Tu BiShevat: More Necessary than Ever! –
A message from Cantor Kate Judd
This month we observe Tu BiShevat – the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. This holiday started out small. In the Babylonian Talmud, Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:1, we read, There are four new years… the first of Shevat is the new year for trees according to the ruling of Beit Shammai; Beit Hillel, however, places it on the fifteenth of that month. As with most things, we follow Hillel. But what is a “new year for the trees?” We find a clue in Leviticus 19:23-25: When you come to the land and you plant any tree, you shall treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years it will be forbidden and not eaten. In the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified to praise the L-RD. In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit. Originally, Tu BiShevat was simply the date from which Jews calculated the age of a fruit tree, so that they could know when to begin tithing its fruit.
Sixteenth century kabbalists saw an opportunity, as they did with the Kabbalat Shabbat service, to make Tu BiShevat a mystical observance. Just as they drew on the psalms to create a Friday night welcome for the Sabbath Queen, they drew on the traditional Passover seder to write a mystical seder for Tu BiShevat. As Rabbi Yitzhak Buxbaum writes, “Throughout the centuries, Kabbalists have used the tree as a metaphor to understand God’s relationship to the spiritual and physical worlds. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his 18th century classic The Way of God, teaches that the higher spiritual realms are roots that ultimately manifest their influence through branches and leaves in the lower realms. […] the Kabbalists of Tzfat compiled a Tu BiShevat seder [which] involves enjoying the fruits of the tree, particularly those native to the Land of Israel, and discusses philosophical and Kabbalistic concepts associated with the day.”
In Israel, Tu BiShevat has long been observed as “Israeli Arbor Day.” On Tu BiShevat in 1890, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz took his students to plant trees in the agricultural colony of Zichron Yaakov. For over a century the Jewish National Fund has promoted the planting of trees on Tu BiShevat, and organizes large tree-planting events in Israeli forests on the holiday.
It’s unclear when exactly Tu BiShevat began to be celebrated, particularly in the United States, as “Jewish Earth Day.” Judaism has a long tradition of respect for God’s creation. Some have seen God’s instructions to Adam in Genesis to “mil-u et ha’aretz v’chivshuha” – “Fill the earth and master it” – as a template for the exploitation and destruction of our natural resources. However, as Rabbi David Seidenberg notes, “Judaism and especially the practices described in the Torah may be regarded as the expression of a fully indigenous and land or earth-centered tradition.” As the general population has become ever more conscious of the fragility of our Earth and the severity of our human impact upon it, so too Jews have become aware that tikkun olam (repair of the world) is not only a mystical teaching but a literal responsibility.
A haggadah for Tu BiShevat created by the Jewish organization Hazon puts it this way: “We are part of an interconnected, inter-dependent universal web of life. Universalizing this connection leads directly to the latest metamorphosis: Tu BiShevat as Jewish Earth Day. Building on the activism of the Zionists, the day has become a framework for Jews to focus their concern with environmental issues of potentially global import. From
Ecology we learn that trees in the Amazon basin are integral to our health and well-being, confirming the interdependence of all things.”
The 2009 Union for Reform Judaism Statement on Climate Change and Energy, a passionate document, can inspire us as we get ready for Tu BiShevat. “For more than forty years,” it states, “The Reform Movement has advocated in defense of our environment and all those species — from the smallest creatures to humankind itself — that rely on our shared natural habitat and resources for survival. Since […] 1965 […] we have spoken out for cleaner air, water, and land by decrying toxic waste, fighting pollution, and calling on our synagogues and congregants to make wise use of limited natural resources in our personal and communal lives. Jewish tradition emphasizes that human dominion over nature does not provide a license to abuse the environment; rather we are called to ‘till and tend’ God’s Earth (Genesis 2:15), and reminded in the Midrash that if we fail to do so, there will be nobody after us to repair our damage (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13). We are also repeatedly commanded to care for the poorest and most vulnerable among us; this means ensuring adequate access to basic resources and a healthy environment for all people, including marginalized communities at home and throughout the world.”
I hope you will join me is using this Tu BiShevat as an opportunity to renew our commitment to care for the world, especially in these times when it is subject to so many threats. Come join us for joyful singing and fruit-eating (Feb. 11 at the Shabbat service and Feb. 12 at Hebrew School). You can use that joy to refuel yourself for the important battles ahead.
For indeed, as Midrash Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) Rabbah says, “When God created the first human beings, God led them around all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at My works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”