One Tree, Two Peoples, One Land: Tu B'Shvat Resources from Rabbis for Human Rights

One Tree, Two Peoples, One Land:
Tu B'Shvat Resource
from Rabbis for Human Rights

Tu B'Shevat falls this year on Shabbat Shirah, the evening of Friday January 17 through Saturday January 18. Tu B'Shevat, the new year of the trees, is a minor festival and one of four "new years" in the Jewish calendar. It marks the new year with respect to certain agricultural laws related to tithing. This holiday calls our attention to the significance of trees in the Judaism, and we learn that it is incumbent upon us to be responsible stewards of the earth, which ultimately belongs to God.

After the exile of the Jews from Israel, Tu B'Shevat became a day on which to commemorate the importance of the land of Israel in the Jewish tradition.

In the past century, with the renewal of Jewish life in Israel and the establishment of the state of Israel, planting trees in Israel has become a sacred act. Jews throughout the world contribute money to planting trees in Israel. Tu B'Shevat has been infused with a new kind of spiritual power, honoring a Jewish connection to the land and pledging ourselves to caring for God's magnificent creations.

Rabbis for Human Rights celebrates this holiday with Jews around the world in different ways. Our members in Israel participate in planting ceremonies in Israel while those of us in the Diaspora, celebrate the rebirth of Israel, our connection to the land and contribute to planting trees in Israel.

Yet as we rejoice, we are keenly aware that trees are also sacred to the Palestinian people, and entire communities depend on olive trees in particular for their livelihood. In the current intifada, thousands of Palestinian olive trees have been destroyed, and during the harvest this past year olives have been stolen. Only by preventing the destruction of these trees, and protecting the right of Palestinian farmers to gather their olives, can we fully celebrate this holiday.

This packet is intended to supplement other Tu B'Shevat programming and can be used in community celebrations, as well as for individual study. The commitment to protecting the olive trees of Palestinians is a mitzvah (religious obligation), and we believe it is in Israel's long-term interests. The lives of Israelis and Palestinians are intricately intertwined, and the survival of each depends upon the survival of the other. We must acknowledge the right of each people to live in peace and with justice, to share and cultivate the land together.

Since the days of Noah, the olive tree has symbolized peace, and prosperity.

Our tradition teaches us that when the great flood began to subside, Noah sent out a dove. When it returned it carried a leaf it had picked from an olive tree. Our midrash teaches us that this represented great hope: "The dove which brought an olive branch in its beak to Noah brought light to the world." It is this light that must sustain us through the ever-spiraling violence in a land that is so dear to both peoples.

For many Palestinians, olives and the goods produced from them provide the basic livelihood and nutrition for their communities. The importance of harvesting olives has increased significantly since the beginning of the current intifada. Employment opportunities have sharply decreased, and the worsening poverty has dramatically increased the number of cases of malnutrition, especially among children. The income from the sale of olive oil is the only income that thousands of Palestinian families expect for the year.

Thousands of Palestinian olive trees have been uprooted or cut down during the current intifada by Israeli security forces and vigilantes. According to Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Israel has uprooted about 5,500 dunam (about 1375 acres) of Palestinian orchards, and has destroyed 4,500 dunam (about 1125 acres) of field crops.

The Israeli military claims that these trees are cut down for security purposes, but Brigadier General Dov Tzedaka, head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank, says that the military has been excessive. He says, "You give permission to uproot 30 trees, and the next day you come and see that they've uprooted 60 trees. The soldier or the company commander on the scene get carried away. There have been such cases, and they can't be ignored. We are responsible for this matter." (Ha'aretz, Jan. 8, 2002)

Rabbis for Human Rights has seen many areas where trees were cut down and there has clearly been no issue of security. Moreover, uprooted trees can provide more cover than standing trees. Even when there is a security issue, there are alternatives that do not punish the innocent owners of these trees. As Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Executive Director of RHR states, "We don't deny there are security issues. However, there is a difference between a genuine security need and an all-out war against innocent civilians."

This past October, Palestinian communities across the West Bank reported almost daily attacks by settlers against harvesters collecting olives. On several occasions, Palestinians reported that after the settlers drove them from their groves, they collected the olives for themselves. When Palestinians reported the thefts of their olives, the police in places such as Hebron and Ariel, ignored their complaints. In other cases, the soldiers, sided with the settlers. Not one settler was arrested until October 22, 2002, even though they had clearly been committing unlawful acts.

In a letter to the IDF and Israeli police on October 6, 2002, the leading Israeli human rights organization, B'Tselem, accused the Israeli security forces of not suitably preparing to prevent incidents in locations where disturbances were likely to occur, not effectively intervening when such disturbances did occur, and not conducting satisfactory investigations after the fact. They argue that this attitude by law enforcement agencies creates an atmosphere of disregard for the lives and property of Palestinians, which leads to the perpetuation of violence against them. As long as Israel controls the West Bank and the Gaza strip, it is obligated to protect the civilian population, its well-being, and its land in accordance with international humanitarian law.

Rabbis for Human Rights has been at the forefront of drawing attention to the olive tree issue. Last year, a delegation of over seventy rabbis, rabbinical students, and other Jews from the United States and Europe helped Israeli rabbis plant trees in solidarity with many peoples in the region: Palestinians in the village of Hares in the West Bank, Jewish Israelis in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Katamonim, and the Jahalin Bedouin in the Negev.

