Trees of Earth, The Tree in Heaven: The Growth of Tu B’Shvat

In January 1997, more than two hundred Jews gathered in far northern California, to create and eat together the sacred meal of fruits and nuts and wines that celebrates Tu B”Shvat — the New Year of the Trees. They had gathered in a grove of ancient redwood trees. The redwoods stood above them, silent in their majesty — 250 feet tall and more. They were, they are, the tallest living beings on the planet.

The celebrants planned to complete the Seder by walking illegally onto the land of a corporation that was planning to log some of the last remaining stand of ancient redwoods that are in private hands. There they would plant redwood seedlings and risk arrest for trespass.

At this Redwoods Seder,one of the editors of the anthology Trees, Earth, & Torah: A Tu B'Shvat Anthology (Jewish Publication Society) — (now Rabbi) Naomi Mara Hyman — looked up at those great trees and said: “What would a Torah Scroll be like that had these eytzim [“trees”] for its eytzim [the wooden poles that hold the spiraling Torah scroll]? How grand, how tall would such a Torah be!” Then, looking at the crowd who had come to celebrate the Seder, she said: “Each of us would be just the right size to be one letter in such a Torah Scroll!”

And that is what we are, of course: each one of us a letter in God’s great Torah Scroll of all life on the planet. Yet being a letter is not enough. Nowhere in the Torah does a single letter stand alone to bear some meaning. In English, the word “I” is but a single letter, standing alone; but in Hebrew, even the word for “I” has several letters. No one, not even “I,” can stand alone.

When one person, one corporation, thinks it is a single letter that can stand alone, that single letter turns to flame and the great Torah Scroll, the earth and the society in which we live, begins to burn. It is a community of lives that make up words, verses, books of wisdom in the living Torah made of earth and air, wood and water.

The community of Jews that gathered in the ancient redwoods to live within that giant Torah Scroll came because they also live within the other ancient Torah, the weave of wisdom that Jewish tradition often calls the Tree of Life. If it were not for that Torah — no Tu B’Shvat; no Seder; no gathering of Jews to affirm that these trees were God’s and should not be wantonly destroyed.

Which of these Trees of Life encompasses the other? Does the Jewish Torah live as one thread of human culture in the human strand of all the species that make up the weave of earth? Or do we see the forest as a “forest” because it lives with us within the weave of words and melodies, dances and desires, that human beings — in this case, Jewish human beings — use to recreate the world?

Each. Both. At moments of our history, our spiritual journey, we have focused on one Tree or the other. The mystics of Tzfat saw every earthly tree as simply fruit of the Tree Divine whose roots are in the heavens. The Zionist kindergarten teachers of Tel Aviv saw the notion of the Mystic Tree as a mystification to be healed by rerooting Jewish life in green earth.

This book affirms them both. We seek to call forth a Tu B’Shvat that affirms both Trees, affirms that the abundance that each grows from cannot keep flowing wtthout the abundance of the other. The Tree of Life in scrolls of Torah, the living Torah inscribed in majestic redwoods — the Jewish people, and the human race, will wither if we do not renew them both.
* * *
From what seems the bare and wintry twig of a legalistic argument has sprung the rich and fruitful festival called Tu B’Shvat, the delight of Jewish mystics and of those who love the earth.

How did this happen? The fifteenth day of the midwinter month of Shvat first explicitly appears as a special date of Jewish observance in a passage of the Mishnah, codified in approximately the year 200 CE:

  • On the first of Shvat is the New Year for a tree, according to the words of the House of Shammai. The House of Hillel say, On its fifteenth day. [Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1: 1]

What do the two great schools of rabbinic thought, that of Shammai and that of Hillel, mean when they debate about the “new year” of a tree? They are concerned with tax law: how to divide the year for purposes of tithing.

Each year, one-tenth of the increase of the earth — one-tenth of the fruit of a tree, one-tenth of the lambs of the flock, one-tenth of the new-sprouted barley — was brought to the Temple, there to be offered to God and given to the priests and the poor for eating. That seems simple at first glance; but wait, what is a “year”? Fruit from one year could not be used to tithe for another year.

