The state of Alabama inadvertently has chosen a Jewish holiday for its first-ever experimental gassing execution. On January 25th of this year, while many in the Jewish world mark Tu Bishvat in the Hebrew calendar, Alabama will gas a human being to death as it attempts nitrogen hypoxia as a form of state-sponsored murder. There is little doubt that the Yellowhammer State likely chose this date for administrative convenience, and not out of any spite for the Jewish world, despite the reality of the recent ~400% increase in antisemitic incidents across the USA. It also is true that within the Jewish community, Tu Bishvat is a relatively minor holiday among the pantheon of annual festive days. Still, in the long rabbinic tradition of assigning mystical meaning to this occasion, a closer examination of the customs and beliefs surrounding Tu Bishvat reveal just how horrific of a synchronicity it is that a new gas chamber – in any form – is to be first implemented on this day of all days.
Tu Bishvat (literally, the “15th of [the Hebrew month of] Shevat”), is also known as the New Year for the Trees. It is the appointed time on the Hebrew calendar that the rabbis of the Talmud used for calculating the age of trees for the Biblically-mandated tithing of the first-fruits. Since the late 19th century, a custom has developed of honoring this moment by planting trees in Israel, a practice that continues to this day. Building upon this tradition, Tu Bishvat in recent decades has come to be known as Israeli Arbor Day, and treated as a Jewish “Earth Day.” Ecological organizations in Israel and the diaspora have beautifully adopted the holiday to garner support for many meaningful environmental awareness programs. It is on this very occasion, while the Jewish world duly honors the oxygen-creating power of the Eitz Hayyim (Tree of Life), that Alabama will be doing all it can to remove that very same oxygen, replacing it with nitrogen gas in order to snuff out a human life.
To further this dark counterpoint, consider that Jewish tradition has long connected the midwinter Tu Bishvat holiday to other religious festivals in the liturgical calendar. In the Hasidic community, some Jews pickle or candy the etrog (citron) used in the previous fall holiday of Sukkot and eat it on Tu Bishvat. While Jewish tradition has linked these holidays by theme, American jurisdictions have unintentionally desecrated all of them with executions. In the past three years alone, federal and state governments have set state killings on the full gamut of Jewish festival and commemorative days: from Purim to Passover, from Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) to Kristallnacht, from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, and from Sukkot to Hannukah. Again, the choice of these dates for execution likely were coincidental. Nonetheless, these horrific synchronicities – like Texas choosing World Day Against the Death Penalty to kill my Jewish penpal Jedidiah Murphy just after Sukkot last year – have served as a reminder to the Jewish community that it must pay attention to what is taking place and do all it can to ensure that the killings end.
There are even more poignant parallels to keep in mind regarding this convergence of Tu Bishvat and Alabama’s gassing. To align with the holiday’s theme of the revival of nature, many of Israel’s major institutions have chosen this day for their inaugurations. For example, the cornerstone-laying of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1918, the Technion (Israeli Institute of Technology) in 1925, and the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in 1949 each took place on Tu Bishvat. Few would have imagined that an “inaugural” American gassing also would be added to this list in 2024. Relatedly, there is a popular custom of eating new fruits for the first time on Tu Bishvat and reciting the appropriate Shehecheyanu blessing, which is offered when one experiences something new in a given season. The sentiment of this prayer will indeed ring hollow this year with the knowledge that a new system of killing also shall “bear fruit” on this day of new beginnings.
Finally, a word about tears. Many children – including my own – engage in the custom of planting parsley on Tu Bishvat. The goal of this practice is to reap this karpas (Hebrew for parsley) and use it on the seder plate for Passover, which occurs two months after Tu Bishvat. This parsley/karpas is famously dipped in saltwater and consumed at the seder so that Jews might literally taste the tears that the Israelites shed while experiencing the torture of slavery in ancient Egypt. The planting of these “seeds of tears” on this Tu Bishvat could not be more apt. Indeed, many Jewish tears should be shed over this day’s slated torture experiment. It was in fact torture that sowed the seeds of this gassing when Alabama failed to kill Kenny Smith after a three-hour botched lethal injection attempt last year. And it is this same Kenny Smith who now endures the incomprehensible psychological torture of counting down his final days yet again before his upcoming gassing.
