Rabbi January 2022 Column

Shalom All,

Toward the middle of this month we will celebrate the holiday of Tu B’Shvat — the New Year for Trees. It seems ironic that the Jewish calendar places such a holiday in the dead of winter. At the very moment when our thirst for greenery is most overwhelming, the Jewish calendar has us focus on the trees that are beginning to bloom in Israel.

Tu B’Shvat is a unique little holiday. Originally, it was used to decide how old a tree was for the purposes of tithing. Fruit that blossomed before this date were considered part of the previous year’s produce, while fruit that bloom after it were seen as part of the next year’s crop. This had important ramifications with regard to the 7-year cycle of tithes that apply to the produce of the Land of Israel, but means little to us today, especially in the Diaspora.

Over the years Tu B’Shvat became much more, however.  Following the exile, our people began eating the fruits of Israel on Tu B’Shvat — figs, dates, almonds, olives, pomegranates and grapes, to remind them of the Holy Land. They told stories about Israel and sang songs about the Land. Later, the Kabbalists created a Tu B’Shvat Seder, which was designed to further connect to the Holy Land.

Trees and nature have always been a part of the Jewish soul. We even refer to our Torah as a tree, an Eitz Chayim, a Tree of Life. From a Kabbalistic point of view, God created us in order to demonstrate God’s goodness. The earth and all it contains is that goodness. Which is why it’s all holy. It’s also why the Torah commands us to “serve and protect” the earth.

In the Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer we are taught: “When a healthy tree is cut down, its groan is heard from one end of the universe to the other.” The Talmud teaches: “One who cuts down healthy trees, shall see no blessing in his lifetime.” And, finally, in reference to how trees feed us, give us oxygen, shade us, and give us material to build our homes, the Midrash declares: “The life force of a person emanates solely from the tree.”

This year our Tu B’shvat Seder will be Sunday, January 16th. Unfortunately, it will once again be over Zoom, but it will still acknowledge our connection to the whole of the Earth that sustains us, the holiness of Nature around us, and the Holy Land of Israel for which we yearn.

Happy New Year to you all, I hope to see you soon.

Rabbi Todd