This Tu BiShvat, on the heels of dire new reports about global warming, talk about trees is urgent. Jewish tradition and the customs of Tu BiShvat compel us to see that when we talk about trees, we’re talking about animals, too, and air, and water, and all life:
“How many are Your works, YHWH! All of them You have made with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations” (Psalms 104:24).
The upcoming holiday of Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees (Mishna Rosh HaShana 1:1), falling Sunday night and Monday, Jan. 20-21, invites us to recognize the trees’ essential role in supporting life, to celebrate our human relationships with trees, and to recenter our lifestyle in favor of harmony and sustainability with the full ecosystem—trees and all plant life, water, air, soil, and the breathtaking multitudes of animals that sustain and are sustained by the trees.
Significantly, we honor trees now, in the dark, dead of winter, when scarcity and lifelessness around us give us a glimpse into the doom that would accompany a world without healthy, abundant trees. The New Year for the Trees, then, was designated as the time when most of the annual rain has fallen, giving rise to sap, but when most of the winter still lies ahead, with time to seed and grow (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShana 14a). This full-moon holiday of the turning-time of the fruit crop originated not as a day of celebration, per se, but as a tax season marker. The Torah mandates separation of 10 percent of produce as a tax to redistribute to the Levites — public servants who did not own land of their own. You couldn’t cut corners, either, skimping on your tax bill by giving the Levites your old produce and keeping everything fresh for yourself. Fresh, new produce had to be taken from new crops, old produce from old crops (Mishna Terumot 1:5).
Later generations of pious Jews understood that embedded in paying taxes fairly is a source of great joy—the “joy in the commandments” (simchah shel mitzvah, Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 117a). Safed Kabbalists famously developed a Tu Bishvat seder, connecting the variety of physical trees and their fruit with God and God’s emanations in our world, stylized as a tree. In this seder, popularized in the last couple of generations by Jewish environmentalists and widely practiced today, we recognize the diversity of creations and their meanings, consuming fruits that physically represent or manifest different layers of insight and spiritual significance undergirding our world.
In this seder, we start with the real, physical world around us, in need of full protection, eating fruits with inedible outer shells (such as walnuts and pomegranates) reflecting the Divine emanation known in Kabbalah as ‘Assiyah/Action. We move from there to eating fruits with immediately accessible, edible outsides and inedible cores (such as olives and dates) representing Yetzirah/Formation: the ideal template of our physical world in harmony, where we can be open and vulnerable externally, relying on protection from within. From there we go deeper, eating fruits that are edible through and through, such as berries and figs, representing Beriyah/Creation: the inner, dynamic processes that enable physical formation, the Divine generation of something from nothing.. Finally, we consider the reality of pure spiritual energy, the life source that is prior to physicality and unrepresentable by a physical fruit, the most elemental Divine Emanation, known as Atzilut.
This is not mere symbology; the seder awakens us to a profound understanding of the stakes in our interactions with trees and the natural world. A tree is not just a tree. It is not even just part of a forest or an ecosystem. It is a part of and a microcosm of the delicately, precariously balanced physical world, which is to say: the manifestation of the Divine. The tree is the centerpiece of a full web of interdependence.
Centuries ago, European Jewish communities understood this and instituted on Tu BiShvat the recitation of Psalm 104, Scripture’s most soaring poetic hymn to this interconnected and diverse natural landscape of plants, water, air, and animals. Introducing the general exclamation quoted at the beginning of this article, the Psalmist waxes:
16 Sated are the trees of YHWH, the cedars of Lebanon, which [God] planted;
17 It is there that birds nests; the stork’s home in the junipers.
18 High mountains are for wild goats; the crags a refuge for rock-badgers.
19 [God] made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows when to set.
20 You bring on darkness and it is night, when every beast of the forest stirs.
21 The lions roar for prey, seeking their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they gather and crouch in their dens.
23 Humans then go out to work, to labor until the evening.
Indeed, How many are Your works, YHWH! All of them You have made with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations. To celebrate and honor trees, then, we must honor the full ecosystem in which they exist. Valuing trees means activating our personal consumption choices and political work to interrupt massive deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, which increased regulation has somewhat slowed in the past decade, but which new Brazilian president and Trump ally Jair Bolsonaro promises to accelerate. By far, the main cause of this global warming-accelerating and species-destroying deforestation is the beef industry, which requires clear-cutting for ranch land, and agricultural expansion to grow the soybeans and cereals upon which cattle ranchers depend. Quite contrary to the cross-species harmony of Psalm 104, human industrialists destroy vast stretches of trees, depleting the atmosphere of their carbon consuming protection, and rendering dozens of species extinct, profiting from abusing cows and accelerating the pumping of greenhouse gases into an atmosphere ever-less endowed to absorb them. One of the most effective ways to honor trees is to reduce or eliminate your beef consumption.
Honoring trees and their fruits also means honoring bees and other pollinators, which are essential to about three-quarters of the world’s crops and have faced massive population decline due, in large part, to neoniconitoids and other chemicals lethal to bees that pharmaceutical companies like Bayer have aggressively marketed. Neoniconitoids are estimated to be 5,000-10,000 times more lethal than DDT. Extending the European Union’s ban on these toxins to the United States is an essential component of celebrating, honoring, and protecting trees, of protecting human and all species’ life, of enabling God’s emanation in the world. It is the fullness of what the Rabbis mean when they say that “human life is from the tree” (Midrash Sifrei Devarim #203) These are the politics of Tu BiShvat.
This Tu BiShvat, let’s make a New Year’s resolution for the trees: we will align our dietary, consumption, and political actions with the needs of trees, which provide life to us.
The Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIFA) works with Jewish communities on aligning our personal, communal, and institutional dietary choices with Jewish values such as those articulated here. More than anything else, this means transitioning to diets that rely more on plants and less on animals and their products, living and thriving year-round more similarly to how we do on Tu BiShvat. Be in touch with us so that we, at JIFA, can help your Jewish community make these shifts sustainably, so that our earth can continue to be full of God’s wondrous creations.