So the Rabbis must decide when a year begins and ends. Fruit that appeared after the “new year” day could not be used to pay the tithe for a crop of fruit that had appeared before that day, and vice versa.

The Rabbis debated. They agreed that the new year began deep in the winter, half a year before the fruit appeared on which the tithe was to be taken. But was the first or the fifteenth of Shvat to be used to distinguish the old crop of fruit from the new? Since Jewish months were lunar months, the first was the day of the New Moon; the fifteenth, the day of the Full Moon. The decision followed, as it usually did, the teachings of the House of Hillel: the fifteenth of Shvat, the full moon of deepest, wettest winter, came to define the new year for tithing on a tree.

Before we look back at the roots of this wintry tax-lawyer’s argument, or forward at the mystic fruit that grew from it, let us clear up the question of a name. Since in Jewish practice the letters of the alphabet stand also for numerals, a date can be made from the letters that spell it out. Since “Yud” is the tenth letter, “Yud b’Shvat” is the tenth of Shvat, “Yud-Aleph b’Shvat” is the eleventh of Shvat, and so up to the fourteenth: “Yud-Dalet b’Shvat.” But then, a shift! For the next number would be “Yud-Heh b’Shvat,” and “Yud-Heh” is also one of the names of God, pronounced “Yahh.” The custom has arisen not to speak this name except as an act of prayer.

Then what to do? The numeral “15” could also be expressed as the sum of “9+6.” The ninth letter is “Tet,” the sixth “Vav.” Pronounced together, they make “Tu.” So “Tu B’Shvat” becomes the most common name of the day when fruitfulness comes round the cycle of the year.

Already we have a hint of a mystery. The Name of God, hidden and hinted by a numerical trick. The fruitfulness of summer, hidden and hinted by a date as far as possible from its full appearance: six months before. An invitation to mystics who are always searching for the Divine Presence just beneath the surface of the ordinary.

And perhaps an invitation to even bolder mystics: What would happen if we were to affirm out loud that at every Full Moon Yah, the Breath of Life, is fully present? Would women who have a strong affinity with the lunar cycle feel more fully and publicly affirmed in their connection with God’s Presence? Would Messiah, hearing The Name called out and the light of the moon uplifted in its fullness, come more quickly?

Questions for exploration on the night of Tu B’Shvat, perhaps. For now, we should note that six months from the Full Moon of deep winter comes Tu B’Av, the Full Moon of high summer. On that day in ancient Israel, women went to dance in the fields and to choose their husbands. The secret hint of fertility renewed that is at the heart of Tu B’Shvat becomes a public celebration.

Now let us go back to the tithing on fruit. For biblical Israel, fruit trees were almost as powerful a life-giving reality as were sheep and barley, and the imagery of fruit trees entered deep into the community’s most powerful literature. For the first three years of its life, a fruit tree was in the state of orlah, “uncircumcision,” from the same root as arelah, the uncircumcised foreskin. It was potentially fruitful, but out of respect for its Divinely created potential it was kept at rest for three years.

Then in the fourth year, special offerings were brought to the Temple from the tree’s fruit, and finally in the fifth year the regular tithe could begin and the fruit of the tree could be eaten.

Since the roots of Tu B’Shvat are in this tithing process, let us look more carefully at what it was.

First of all, who owed tithes? Land-holders, orchard-keepers, and nomadic owners of sheep and goats. Their slaves, servants, and employees did not, just as their children and their wives did not.

Why should they pay a tenth of the increase of their fields, trees, and meadows? Because they did not carry on economic enterprise in a vacuum. Part of their success came from the whole society and even beyond -- from earth and rain and sunshine, from the Unity called God. So they owed part of their income to the greater reality.

Secondly, who were to represent the binding forces of God and the broader society, by receiving tithes?

This was a difficult religious and political issue, and the answer changed during Israelite history -- twice. The first change moved from a decentralized localism toward central power; the second, from top-down wealth and power toward social justice. (I am drawing here on the findings of modern scholars who see these changes encoded over time into the different texts of Torah. Rabbinic interpreters have looked at these texts differently, as representing different aspects of a single timeless Torah.)

