Don’t dismiss or ignore January’s ‘other’ new year

There is a new year coming in January. No, not the one on January 1 — the one on January 31.

It is the New Year for Trees, also known as Tu b’Shvat.

Most Jews, children especially, will celebrate on January 1, but they will not even notice anything special about January 31. That is a sad commentary on Jewish life today, but it is not the only one.

How many people reading this column, for example, understand the significance of this past Thursday, December 28? It was the Fast of the Tenth of Tevet, Asarah b’Tevet, which marked the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem in 588 B.C.E. The day, however, has a contemporaneous significance. It is the day set aside by Israel’s chief rabbinate to mourn the loss of all those whose dates of death are unknown, and particularly the victims of the Shoah. (It is likely this day was chosen because the Tenth of Tevet is the only fast day that is observed even if it falls out on a Friday.)

Then there is Shavuot. It is the second of our three pilgrimage festivals. Most Jews know that Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, but it is much more than that. It marks the official birth of the Jewish nation, the day God declared us to be his “kingdom of priests and holy nation.” Until that moment, we were a collection of tribes. At Sinai, we became a unified nation with a sacred mission. Too few Jews even notice when Shavuot occurs, yet it is likely we all know when July 4 falls out.

There are many reasons for this diminution of Jewish knowledge, and for the diminution of observance that runs with it. This column, God willing, will deal with some of these reasons in the coming months.

For now, though, let us deal only with the imminent arrival of Tu b’Shvat, the New Year for Trees, which is classified as a “minor” holiday, but is (or should be) of major importance in our times. Tu b’Shvat, after all, is the ultimate Earth Day. This day underscores Judaism’s mandate to preserve and protect the natural world around us, for, in the Torah’s words, “Are trees of the field human to withdraw from before you.” (See Deuteronomy 20:19.) Put another way, the environment cannot protect itself, so we have to protect the environment.

Based on that verse, as regular readers will recall, a principle of law was established — bal tashchit,” which literally means, “you may not destroy.”

In the Babylonian Talmud tractate Shabbat 67b, a Babylonian sage named Rav Zutra uses this verse to prohibit the wasteful use of fossil fuels or their derivatives. “He who covers an oil lamp or uncovers a naphtha [lamp] infringes the prohibition of wanton destruction.” The commentator Rashi explains Rav Zutra’s statement this way: Covering an oil lamp or uncovering a naphtha one makes the fuel burn faster, thereby requiring more fuel than is necessary to produce light. This is a waste of resources, and therefore violates the ban on wanton destruction.

Maimonides, the Rambam, addresses the question of removing trees for aesthetic purposes. Says he, based on this simple verse (Responsa, No. 54), “The Torah forbids…uprooting without any purpose, for that is wanton destruction.”

A 14th century rabbi, Aharon Halevy of Barcelona, in his Sefer Ha-Chinuch, said it “is the way of the pious and those of good deeds” to carefully adhere to the principle of bal tashchit; “not even a grain of mustard do they destroy, and they are grieved by any destruction they may see. If it is possible to save anything that is being spoiled, they spare no effort to do so.”

Trees, however, are only the beginning of Judaism’s environmental and ecological focus. Starting with the Torah, there are laws that protect both air and water quality. Thus, for example, in BT Bava Batra 18a, we are told: “A man may not open a bakery or a dyer’s workshop under another person’s storehouse [because of the smoke], nor make a cowshed there [because of the smell]….”

Further on (24b), it says: “A fixed threshing-floor must be kept 50 cubits from a town [because of the harm from airborne pollutants, in this case the flying chaff]. A man should not fix a threshing-floor on his own estate unless there is a clear space all round of 50 cubits. He must keep it away from the plantation of his neighbor, and his ploughed fallow a sufficient distance to prevent damage being caused.”

And on the very next page (25a), a mishnah adds: “Carrion, graves, and tanneries must be kept 50 cubits from a town [because of the bad smell emanating from such places]….”

One provision allows a person to sue for damages if someone does something to lessen the quality of his or her water supply. Residents even can obtain an injunction against a business opening up near them if they can show the business will create undue noise. (See BT Bava Batra 21a.)

These are not laws created today. These are laws created 2,000 years ago, based on 3,500-year-old Torah law.

The Torah, in fact, makes clear in several ways that humankind does not have absolute power over the environment. Nowhere is this more evident than in the notion that even the land is entitled to rest. Thus, the Torah in Leviticus 25:1-19 requires us to give the land a year-long “Shabbat of rest….; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard….”

As God’s “kingdom of priests” and “holy nation,” we are His agents; meaning we must set an example for everyone else. Thus, not only must we thank God for His creation every day of our lives, but we must take the lead in making certain His creation is treated with respect and given the protection it deserves.

That is the underlying premise of Tu b’Shvat. That is what makes “the New Year for Trees” so important.

Tu b’Shvat reminds us of our responsibilities to the natural world around us — a world easily taken for granted. It is not a day to be shoved aside as irrelevant, or even silly (“a new year for trees, seriously?”). It is a day to make a big deal over, especially in homes with children. Teach them the importance of protecting the environment today, and there is hope for this world tomorrow.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at
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