Tu Bishvat is a festival whose time has come. Originally, it was simply a date for determining the age of trees and when their fruit could be eaten. In 16th century Safed the ritual of the Tu Bishvat seder developed as a mystical celebration of the land and its produce. After the establishment of the State of Israel it became a day for planting trees. In our time it has evolved again, into a day to raise awareness of the environment and the role of trees in particular. With ever growing awareness of the climate emergency its celebration has taken on a new importance and relevance.
The more we learn about trees, the more amazing we realise they are. They have a role as ‘the lungs of the earth’, soaking up carbon dioxide and giving out oxygen. Each tree shelters a complex ecosystem in its roots, trunk and branches. We are also becoming aware that trees form a unique network amongst themselves, with subtle ways of communicating with each other. They can be hundreds of years old, occasionally even millenia, giving us a sense of timelessness and awe.
The Book of Deuteronomy warns against needless destruction of trees, a principle that developed as bal taschit, the prohibition of needless destruction. It also tells us, ‘Ki haAdam etz hasadeh’ (Deut. 20:19). Literally, this means, ‘For the human is a tree of the field’. Some commentators, like the great 11th century Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi) interpret the phrase as a rhetorical question, ‘Are trees like humans, that they can run away from a siege?’ Others understand the verse as saying, ’Humans are like trees’. Rabbi Jacob ben Isaac Ashkenazi in the16th century put it beautifully: ‘[The Torah compares humans to trees] because, like humans, trees have the power to grow. And as humans have children, so trees bear fruit. And when a human is hurt, cries of pain are heard throughout the world, so when a tree is chopped down, its cries are heard throughout the world.’
However we interpret the verse, it is clear that human beings are profoundly dependent on trees. Without trees, we could not exist, and nor could the many other species who make their home amongst them. Yet, trees continue to be cut down at an alarming rate. Tu Bishvat is a reminder of how precious they are, how much we benefit them and how much we need them, for our own survival and for the survival of life on our planet. This Sunday night and Monday, as we celebrate the festival of Tu Bishvat, its urgent message needs to be heard more than ever.
Rabbi Dr. Margaret Jacobi
Birmingham Progressive Synagogue and Birmingham CCJ