The earliest stratum of the Torah's provisions for tithing (Lev. 27) hints that the tithe may be voluntary, not a compulsory tax. It directed that the tithe be turned over to the priests and the local shrines or, slightly later, the central Shrine that had been placed at Shiloh. Tithes were used to pay for the upkeep of these religious centers and to support a loose and decentralized network of priests at them, either directly as food for the priests or after being sold to buy supplies.

Then, as David consolidated the monarchy, there seems to have been a shift (Num. 18). The tithes became compulsory. They went to the Levites -- a "national tribe" who lived in cities scattered throughout the kingdom. These special cities seem to have emerged or been assigned to them during David's reign.

From the tithe that they received, the Levites gave one-tenth to the priests, who were a sub-group within their tribe. Even though the priests still received the benefit of the tithe, they had evidently lost control over it. The Levites had won greater power.

Was there a struggle over this shift from local and loosely enforced taxation to central and compulsory taxes? There are certainly indications in the Bible that taxation by and for the king was controversial.

When the Prophet Samuel and the Israelite people debated whether they should crown a king or not (I Samuel 8), Samuel warned that a king would tax a tenth of their produce, and conscript men to serve in the army and women in the royal kitchens. Even if this was an exaggerated warning, it makes clear that royal taxes in food, money, and personal service were to be expected -- and that Samuel thought that reminding the people of taxation might chill their ardor for a king. It did not.

But later, under Solomon and his son Rehoboam, taxes grew heavy enough to spark a rebellion, the assassination of the chief tax collector, and the division of the kingdom. Perhaps it was Rehoboam's heavy-handedness that got retroactively written into Samuel's warning by a writer who was editing an earlier story. Similarly, it may have been either prescient fears or the actual experience of Solomon's and Rehoboam's behavior that caused the passage to be written into Torah (Deut. 17: 16-18) that forbids a king to amass silver and gold, wives, or cavalry -- three key symbols and tools of overweening power.

The new taxes made possible the glories of the Solomonic kingdom, with its large territory, its abundant economy, and its resplendent Temple. With these outward glories came the spiritual satisfactions of a sense of security, a sense that the God of Israel was able to protect the People of Israel, a sense that the earlier struggle and pain had been justified.

But the Bible also reports that the people began to suffer from the erection of overbearing wealth and power into idols. While part of the people felt the spiritual rewards of abundance, power, and comfort, others were feeling spiritually betrayed: “Even the adherents of the God of Israel are acting like oppressive Pharaohs!” For some, there was a spiritual crisis. Was the God of Israel the Celebrator of comfort and abundance, or the Protector of the afflicted and the desperate?

And so there emerged a wave of social and spiritual protest, spoken by those whom we know as "the Prophets" -- Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah. From this ferment came the writing or the public disclosure of the Book of Deuteronomy, which called for a second great change in the structure and purpose of tithing.

Deuteronomy intensifies the centralization of Israelite political and religious life, wiping out the regional levitical shrines and the levitical bureaucracy in favor of the Temple in Jerusalem. From Deuteronomy's standpoint, the levitical cities had become not centers of regional decentralization but exemplars of corruption; and the Levites dependents and supporters of overbearing wealth.

So Deuteronomy 14 shifts the uses of the tithe in two directions. On the one hand, it requires that the tithe be brought to the Temple directly and there be eaten by the celebrants themselves (rather than turned over to the Temple upkeep). Perhaps in this way the Deuteronomic reformers hoped to forestall bureaucratic corruption. To make this tithe easier to deliver, Deuteronomy provides that it can be converted into money, and then at the Temple this money could be used to buy "anything your soul desires -- cattle, sheep, wine, strong drink, or anything else your soul desires," there to feast and rejoice.

On the other hand, Deuteronomy requires that in every third year, the tithe be kept in every local settlement and used to protect the poor: the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan. Struggling to affirm the old pro-Levite rules at the same time as they transformed these rules, the authors of Deuteronomy repeated that this third-year tithe was also for the Levites -- but now they defined the Levites as landless and penniless, like the other poor who were to receive the tithe.

