Each spring, Jews around the world celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the New Year of Trees. Some plant trees at home, or in Israel. Others gather for a Tu b’Shevat Seder, a mystical ceremony whose origins go back to the Kabbalists of 16th Century Zfat.
For many, Tu b’Shevat is the time of year to demonstrate Judaism’s concern for the care of the environment. Both Torah and Talmudic teachings instruct us to care for nature; for ourselves and for future generations. “Look at my works! How beautiful and praiseworthy are they! And everything I made, I created for you. Be careful that you don’t spoil, or destroy my world because, if you spoil it, there will be nobody after you to fix it” (Ecclesiates Rabbah 7:13).
But, is there more? Why does the tree have such a special place in Jewish tradition, and why is the Tree of Life the central motif of Kabbalistic belief? What is the mystical meaning behind their Tu b’Shevat Seder?
The Tree of Life, or World Tree, is a universal symbol common to many faiths and cultures. It’s roots lie in ancient Mesopotamia, the very birthplace of the Hebrew Patriarch Abraham.
In the Book of Daniel, we read that the King of Babylon sees himself as a tree growing in the center of the world. The theme of this passage is graphically illustrated in the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II in Calah in the beginning of the ninth century B.C.
There, on the wall behind the throne, we find a large bas relief dominated by winged genies and a stylized palm tree. Its design shows a strong resemblance to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. And that is not a coincidence. For the latest research shows that this ancient palm from the heart of Mesopotamia is likely the predecessor of the more modern incarnation.
Like the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, this one shows a symmetry of branches that mirror each other on each side of a central trunk. Some representations even resemble the Jewish menorah! Research by Professor Simo Parpola of the University of Helsinki shows that each of its nodes represented one of the nine major gods of ancient Assyria. But, they were not seen as separate entities, but as aspects of the supreme god, Asshur, symbolized as the winged sun disk flying above the tree. Likewise, the sefirot of the Kabbalistic tree are also said to represent aspects of God, who is also seen above the Tree of Life in a realm beyond space and time.
In both cases, the tree is seen as the link between heaven and earth, and the means of humanity’s salvation. It represents the divine order of the universe, both within us and without. This is illustrated by depictions of the tree in human form in ancient Assyria.
The winged figure standing behind the king is a mythical sage at the pinnacle of man’s spiritual development. It’s wisdom is mystical in nature, giving it the ability to master supernatural powers. It is the guardian angel of the king, protecting him from sin and evil spirits. On its head is the crown of heaven. It is dressed in the white garments of a saint. The bucket in its left hand is filled with the waters of life and the cone in its right hand has powers of purification. Could this figure be the origins of the Biblical cherubim, the angels that guarded the way to the Garden of Eden and of the vision of Ezekiel? “God rode on a cherub and flew, and he swooped down on wings of spirit” (Psalm 18:11).
This passage reminds me of Garuda, the winged being that carried the Hindu god, Vishnu. At first, it would seem like there is no connection between the gods of Hinduism and those of ancient Mesopotamia, but is this true?
The Myth of Etana tells the story of an ancient Sumerian king, who ascends to heaven on an eagle to request the Plant of Birth from the gods, so that he might have a son and successor to the throne. It begins with the gods, building the city of Kish with its high walls. They search for a king to rule and finally settle on Etana, who builds a shrine to the weather god, Adad. A poplar tree grows near the shrine. An eagle has built its nest in its branches and a serpent has made its home among its roots. Both pledge with Shamash (the sun god) as witness, to be friends and to care for each others children when the other is out hunting for food. The arrangement works well until one day, after the eagle’s children have grown, it decides to eat those of the serpent.
Upon returning the serpent calls out to Shamash for help in attaining justice. He is told to hide in the carcass of a wild ox, and when the eagle comes to eat it, to seize him, cut off his wings and tail feathers, pluck him and throw him in a pit. The serpent gets its revenge and then it is the eagle who calls out to Shamash for help. The sun god tells Etana that his crime is horrible, but promises to send him help.
Meanwhile, Etana is also seeking assistance from Shamash, as his wife is barren and he fears not having an heir to the throne. Shamash sends him to the pit where the eagle is held captive and Etana nurses it back to health. They become friends and the eagle even interprets two of Etana’s dreams. In one of them, Etana sees himself ascending to heaven on an eagle, where he receives the Plant of Birth from the goddess Ishtar. The eagle believes the dream to be an omen from the gods and the two of them embark on the adventure in real life. It takes two attempts for them to reach the realm of the gods, as Etana discovers he has a fear of heights and releases his grip on the eagle during the first attempt. Plunging to earth, he is saved by the eagle, who swoops down and catches him. They finally arrive at the heavenly abode of the gods and Etana is given the Plant of Birth by Ishtar, just as the dream had foretold.
At first, it would seem that the eagle was the villain and deserving of its punishment. But then we read in Norse Myth that the eagle was the protector of Yggdrassil, the World Tree, that swooped down and attacked the serpents that nibbled at the roots of the tree below. Garuda is also the foe of the serpents, who held his mother captive. Vishnu is known for taking human form, as an avatar, to come to the aid of mankind. Was Etana an early avatar, or perhaps the original form of Vishnu himself?
In India, the tree of creation is known as the Ashvatta tree. Rather than growing up towards the heavens, it is said to have its roots there and its branches growing toward the earth, just like the Kabbalistic Tree of Life! Both are thought to serve as a path to the heavenly realms.
Similarly, the Turru tree of shamanic belief is called a ladder to the spirit worlds and its branches serve as the nursery of human souls, before they are reborn into physical bodies. This is very much like Jacob’s dream of a ladder to the heavens!
Thus, we find the Tree of Life to be a universal symbol representing the connection between heaven and earth. It is the ladder of ascent that the human soul climbs in its quest for the spiritual realm and the vessel of divine communication with earthly beings. With branches spread across the world from India to the Norse lands of Scandinavia, it’s roots lie in ancient Mesopotamia. It is both outside and within us, connecting our very soul to the universe.
Samuel Griswold is the author of the new historical thriller, True Identity, about a Mossad agent that receives past life visions while undercover in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Available now on Amazon.com.