In a few weeks, we will celebrate the Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat. More and more, Tu b’Shvat is being referred to as the Jewish Arbor Day, probably because environmentalism is politically correct and the “greener” religion can become in the modern world, the more politically correct it is.
What seems almost ironic is that when it comes to environmentalism, the modern politically correct world has not yet caught up to Judaism’s awareness of nature and its commandments to protect and guard creation. The Jewish obligation toward the environment is constant and not singled out for one day of celebration.
Arbor Day, which usually occurs in April, is a national holiday in the United States founded by J.S. Morgan in 1872. It’s traditionally celebrated with picnics, raising the flag, planting a tree, outdoor school bands and collecting paper for recycling. It’s a day to raise awareness of the trees.
Tu b’Shvat is a Jewish festival. It’s not a day to raise awareness of the trees, but to mark the date on which to count another year passing for the trees. This is why it’s sometimes referred to as the Birthday of the Trees.
We count these years because the Torah forbids us to take fruit during the first three years of the tree producing a harvest. For three years, we are to not intrude into its existence, but must respect this new growing creation and allow it to establish itself away from us. The fruit produced in the first three years is called orlah, and it’s not kosher for eating.
In many Jewish homes, this commandment has resulted in not cutting a child’s hair for the first three years of life, since our children are our fruit and we allow the new creation to establish itself with life and strength.
Once the tree has entered its fourth year, we are commanded to tithe the fruit and bring some of the tithing to Jerusalem and give some of it to the poor. Because there is no Temple today, tithing is affected, but the prohibition of eating orlah remains in place. We need Tu b’Shvat to give us a birthday for the trees, a reference point.
This reference point of counting and then tithing allows us to place ourselves in relation to the trees, to nature, to each other and to God. We may plant the tree, but ultimately it’s an independent creation and we’re barred from interfering while it establishes its life and its seed. Before we partake of its fruit, we must remember our connection to God and our obligation to each other. Only afterward are we permitted to benefit from the natural bounty.
As is true for any birthday, it can be a day for parties that comes and goes, or it can be a reference point on which we remind ourselves of our maturing relationships and priorities in connection with nature, our spirituality and our fellow human beings.
Our connection to the trees starts on the very day that we are created. We can’t resist eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and we’re barred from Eden, lest we also eat from the Tree of Life. But even exile from Eden doesn’t keep us from being drawn to the trees as we sing of the Torah: “She is a Tree of Life to those who hold her with strength.”
On Tu b’Shvat celebrate the trees by remembering the Jewishness of the day and our symbiotic Jewish relationship with trees. There’s time for Arbor Day – April is just around the corner.