In order to strengthen this new approach to the tithe, Deuteronomy (26: 12-14) requires that in every third year, after completing the tithe, each landholder declare before God:

  • I have cleared out what is holy from the house, and I have given it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow, in accord with all the commands with which You commanded me.
  • I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of Your commandments. I have not eaten of it while in mourning, I have not cleared out any of it while I was in a taboo state, and I have not left any of it for the dead. I have heard the voice of YHWH my God. I have done just as You commanded me.
  • Look down from your holy dwelling-place, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the earth you have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our forebears.

The logic is clear:

Since from my house I have taken what is holy because it is due to the poor and have given it to them, look down from Your holy house and give us what is due to us, who without it would all be poor.

The great flow of abundance between the land and the people must be primed with the small flow of abundance between the landholder and the landless.

This new approach to the tithe is unique to Israel. In the Mesopotamian and Babylonian law codes, there are clear provisions for tithing to the king and to the royal temple. But there are no provisions for using the tithe to support the poor.

This Deuteronomic version of the tithe attempts to resolve the spiritual collision between a sense of God as giver of prosperity to the rich and a sense of God as protector of the poor, with a third choice: God as the One who provides prosperity to the people as a whole if the people will protect the poor.

Through this view of the tithe, Deuteronomy connects what we as moderns might call "environmental" and what we would call "political" or "economic" matters. The abundance that comes from rain, sun, and soil cannot be divorced from issues of wealth, poverty, and power. The spirituality of this book of Torah lies precisely in the assertion that these two spheres of life are intimately intertwined under God's governance.

Let us note that the Deuteronomic reformers did not throw out the previous tradition, the older version of the tithe: even while they gave it a new meaning and effect, they went out of their way to reaffirm its connection with the Levites. This is a characteristically Israelite, and then Jewish, way of dealing with change -- even great upheavals. The wisdom of the past is not abandoned but reinterpreted, and in this way the identity and collective memory of the people are affirmed rather than violated.

So it was this sense of the tithe that lay beneath the Talmud’s discussions of how God would pass a judge’s sentence on the future of the trees and their abundance. At Tu B’Shvat, when the trees are most dormant, the tithe must be accounted. Almost four months later, at Shavuot, some trees have begun to bear fruit. Their first fruits are brought to the temple, and at that moment God passes judgment on how the people have acted by deciding how the fruit will grow in the coming year.
After the Destruction of the Temple by the Roman Empire in 70 C.E., Tu B’Shvat remained only a little more than a memory. No tithes were taken, and the community had scattered into many lands. No longer was there a sense that the rain and sun and fruitfulness of a single land would be shaped by the actions of a single people. So for hundreds of years, this midwinter fiscal new year for fruit trees was viewed as a minor holiday. Fasting and the saying of penitential prayers were prohibited. But the Hallel psalms of praise were not said as they were on the grand festivals.

Yet close to the severed stump of the minor festival, some tiny shoots still grew, in gentle celebration. In the Ashkenazic communities of central and eastern Europe, the custom arose of singing Psalm 104 and the fifteen Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120 134) which may have been sung by the Levites as they ascended fifteen steps into the inner court of the Israelites at the Temple.

Along with these fifteen psalms went eating fifteen different kinds of fruit—especially some from the Land of Israel. A strong association arose with carob or (in Yiddish) bokser—a tree mentioned as the chief food of the mystical rabbi Shimon bar Yochai during the years he hid from the Roman soldiery in a cave. In addition to carob, the fruits specially favored were olives, dates, grapes, figs, and pomegranates—all specially mentioned in the Torah as part of the goodness of the Land of Israel. The fifteen psalms and the fifteen fruits may be seen as simply celebrating the fifteenth of Shvat.

But they may have a deeper significance as well. Psalm 104 is a magnificent hymn to the Creator about the wonders of Creation. It celebrates the waters that God once allowed to flood the earth, but which now are con¬strained within the boundaries God sets—and come only as the rain that all life needs: —

Trees of YHWH — filled and fulfilled;
Cedars of Lebanon, which [God] planted,
Where songbirds nest
And the stork turns the fir trees into home.

