Rabbi Reuven Hammer
Once again we are approaching that time when children will be singing "Tu B'shevat has arrived – a holiday for trees!" and JNF tree plantings will take place throughout the land. This is the latest reincarnation of what began not as a holiday at all but simply as the date for determining counting of the number of years a tree has bourne fruit for purposes of tithing so that we know when it is permissible to use that fruit. As the rabbis explained, "If the fruit of a tree blossoms before the fifteenth of Shevat it is tithed for the outgoing year; if after the fifteenth of Shevat it is tithed for the incoming year" (Rosh Hashanah 15b).
The date is not found in the Torah but was determined by the Sages as recorded in Rosh Hashanah 1:1. where the day is called "The New Year of the Trees." The date was a matter of dispute between the schools of Shammai (first of Shevat) and Hillel (fifteenth of Shevat). The controversy was explained persuasively by the great Talmudic scholar Louis Ginzberg on the basis of determining when trees actually blossomed. Those in the more fertile areas belonging to the wealthy landowners who were followers of Shammai blossomed earlier, thus the first of the month was chosen by the School of Shammai, while trees in the less fertile ground worked by the poorer classes, followers of Hillel, did not blossom until the fifteenth. Tree planting had no part in it. The tree planting is really a Zionist invention, taking a traditional date and transforming it into something that had meaning and importance for a new time. And a good idea it was. Today, when we are becoming so environmentally conscious (or are we?) it is an even better idea.
Trees play an important and interesting role in our tradition. The protection of trees is specifically mentioned in the Torah even during warfare. In a famous passage in Deuteronomy concerning laying siege to a city, we are told,"…you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed…" (20:19-20).
Although the Torah does not give any explanation for this, the great second century teacher Rabbi Ishmael stated that God has pity on the tree and on its fruit (Sifre Deuteronomy 203). Rabbinic law understood this commandment in a general way and taught that we are forbidden to wantonly destroy anything that is good and useful, not only during a siege but at anytime – bal tashhit – "do not destroy" (see Maimonides, Laws of Kings, 6:10.).
This idea of not destroying - bal tashhit – is the true basis of Judaism's attitude toward nature and the world. We were not placed here to destroy the world by wanton disregard of the limited resources that we have. Rather, like Adam and Eve, we have the task of tilling and tending the earth that has been given into our charge. As the Lord said to Adam and Eve, "Fill the earth and master it" (Genesis 1:28) after which God gave into their care "every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit"(Genesis 1:29) and placed them in the Garden of Eden "to till it and tend it" (Genesis 2:15).
Trees are often used in Judaism as a symbol of the good human being. For example, "The righteous shall flourish as the palm tree, they thrive like a cedar in Lebanon…in old age they still produce fruit…" (Psalm 92:14-15). Psalm 1 describes the good person who does not follow the counsel of the wicked but delights "in the teaching of the Lord" as being "like a tree planted beside streams of water…whatever it produces thrives." The tree was chosen as a symbol because, unlike grass or even plants, it has permanence, is well rooted and productive for many years.
For similar reasons, the tree is also the symbol of wisdom. "It is a tree of life to those who grasp it and whoever hold on to it is happy" (Proverbs 3:18). The Sages identified wisdom with Torah and ordained that this verse be recited when the Torah is returned to the Ark after being read. Ironically the tree of life is one that, according to Genesis 2:22, Adam and Eve were not allowed to eat. Genesis mentions specifically that "the Lord God planted two trees in the Garden of Eden," the tree of life and the tree of good and evil. Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of good and evil and were banished from Eden lest they eat from the tree of life. Later the Torah itself is called the tree of life. Adam and Eve were prohibited from eating from that tree but we are supposed to be nourished from it – i.e. the Torah – all our days.
This "holiday for trees," is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the wonder of nature, our responsibility to preserve the earth and all that grows from it, as well as to prize those things that the tree symbolizes, goodness and righteousness and the worthy life that comes from devoting oneself to the Torah and its ways of peace.