Renewing our Commitment to the Preservation of our Environment

By Debbie Goodman, Director of Jewish Life and Learning

Tu Bishvat, (the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat), is known as the Jewish new year for the trees. When the Temple was standing in Jerusalem this day was declared as the birthday for all trees for the purpose of picking and tithing fruit.

Today we celebrate Tu Bishvat by eating various fruits, especially those that are products of the Land of Israel like dates, figs, olives and grapes. The celebration of Tu Bishvat in the Jewish world has historically served to strengthen connections to the Land of Israel as the holiday is based on the agricultural cycle in Israel. Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the observance of Tu Bishvat has taken on even greater meaning. It is also customary, especially in Israel, to plant trees and seeds on Tu Bishvat.

One of the customs of Tu Bishvat is that of participating in a Tu Bishvat Seder, a ceremony that originated in the 16th century among mystics in the town of Safed in Israel. During the 16th century, Safed became the center of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). Kabbalists developed new meanings and rituals for celebrating and rejoicing in the birthday of the trees. Families would gather around tables that were set with a white cloth, flowers, and fruits as well as red and white wines. This feast was modeled, to a degree, on the Pesach Seder. These ceremonies included readings from the Torah, Talmud and the Zohar (a key kabbalistic text), and special blessings to be said over fruits and flowering and fruit-bearing trees. The Seder also included four cups of wine shading from white to red to symbolize the changing seasons. There are many variations of Tu Bishvat Seder ceremonies today and most are based on the ones created in the 16th century.

In more recent years, Jewish individuals and environmental groups have embraced the holiday as an opportunity for education and advocacy, and this has also become a time to renew our commitment to the preservation of our environment. This is a major focus of Tu Bishvat celebrations and observances today. The following reading speaks to some of the fundamental Jewish values related to the environment layered with a contemporary voice:

“God created the universe. This is the most fundamental concept of Judaism…The environmental implications are that humans must realize that they do not have unrestricted freedom to misuse Creation, as it does not belong to them…We must always consider our use of Creation with a view to the larger good in both time (responsibility to future generations) and space (others on this world.)”

From Rabbi Lawrence Troster, “Ten Jewish Teachings on Judaism and Environmentalism,” Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life

Tu Bishvat has become more widely known and celebrated in the US in recent years as the connection with environmental issues has become more prominent.

There are a wealth of excellent materials on Tu Bishvat. Some of these resources are listed below:

Celebrating the Trees in Light of November’s Fires

By Noam Grinfeld, Israeli Shlichah

For thousands of years, Jews have marked Tu B’Shvat as the New Year of the Tree. Ancient Jewish sages saw that in Israel, this was when trees started to come out of their winter dormancy. This holiday marks the awakening of life in the trees when buds begin to develop and new leaves grow.

Last November, Israel suffered from a devastating wave of fires around the country, caused by arson. The firefighters fought over 1,700 fires over the course of fives days. Dozens of people were hurt, but luckily no one was killed. Over 2,700 acres of forests went up in flames, alongside hundreds of homes, 560 of them completely destroyed. The fires also damaged public infrastructure, cities and moshavim, local businesses, and Israel’s beautiful landscape.

Since 1901, JNF (Jewish National Fund) has planted over 240 million trees in Israel, creating new forests and groves, and draining the swamps (using special trees imported from Australia). From a barren desert, Israel has grown to be a beautiful green heaven for animals and hikers alike. Those forests were the innocent victims of the ugly, irreconcilable conflict over the land of Israel–but they are part of the land of Israel, aren’t they?

In Israel, Tu B’Shvat is a good time to connect with the land and nature. Some Tu B’Shvat traditions include planting new trees, hiking, eating dried fruit, participating in recycling projects and finding new ways to preserve our trees. This year, more than ever, children and parents will participate in hundreds of activities to celebrate our much-appreciated trees.

It will take decades to recover from the damages of the fires. JNF has already raised two million dollars for the effort, and much more is needed. But like always, since the beginning of the State of Israel – the trees, and us, will endure and regrow. This year, half a million trees will be planted, and then more next year, and more the year after that. Our trees are strong and determined, and will not be broken by burning hatred and violence.

You can also help make Israel greener. Plant a tree from your desk by going on the JNF tree center website right here.