The feeling that Tu B'Shvat is in some more than legal sense a new year, the moment of ascent from the depths of winter into new life, may have kept its celebration alive when the tithing of fruits had long since been abandoned.

Nostalgia for the Land seems to echo from the practices that kept Tu B’Shvat alive during this period. And then, after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, nostalgia became reality. A small but extraordinary community of Jews reappeared in the Land of Israel, settling in the tiny town of Tzfat in the hills above the Sea of Galilee. They were refugees from a shattered world that had for centuries, under Muslim rule, been a place of Jewish prosperity and learning.

They came with a mystical bent that, drawing perhaps on their own history of loss, addressed the universe as God’s holy vessel — shattered. Shattered in the very process of its emergence, by the intensity of the Divine energy that poured into creating it. This shattered vessel could be repaired, they said, through their own holy acts and words, focused on its reunification and the reunification of God’s Own exiled Self.

The flow of Divine abundance that had been so interrupted in their own lives could be restored, they believed, by what they did. All around them was that very Land of Israel that had been judged in its fruitfulness by a God Who cared whether the poor were fed. Although the tithes could not begin again until the Temple stood once more, there was for them a vivid sense that a time of counting tithes was intimately connected with whether the land was fruitful.

And for them, trees were not only a physical manifestation of God’s abundance, but an earthly shadow of a mystical reality: They saw God’s own Self as the Tree of Life. The “Tree of the Sphirot,” the Kabbalists called it: A “Tree” with its roots in Heaven, carrying the great flow of Divine abundance, Shefa, until its fruitfulness appeared in our perceptible reality. A “Tree” with fruits that here, on earth, are apparent in all the fruitfulness that we experience here. A “Tree” made up of the flowing emanations of the Ultimate Divine, emanations called S’phirot, as they cascade into our lives. And though its roots are in heaven, the sun and rain that nurture them are the blessings of gratitude and the prayers for unifying the shattered Holy Name that human beings say with all their heart.

So a day of tithing trees for the sake of the earthly poor becomes a day for renewing the heavenly abundance of the One Great Tree. That is the great act of transformation that the Kabbalists of Tzfat worked upon the older forms of Tu B’Shvat.

What happened then at Tzfat was the creation of a Seder for the evening of Tu B’Shvat. It contemplated eating even more than fifteen varieties of nuts and fruit, in four courses defined by four cups of wine.

We should note that this meal was not only the one ceremonial meal in all of Jewish liturgy that was defined as vegetarian — using no product of any animal — but it included only those fruits of the earth that required the death of not even a plant. The edible parts of many a vegetable — carrots, potatoes, and so on — come from the root or stalk or leafage of the plant, and so to harvest the food means killing the plant. Many other food plants, as well, die after one year’s growth and harvesting. But nuts and fruits are exactly what trees toss out into the world, in far greater profusion than necessary to reproduce themselves and at no danger to their own lives.

So the meal of Tu B’Shvat was the diet of Eden, the Garden of Delight — the Garden of the Tree of Life. The meal in which human beings (adam)ceased to be at war with the earth (adamah). The meal, therefore, of the days of Messiah.

The varieties of fruit and nuts were organized into four courses, each ending with a cup of wine. These courses represented the four letters of the Sacred Name and the Four Worlds of reality, as the Kabbalists understood the process of God’s creation:

∑ Yud, the tiny letter that is a marker for the Place that takes no space, symbol of the world closest to the Infinite God — Atzilut, the World of Being;

∑ Heh, the breathing sound that symbolizes Briyah, the World of Knowing and Idea;

∑ Vav, the joining letter that is the symbol for Yetzirah, the World of Forming and Relating;

∑ Heh again, breathing forth Asiyah, the world of Doing — the world of our created universe.

