us that we are not really owners of the earth, but sojourners, enjoined to care for it and pass it on to other generations undamaged.
The commandment not to harm trees when attacking a city in a time of war is also a lesson in preventing harm to the environment.
As the verse says, “When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down” (Deuteronomy 20:19).
This makes the wanton destruction of Palestinians’ olive trees a double transgression, forbidden no matter what your politics.
Tu Bishvat, then, is a wonderful time for celebrating both something particular to us as Jews and something universal to us as human beings. We specifically emphasize our attachment to the Land of Israel, its soil, its trees, its fruits. We then celebrate the good earth that is God’s gift to all humanity, the beautiful planet that makes life possible. We emphasize our task of tilling it and tending to it, taking from it what we need in order to live, but also ensuring that it is not misused and destroyed by our greed and our carelessness. It is the most priceless treasure we have to pass on to the generations that follow.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).