The holiday of Tu b’Shvat is like the ugly duckling that grew into a swan.” Thank you Aaron Howard for putting it so succinctly. If ever there was a Jewish holiday that was way ahead of its time, it must be this one. Aaron Howard continues, “Never mentioned in Tanach, Tu b’Shvat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat corresponding to Feb. 4 this year) was once simply the yearly date for reckoning the age of trees. In modern times, the holiday has become a Jewish Arbour Day marked by the planting of trees and a Jewish environmental holiday marked by wrestling with issues like global warming and sustainable living.”
Here’s how you can learn more about Tu b’Shvat and its relevance to the world around us:
• Study what Jewish tradition has to say about the environment. The day has religious significance because the Torah has certain prohibitions about eating the fruit of young trees. “When you come to the [Promised] Land and plant any tree bearing edible [fruit], you must avoid its fruit as a forbidden growth. For three years, [the fruit] shall be a forbidden growth, and it may not be eaten.” (Leviticus, 19:23-25) The cutoff point for measuring the age of a tree is Tu b’Shvat.
In Deuteronomy, 20:19, we are told that when an army lays siege to a city, it must not destroy its fruit-bearing trees. Eilon Schwartz of Jerusalem’s Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership analyzes this commandment against wanton destruction of trees and explains how humans are both responsible for – and dependent on – trees.
Richard Schwartz quotes several rulings from the Talmud that deal with what he calls the Sacred Environment, including this midrash, which he suggests has become all too relevant: “In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first person, He showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: ‘See My works, how fine they are. Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you.’”
Patterned along a traditional page of Talmud, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has created the Tu b’Shvat Living Talmud with both classic and contemporary quotes.
• Join a Jewish environmental organization. The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) “deepens and broadens the Jewish community’s commitment to stewardship and protection of the Earth through outreach, activism and Jewish learning… COEJL seeks to extend such traditions as social action and gemilut chasadim (performing deeds of loving kindness) to environmental action and advocacy.” It has assembled an impressive list of over two dozen partners from the Orthodox Union to the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
• Plant a tree in Israel (virtually). Normally, you could join a Jewish National Fund tree planting ceremony or have someone plant a tree on your behalf right away. But we are currently in a shmittah year which carries with it a series of agricultural restrictions. So the JNF has set up a special site where you can contribute and even designate where your tree will be planted when the shmittah year concludes this Rosh Hashanah.
Whatever the year, you can certainly appreciate the Tree Planter’s Prayer, which was composed by Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the first Sephardi chief rabbi of the State of Israel. “As for these saplings that we plant before You today, deepen their roots and increase their magnificence that they may blossom and be accepted among the other trees of Israel for blessing and for beauty. Strengthen the hands of all our brethren who labour in the work of the holy soil and who cause the wilderness to bloom.”
• Enjoy a Tu b’Shvat seder. Like that other holiday with the famous seder, Tu b’Shvat has its own lesser-known seder. (More on that next time)
• Share a memory. For Tova Birnbaum Tu b’Shvat evokes simpler times. “When I was growing up, Tu b’Shvat was a day I looked forward to, if for no other reason than that it meant snack bags of exotic fruits like carob and figs… As I got older, those school-issued bags of fruit disappeared, taking my observance of Tu b’Shvat with them. … It’s a strange irony that a day that celebrates nature and the lovely world God created should be so prominent in childhood and so overlooked in our older years… So I think it’s time for the adults to take back Tu b’Shvat.”
Tova is in good company.