Since the seed of the Tree — its tiny Yud — sits in the soil of Heaven and the Tree grows downward till Asiyah takes shape in our universe, the Seder began at “the bottom” — at our fruitful level — and rose upward. The fruits and nuts were organized according to how they symbolized each world, expressed by the relationships between the hardness and softness of their skins and their innards. So the courses began with Asiyah, the “thickest,” most palpable world, by eating fruits with thick, tough outer skins (pomegranates). Then, as the worlds grew more ethereal, the fruit grew softer. The second course was fruit with soft skins and hard pits at their center (dates, olives, plums). The third course was fruit that was soft all the way through (figs, grapes). And for the fourth course there was no fruit at all — for Atzilut, Being, is utterly permeable, untouchable.

In each of the three tangible courses, the Seder of Tzfat evidently sought to have ten different varieties of nuts and fruit, representing the Ten Sfirot, the ten emanations of God, that were present in each of the Four Worlds. In order to ascend the Tree from Heh to Yud, the Kabbalists would ascend each Tree-within-the-Tree.

Saying blessings over these fruits would help to release the holy sparks of life flow in them. Moreover, actually chewing the fruit would have an even more profound effect—since we have 32 teeth, and the word Elohim, God, appears 32 times in the biblical story of creation. Not by bread alone, says the Torah, “but by everything that comes forth from the mouth of God” do we live. What came forth from God’s mouth? The entire universe, created through words God spoke. So for us to bring our “32” into conscious relation with these fruits of the Supernal Tree would reenact God’s mouthing of creation.

Holy sparks of creation were imprisoned in the food. Those who joined in the Seder would keep the life flow of abundance going by returning these holy sparks to the Creator, to the Tree of Life, instead of hoarding the sparks on earth. Trapped on earth, the flow of God’s abundance would be blocked, dammed up. Abundance that did not flow up the Tree to Heaven could not return to make abundance for our earth and us. By refusing food to our Creator, we would end up denying it to ourselves.

The four cups of wine that concluded each course of the Tu B’Shvat Seder may have been modeled on the Four Cups of the Pesach Seder, but their form and meaning were quite different. For Tu B’Shvat, the first cup was white; the second, white with a drop of red; the third, half white, half red; and the last, red with a drop of white.

According to one interpretation, white represents the earth and its powers in quiescence; red, the earth in bloom. Thus the cups may have represented the shift in the yearly seasons from the paleness of winter through the awakening spring into blossoming summer and then the riotous color and fruitful fullness of fall, with a seed of white still hidden in it as the seed goes underground to sleep through winter.

Another view is that for these mystics, the cups represented the union of the Masculine and Feminine aspects of God: white represented the masculine semen and red the feminine blood with which they saw the universe begotten and birthed into being.

Earthiness and sexuality suffused the Kabbalists’ sense of God’s abundant shefa. These mystics did not flee the earth and earthiness; they sought it.

The new form of celebration made its way from Tzfat into the broader Jewish world first by oral tradition and then by its inclusion in a compendium of practices for holy days called Chemdat Yamim, published in the 17th century. Early on, this handbook got the reputation of having been written by adherents of the Messianic claimant Shabbatai Tzvi, and so it was shunned by many mainstream Jewish thinkers.

But several of the specific chapters about specific festivals were so useful and attractive that they were published separately. Among these was the passage on the Seder of the fifteenth of Sh'vat, called Pri Eytz Hadar—Fruit of the Lovely Tree—published in 1753. Pri Eytz Hadar encouraged and broadened use of the Seder, especially among Sephardic and Eastern Jews. (Among Ashkenazic Jews, even among Hassidim, the Tu B’Shvat Seder remained unused, perhaps because they had been more deeply traumatized by the Shabbatai Tzvi experience.)

The Festival of Trees took on another aspect late in the nineteenth century. Some early Zionists were committed to a renewal of the relationship between individual Jews, the Jewish people, and the very earth itself of the Land of Israel. Many who did not call themselves “religious” saw this relationship as the heart of a Jewish spirituality that had been damaged and distorted by millennia spent in separation from the Land — not only from its politics and history, but from its very soil. So at the spiritual, emotional, and ideological levels, a concern for what grows or fails to grow in the Land of Israel was one strand in the weave of Zionism.

