Arbor Day: secular, spiritual and environmental

All American states have an official Arbor Day, observed usually in a month with the best climatological conditions for encourage the planting and care of trees.

Since the Land of Israel has a very mild winter, only five American southern states observe Arbor Day at about the same time of the year as do the Jewish people, who have been observing an Arbor Day for over 2,000 years: Florida and Louisiana (in January); and Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi (in February)

The Jewish Arbor Day is called Tu Beshvat. Tu B’shevat is the beginning of the new year for trees. On this day many Jews both men and women have the custom to eat fruits in honor of the new year for trees. Some Jews have a custom of eating etrog jam on Tu B’shevat. Some Jews say if a pregnant woman eats etrog jam she will have an easy labor.

Where did the custom come from to make a shehechiyanu on Tu B’shevat and why is there a custom to recite a shehechiynau on Tu B’shevat on fruits which no one enjoys eating like an etrog. The answer could be based on Talmud Yerushalmi which says one should eat new fruits at least once a year in order to make a shehechiyanu; and it is done on Tu B’shevat because it is the new year for trees and one should see the value of the tree of life even when it is sometimes bitter.

The Midrash says that the tree of life had five hundred thousand kinds of fruit, each differing in taste. The appearance of one fruit is not like the appearance of the other, and the fragrance of one fruit is not like the fragrance of the other. Clouds of glory hover above the tree of life, and from the four directions winds blow on it, so that its fragrance is wafted from world’s end to world’s end.” (Yalkut Bereishit 2) This teaches Jews about the importance and beauty of biological diversity.

The Talmud’s discussion of Tu b’Shevat lacks any discussion of it being a holiday nor does the Talmud give a historical cause for any celebration. The Talmud’s concerns are to understand the difference of opinion between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai regarding the appropriate date for the new year for trees. The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according Beit Shammai; Beit Hillel, however, place it on the fifteenth of Shevat which is literally Tu b’Shevat.

Tu b’Shevat does not become a holiday celebration of any sort, other than planting saplings, until about 500 years ago, when the Kabbalists in Safed developed the Tu b’Shevat seder modeled on the Passover seder. The Tu b’Shevat seder, like the Pesah seder, has four glasses of wine, each connected to a season as well as one of the “four worlds” of the Kabbalistic universe. Like Pesah, at a Tu b’Shevat seder we eat special foods, especially those from Israel, such as the seven species of the Land of Israel mentioned in the Torah.

The holiday has became a celebration of our connection to the land of Israel and her fruits. The JNF increased this connection by collecting money for planting trees to reforest the land of Israel (over 200,000,000 trees planted so far).

Environmentally aware Jews choose this day as a day to increase our awareness and care for the environment. Doing so has clear roots in the Torah. While some would say that the commandment in Genesis chapter 1, that we are to subdue the world, implies we can do as we please, this commandment is limited by another – bal taschit, not to destroy. A verse in Deuteronomy tells us even during war, we are not to destroy fruit bearing trees. Rambam extends this prohibition to any form of gratuitous destruction.

Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th century guide for education about the mitsvot, explains the spiritual goals of taking care of the environment as follows. “The purpose of this mitzvah (bal tashchit) is to teach us to love that which is good and worthwhile and to cling to it, so that good becomes a part of us and we avoid all that is evil and destructive. This is the way of the righteous and those who improve society, who love peace and rejoice in the good in people and bring them close to Torah.”

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 450 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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