To make matters worse, the stream of tears shed over the inherent human rights violation of this Tu Bishvat gassing could soon turn into a waterfall, as this execution also may very well open a Pandora’s Box of similar killing experiments elsewhere across America. Many states, such as Nebraska, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi to name but a few – as well as potential federal government administrations – are eagerly waiting in the wings to observe the results of this gassing in the hope that they, too, will be able to repeat the same process for other condemned human beings.
To prevent these tears from “bearing fruit” this Tu Bishvat, the nearly 3,100 members of the international group “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty” have vociferously joined in the resounding chorus of international condemnation over this abject abomination. As the co-founder of L’chaim, I have publically written about why “Jews Must Speak Out Against Alabama’s Planned Nitrogen-Gassing Executions,” alongside Jewish writer, lawyer and abolitionist Stephen Cooper. In addition, Rep. Phillip Ensler, the only Jewish member of the Alabama House of Representatives, District 74, and Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama also has issued a formal statement against this unmitigated horror.
As the Jewish world is keenly aware, not only has Alabama elected to resurrect the unmistakable Nazi legacy of gassing human beings to death on a day that corresponds to the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, but it has chosen to do so just ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th. Alabama thereby adds to its morbid history of unknowingly targeting this solemn occasion with state killings. It was only two years ago that the state “commemorated” this hallowed memorial day by selecting it to put to death Matthew Reeves, a human being with severe, documented cognitive impairment. On that occasion, Alabama used lethal injection. This means of killing also is another direct Nazi legacy that was first implemented in this world by the Third Reich as part of its infamous Aktion T4 protocol used to kill other such cognitively impaired individuals deemed “unworthy of life.” That protocol was brought to fruition by Dr. Karl Brandt, personal physician of Adolf Hitler, who personally signed off on it. It is precisely this T4 protocol that is among those monstrosities condemned on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Whether it is via lethal injection, Alabama’s nitrogen hypoxia, or gas chambers in other states – such as Arizona, which uses the gas Zyklon B (as employed in Auschwitz) – any method used for the state-killing of prisoners against their will continues this Nazi legacy of the same.
To put an end to this cycle of violence, L’chaim’s thousands of members carry the torch of Holocaust survivor and staunch death penalty abolitionist Elie Wiesel. Of capital punishment, Wiesel famously stated, “Death should never be the answer in a civilized society.” He added in an interview, in 1988: “With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory I oppose the death penalty in all forms. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the angel of death.”
Many of the members of “L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty,” including this author, are direct descendants of Holocaust victims and know better than most that capital punishment is not the same as that incomparable conflagration. And yet, like Wiesel, for many L’chaim members the shadow of the Holocaust is inextricably linked to a firm rejection of the death penalty in all cases, even for the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooter. It is not by coincidence that the very same Tree of Life symbol for which that targeted Pittsburgh congregation was named forms the core of L’chaim’s logo.
As Alabama blindly plans to add Tu Bishvat to the grotesque Jewish holiday execution list in these United States, it is appropriate to review one final teaching associated with this festive day. Centuries ago, Jewish mystics called kabbalists assigned spiritual significance to Tu Bishvat beyond its agricultural roots. Students of the renowned kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) utilized this sacred day to highlight the Jewish mystical understanding that all human beings carry within them a spark of HaShechinah – the Divine Presence. This phenomenon, they taught, was reflected in how certain kinds of tree-grown fruits or nuts hide within them seeds of potential new life. Kabbalists ate certain fruits as a symbolic way of releasing these divine sparks. Today, Jews across the world remember this inspiring teaching by conducting a Tu Bishvat Seder that is replete with the partaking of such fruits.
As Jews engage in this ripe spiritual tradition this year, may they remember that Alabama will be extinguishing the Divine spark of a human being on the very same day that they consume these symbolic seeds of life. May this epiphany compel Jewish leaders and communities to recognize that 21st-century Judaism Should Reject the Death Penalty. May this knowledge motivate readers to join all of civilized humanity in signing the petition to “Say NO to the gas chamber,” as over 14,000 people already have done as of this writing. And may such collective action help further unite the peoples of the world behind a chant to which all humanity should give heed; namely, “L’chaim – to Life!”
Cantor Michael J. Zoosman, MSM
Board Certified Chaplain – Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains
Co-Founder: “L’chaim: Jews Against the Death Penalty”
Advisory Committee Member: Death Penalty Action