Alongside these concerns, the growing Jewish settlements in Palestine were discovering that planting trees was a practical act that had both political and biological-agricultural import. Tree-planting, they said, restored the land — bringing with it a new ecological web of seeds and ground water, insects and small animals that made possible the sowing of crops. New clusters of trees also became a way of marking the new Jewish settlements, distinguishing them from previous Arab towns and villages.

So planting trees became both the practical means and the symbolic representation of planting Jewish communities in the Land of Israel. Perhaps in part influenced by the Arbor Day that was then current in America and had been copied elsewhere in the world, the settlers began to have their children plant trees on the fifteenth of Shvat. In the Diaspora, under the auspices of the Jewish National Fund, the day become a day of focusing on collecting money to plant trees in the Land of Israel.

After Israeli independence, as Eastern and Sephardic Jews gathered alongside Ashkenazim in the State of Israel, the Kabbalistic tradition of a Tu B’Shvat Seder became known among Western Jews, just as the notion of tree-planting for Tu B’Shvat became known to the Easterners. Then, probably through connections made by the Jewish National Fund and the rediscovery of Kabbalah through Jewish scholarship, Diaspora Jews in America began to learn about and experiment with a Tu B’Shvat Seder.

Perhaps the first printed modern Haggadah for a Tu B’Shvat Seder, focused on trees in Israel with no mystical content except the pattern of eating fruits and nuts with cups of wine, was shaped by Seymour Hefter of the Jewish Community Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1975.

Meanwhile, in the early 1970s the many layered Jewish imagery of trees—Biblical, Kabbalistic, and Zionist—became especially important to a number of American Jews who were seeking to work in an explicitly Jewish and Torah-centered way to address some American or world-wide political and social issues.

One such network of Jews focused on ending the Vietnam War. Most were young, but they included the venerable teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel. To them it became a special concern that United States government policy took as one of its tasks the destruction of Vietnamese forests—and to them it felt especially striking that Torah requires that even if one decides to make war against a city, its trees must be protected (Deut. 20:19).

Out of this focus on deforestation as an especially abominable aspect of the war, they developed a Campaign for Trees and Life for Vietnam. They raised money for reforestation and reconstruction of devastated areas of Vietnam and they planted symbolic trees of peace in such places as the lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Often these plantings were done on Tu B'Shvat, and the day became (to a rather small number of people) a focus of caring and working for peace.

Meanwhile, during the 1970s some American Jews became more and more concerned with dangers to the earth that had reached levels alarming enough to cause the creation of “Earth Day” as a time for public recommitment to protect the planet. These Jewish groups overlapped with those that had worked on Trees and Life for Vietnam. They realized that the Torah’s command not to destroy trees in wartime had been taken more broadly by the Rabbis: From it, the Rabbis deduced the general command of Bal Tash’chit (Do Not Destroy), an entire ethic of protecting the natural world and the products of human labor.

If even the trees of our enemies must be preserved, the Rabbis taught, all the more the earth and air and water when there is no war! And for the new global environmentalists, the trees of the planet — especially such great disappearing forests as the Amazon Basin — began to be seen as a crucial element in its health and its survival. What Zionists had said about trees in the Land of Israel, ecologists were saying about the forests of the world.

This connection brought together a new configuration in the history of Tu B’Shvat. Just as Tu B’Shvat had begun with the earthy questions of tithing and the regrowth of trees in wintertime and had become a cosmic moment in the mystics’ calendar, so now again earth and spirit came together. For many of this new generation of Jews, forests and trees as biological and ecological realities became fused with the symbol of the Tree of Life and its flow of Divine abundance, shefa. So the day of celebrating the “new year of the tree” became the day to join together Earth and Heaven:

∑ To join the celebration of living trees to celebration of The Tree of Life;

∑ To join protection of the flow of abundance around the great round globe to affirmation of the Divine Flow from below to above, from above to below;

∑ To join a life-giving focus on reuniting the masculine and feminine in God to a renewal of the potency of seed and fruit and their healing from poisons inflicted on them by human technological intervention;

∑ To join joy in eating without killing any creature to joy in living “by everything that comes forth from the mouth of God.”

