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‘Are trees of the field human?’

Deuteronomy 20:19

On 31 January, Jews will celebrate the minor festival of Tu BiShvat: the New Year for Trees. Those who have not encountered Tu BiShvat before may find the concept of a new year for trees a rather odd one. Why should we celebrate a new year for trees?

The primary purpose of Tu BiShvat is as a marker to determine the age of fruit trees. One must know the age of the trees to observe various biblical laws: when one can and cannot eat the fruit, and when to offer it as a tithe. But Tu BiShvat, particularly in the modern age, is more than merely a calendrical accounting tool. It is an opportunity to reflect on our relationship to trees and our environment.

The language of the Hebrew Bible is rooted in rich agricultural imagery. The Torah is ‘a tree of life for those who cling to it’.[1] Ezekiel compares the trees of the field to the nations of the earth.[2] The prophets often tell of trees: a thornbush is anointed king, the cedars of Lebanon brought low, Israel is a ravaged vine. The world of the Bible is intertwined with the natural world.

There are now half as many trees in the world as there were before the last ice age. The seas are rising, and the ice is shrinking. At our current rate of destruction, tropical rainforests will vanish from Indonesia in 10 years, and from Papua New Guinea in 15 years. Human civilisation is causing irreparable damage to the environment.

‘Are trees of the field human?’ asks the Torah. In the original Hebrew, this verse from Deuteronomy is ambiguous. Instead of asking ‘are trees of the field human’, it could be making a statement: ‘for man is a tree of the field’. Like trees, we suffer from hunger and thirst. Like trees, we are born and we die. Trees sustain us with air to breathe and fruit to eat.

The sixteenth-century Rabbi Jacob ben Isaac said, ‘As 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.’ We have a duty of care to trees, and to the environment. This Tu BiShvat, let us reflect on our relationship with the trees of the field, and let us commit to a more positive relationship between ourselves and the natural world, one in which each sustains the other, and the world is not destroyed.

Jessica Spencer

Programme Manager

 

[1] Proverbs 3:18

[2] Ezekiel 17:22-4