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Special Holiday Blog Entry for Tu B'Shvat

The Jewish religion has a lot of holidays. Big holidays, minor holidays, happy, sad, long, and short holidays, and holidays that nobody really gets (what is Shemini Atzeret, anyways?). We even have four separate New Year holidays – one for the calendar new year, as well as one for animals, one for vegetables, and one for trees. Many holidays have multiple associations, and almost all can be tied to an agricultural, ecological, or other nature-based tradition. Pesach connects us to the ancient barley harvest. Channukah celebrates light near the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year. And so on. Yet it is Tu B'Shvat, the new year for trees, that has become the flagship holiday for ecological awareness and environmental responsibility.

Originally, Tu B'Shvat served a practical, legal purpose. Jewish law tells us that when planting a fruit tree, one must not harvest any fruit until three years have past. The next year's harvest goes to the Temple as an offering, and every year after that, a certain percentage of the tree's annual yield continues to be given to the Temple. Tu B'Shvat allowed Jewish farmers to know for certain when one year ended and the next began.

How did this practical calendar tool become a symbol of Judaism's connection to nature? Sure, there's a clear connection to the Earth's cycles, to our dependence on natural phenomena like rain and sunlight. But that's also true of Shavuot, and Sukkot, and most other holidays. What's special about Tu B'Shvat?

The answer, of course, is trees. Tu B'Shvat is the only holiday dedicated specifically to trees, and trees represent much more than just tall, woody plants. Trees root deep in the Earth. They bring nutrients and water out from the depths. They hold soil in place. They breath in CO2 and breath out Oxygen. They are strong, and old. They provide food and habitat for animals, and homes for humans. And if you're wandering through an old forest alone at night, there's a pretty good chance you'll see one walking. As human beings, we all have an innate and deep connection to trees. Just think – who hasn't, at one point, wanted to live in a treehouse?

Here at Teva we're very fond of citing Deuteronomy 20:19: “When you besiege a city... you shall not destroy the trees... for is the tree of the field man?” The common interpretation of this verse is that we are forbidden to cut down trees while at war because trees – not being humans – are neutral bystanders, and therefore do not deserve death. It is from this verse that our tradition extracts the value of Bal Tashchit – not needlessly destroying or wasting. Yet Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra has a different translation. He claims that the verse is not asking “is the tree of the field man?” Rather, the verse is stating that “man is the tree of the field.” Human existence is inextricably tied to that of the trees. Thus, humans are trees, in the same way that cows are grass, or kale is soil. We are what we eat. And breathe. And use to build and heat our homes.

This is not the only reference to humans being like trees, but most of us can probably make the connections ourselves. What are your roots? Your branches? Your fruit? Where is your forest? And how can you keep it healthy? As Tu B'Shvat, which begins after sundown on February 7th, approaches, think about these questions. And as you search for the tree inside, look for the person in each of the trees outside.