This year, frequently appearing in the international media, the members and supporters of Rabbis for Human Rights joined other Israeli peace groups in helping the Palestinians to harvest their olives. These rabbis placed themselves physically in-between the settlers and Palestinian harvesters, and courageously intervened on behalf of Palestinians whose human rights have been violated. Due to public outcry and widespread media coverage, the IDF began to change its tactics and protect the Palestinian farmers picking their olives in the West Bank.

Texts for Tu B'Shevat

These texts can be used in a Tu B'shevat seder, a discussion or adult education, or as a basis for a dvar Torah. These texts either directly or indirectly speak to bal taschit, the commandment of not wasting or unnecessarily destroying anything of value. It is based on a passage from Torah, Deuteronomy 20:19-20, and in subsequent generations the rabbis elaborated on this principle.

Study Questions:

  • What can we learn from these texts? What do they teach us about our relationship to the earth and to trees?
  • How do these texts apply to the current situation?
  • Did you find anything particularly challenging in these texts?

1. When a tree that bears fruit is cut down, its moan goes from one end of the world to the other, yet no sound is heard. (Pirke de-R. Eliezer 34)

2. Rav said: A palm tree producing even one kab of fruit may not be cut down. An objection was raised [from the following]: What quantity should be on an olive tree so that it should not be permitted to cut it down? A quarter of a kab.--Olives are different as they are more important. R. Hanina said: Shibchath my son did not pass away except for having cut down a fig tree before its time. (Baba Kamma 91b)

(One kab equals approximately 3.5 pints. When some destruction of natural resources is required, we must make decisions that amount to the least amount of destruction as possible. Thus we would destroy the tree that does not produce fruit before the one that does.)

3. It is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees outside a besieged city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so that they wither. Whoever cuts down a fruit-bearing tree is flogged. This penalty is imposed not only for cutting it down during a siege; whenever a fruit-yielding tree is cut down with destructive intent, flogging is incurred. It may be cut down, however, if it causes damage to other trees or to a field belonging to another man or if its value for other purposes is greater. The Law forbids only wanton destruction...Not only one who cuts down trees, but also one who smashes household goods, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys articles of food with destructive intent transgresses the command "you must not destroy." Such a person is not flogged, but is administered a disciplinary beating imposed by the Rabbis. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8,10)

4. The purpose of this mitzvah [do not destroy] 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 will 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: that nothing, not even a grain of mustard, should be lost to the world, that they should regret any loss or destruction that they see, and if possible they will prevent any destruction that they can. Not so are the wicked, who are like demons, who rejoice in destruction of the world, and they are destroying themselves. (Sefer Ha-Chinuch, No. 529) (This prohibition against destroying fruit-bearing trees in time of warfare was extended by the Jewish sages. It is forbidden to cut down even a barren tree or to waste anything if no useful purpose is accomplished.)

5. Reb Nachman was once traveling with his Hasidim by carriage, and as it grew dark they came to an inn, where they spent the night. During the night Reb Nachman began to cry out loudly in his sleep, waking everyone up in the inn, all of whom came running to see what happened.

When he awoke, the first thing Reb Nachman did was to take out a book he had brought with him. Then he closed his eyes and opened the book and pointed to a passage. And there it was written, "Cutting down a tree before its time is like killing a soul."

Then Reb Nachman asked the innkeeper if the walls of that inn had been built out of saplings cut down before their time. The innkeeper admitted that this was true, but how did the rabbi know?

Reb Nachman said: "All night I dreamed I was surrounded by the bodies of those who had been murdered. I was very frightened. Now I know that it was the souls of the trees that cried out to me."

Children's Education:

These ideas are intended to supplement other Tu B'Shevat programming. Depending on the age and background of the children, teach about the specific issue of the destruction of Palestinian olive trees as appropriate. Complete lesson plans of these ideas can be found at

For primary school students:

Make a Jewish values tree out of a brown paper bag. Cut out holes for a child's head and arms. Decorate it with Jewish values about protecting trees/Bal tashchit (not destroying/care for the earth), shalom (peace), tzedek (justice), kavod (respect), and rachamim (compassion). Have students march around singing "Tree of life."

For elementary aged students:

Make a Jewish values tree on a large piece of butcher paper. Teach the students about the above values and write them on the roots of the tree. Have the students draw pictures of how these values can be applied to protecting trees and place them on the branches. This is the fruit of what grows from their values.

For intermediate or high school students:

Make a Jewish values and human rights trees on large pieces of butcher paper. Teach the students about the above values as well as about human rights (sheet posted on website). Tie this into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the destruction of olive trees. Do the same as above, breaking students into three groups and including human rights along with Jewish values.

The Olive Tree Project

Rabbis for Human Rights has launched The Olive Tree Project to support Palestinians whose trees have been cut down. Money donated to this fund will go towards planting trees on the West Bank, buying olive oil produced by Palestinians and donating it to those in need, and doing educational work to protect olive trees.

To donate to the Olive Tree Project, please send a check to:

Rabbis for Human Rights > North America
4101 Freeland Avenue
Philadelphia, PA19128
Phone 215.508.5560 fax 215.508.0932

Jewish and Interfaith Topics: