Trees and Judaism

Trees and Judaism
Tu B’Shevat, the birthday of the trees, comes as winter is ending and spring is beginning. The land is busy again; new growth will soon bring fruits. The short, winter days will turn into days of longer lasting sunlight. It is the beginning of another year.

Tu B’Shevat is a holiday that has really sustained itself through time. Today it is often embraced as a holiday addressing ecology and environmental issues. We hold seders – a tradition begun in the mystical town of Tzfat in the 16th century. Some of these seders focus on our connection to Israel. Others focus on the tasting of the seven fruits of Israel – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Deuteronomy 8:7-8.

Beyond the celebrations and festivals, beyond the seders, we have the trees. Trees hold a powerful and prominent position in the Jewish tradition. From the Kabbalah, we have the tree as a symbol of life - Etz Chaim. The Etz Chaim is a diagram of the pathway to G-d. The various levels of the tree are the various ways in which G-d reveals Himself* to us. These levels are known as sefirot or enumerations.

On the third day of Creation, G-d placed trees in the world. Specifically, G-d created fruit trees that had seeds. On the sixth day, when mankind was created – we are, again, told about the trees. These were the trees in the Garden of Eden. “G-d made grow out of the ground every tree that is pleasant to look at and good to eat, (including) the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:9)

Adam and Eve were instructed not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Of course, they did and their consequence was banishment from the Garden of Eden. Their banishment protected them from eating from the Tree of Life, which would have caused them to live forever. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge expanded their awareness and their desires making them unable to live in the Garden of Eden as G-d had intended.

This story that begins the path of Judaism unfolding is familiar to most of us. The layers and depth found in this first story of the trees bring lessons and meaning that still speak to us today.

Trees are significant in the Jewish tradition – both symbolically and in the literal sense. There are many laws provided to us on how to care for and honor the trees. In the Book of Deuteronomy, we are told that when we attack a city, we must not destroy its trees. Known as Bal Taschit - this law tells us not to destroy and not to waste. Today we use this in Jewish efforts to encourage environmental awareness. Bal Taschit is the modern day “reduce, reuse, and recycle”.

Mankind is frequently compared to trees. When we are born, we become rooted in a family. From there, we grow and stretch. We shed our leaves and grow new ones. We reach toward G-d. We extend ourselves. We blossom – from a single seed – and become one of G-d’s stewards on Earth.

And, stories. We have so many stories about trees. Like the story about Honi, the circle maker, who came upon another man who was planting a carob tree. Honi was shocked to see that this man taking the time to plant a carob tree because, after all, they take seventy years to grow. This man, surely, would not see the results of his labor. Honi could not help but ask the man why he was planting the tree. The man responded that he was planting the carob tree as his grandparents and parents had done for future generations. The story goes on, but you get the gist of it.

Trees are an important symbol of life. Trees run rampant through Jewish Law, folktales, and mysticism. They provide meaning, sustenance, and inspiration. Tu B’Shevat is a time to honor the trees, to celebrate their fruitfulness, and to embrace the their lessons.

* The use of the gender-specific word “himself” is used for simplicities sake

Text from The Living Torah by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

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