And so in the mid-1980s, there appeared among American Jews a wave of new Haggadot for Tu B’Shvat that joined the mystical and ecological perspectives, affirming indeed that they were the same perspective. Most of these Haggadot drew on the pattern of the Kabbalistic Seder while giving it a midrashic turn in a new direction. In many of them, for example, the Four Worlds of the Kabbalah were fused with their symbolic referents — earth, water, air, and fire, all aspects of the planet’s web of life, all in need of healing as aspects of the wounded physical body of this planet.

One of these new Tu B’Shvat Haggadot, called The Trees' Birthday by Ellen Bemstein (1988), helped give birth to the first Jewish organization wholly devoted to healing the earth — Shomrei Adamah. Its success in stirring the hearts and minds of a new Jewish generation helped lead to a broader commitment among mainstream Jewish organizations in America to work through Jewish channels and with Jewish symbols to protect and heal the earth. By 1993, a number of mainstream Jewish groups had brought into existence the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). And by 1996, COEJL itself had defined Tu B’Shvat as a kind of Jewish Earth Day and was urging broad observance of the day as a time to act on behalf of the wounded earth.

This revivification of Tu B’Shvat as a day of “the trees and The Tree” comes in a dark moment of earth’s history, when the web of life is for the first time endangered by one of ts own species — the human race itself, its most intelligent and self-conscious species, the one most fully grown to bear the Image of God.

There is a sense in which this dark moment fits with uncanny truth into the teaching of Tu B’Shvat itself. For Tu B'Shvat comes at precisely the most precarious moment in the cycle of nature. The darkness of Hanukkah may look more frightening to human eyes, but the actual danger to non human life is greater when the cold has set in deeper. So deep winter, when trees and other vegetation must struggle to begin again, may be a specially appropriate moment to commit ourselves to renew the flow of nature's life in our own generation, when it is most in danger.

The ancient Jewish sensitivity to the tree as a symbol and metaphor of Torah (the Tree of Life) and God (the Tree of the S'phirot) is what stirred the Kabbalists of Tzfat to involve themselves with Tu B'Shvat. We may extend their sensitivity by looking at the Most Holy Name of God as a calligraphic version of a tree in the cycle of its life: the Yud, a tiny seed; the Heh, a flowing, curving expanse of roots; the Vav, a tall trunk; the Heh, a flowing, curving expanse of branches. From the branches and their fruit comes the new seed, the new Yud. The tree, like the Yud Heh Vav Heh, always begins anew; can always say, as God said to Moses at the Burning Bush, “Not only is my Name Yud Heh Vav Heh; it is also, I am also, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh. I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming."

More than any other Jewish festival, Tu B’Shvat is the celebration of Becoming. There is no halakha, no legal structure, to define it. It springs wholly from the spiritual depth and growth of the Jewish people in relation with the One Who always beckons us to grow and in relation with the earth where all things grow.

For that very reason, we editors decide to shape this book in such a way as to reflect the growth of a changing festival. It was Rabbi Fred Dobb, the author of several articles that bring together the eco-teachings of the rabbis and of twentieth-century sages, who suggested that we might look at the whole process as itself a tree, rooted in biblical Judaism, carried upward in the massive trunk of the rabbinic tradition, then branching in the last four hundred years into Kabbalistic, Zionist, and global-ecological concerns. The celebration of Tu B’Shvat itself is the fruitful outcome of this growth, and the seeds of new possibility are present in the teachers, groups, books, tapes, and other materials for further study and action.

Tu B'Shvat began as a day in the political and economic calendar of tithing. It became a day in the great spiral of Divine and earthly abundance. These two aspects of the day can fructify each other. If on the one hand we make Tu B'Shvat a day of politics and history, a day of recommitment to our nurturing, our gardening of the biosphere, we can help the Yud Heh Vav Heh re enter our lives. If on the other hand we make Tu B'Shvat a day of meditation, contemplation and celebration of the Tree that sustains all life, we can renew ourselves . . . to do the work of the world to sustain all life.

It takes two hands, both hands, to plant a tree.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: