Many of us dismiss Tu B’Shevat as a tree-planting holiday for children. And for those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, the holiday often falls during the depths of winter, making the “New Year of the Trees” seem misplaced. But Jewish learning and our natural environment require that we reclaim Tu B’Shevat — which this year begins the evening of January 30 — as an important holiday to celebrate our relationship with Creation and take responsibility to protect the web of life on Earth.
Tu B’Shevat was established in rabbinic times as a day to pay taxes on fruit trees. It was reinvented by Kabbalists in Safed in the 1600s as a holiday to eat fruit, drink wine, read biblical and mystical texts about nature, say manifold blessings and, thus, take part in healing the world.
Biblical texts help us understand the deeper meaning of Tu B’Shevat. Genesis 1:11 relates that on the third day, “God said, Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.”
This is an ecological vision, where the earth is a partner in its own Creation and all plants are celebrated.
As we now understand the origins of life, bacteria enriched the earth’s atmosphere with the oxygen we breathe, while bacteria and fungi turned stone into soil, paving the way for seed-bearing plants.
Today, the world is home to more than three trillion trees—roughly 400 trees for every human. Before the advent of agriculture 12,000 years ago, the earth had twice as many trees as it does now. Forests still cover about 30 percent of the earth’s land mass and store 283 billion tons of carbon. But, forest destruction creates massive carbon dioxide emissions. The impact of these emissions on global warming is greater than that from cars and trucks combined, according to Scientific American magazine.
Humans have eliminated the natural habitats of about 43 percent of the earth’s ice-free land surfaces. Five years ago, in the Nature International Journal of Science, 22 biologists warned that human impact on climate and ecosystems may bring us to a tipping point, threatening the earth’s biosphere and our own survival.
The Bible’s emphasis on seeds also sends an important ecological message. Seeds promise sustainability and genetic diversity. But large-scale agribusinesses plant a single species (often corn or soybeans) for hundreds of acres, relying on pesticides and fertilizers while draining topsoil fertility.
Trees, habitats and the diversity of plant life are threatened by such models of agribusiness as well as by logging that clears forests; urban sprawl; extreme extraction of oil, gas, coal, and metals from the earth; and ever-growing human consumption.
Against this backdrop — and the wider political debate that questions the human impact on the environment — Tu B’Shevat is more relevant than ever.
Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, founder of Shomrei Adamah, a national Jewish environmental organization, writes in Splendor of Creation: A Biblical Ecology, “On Tu B’Shevat we are asked to overcome the fundamental flaw of our consciousness: our belief that we are the masters of Creation and that the earth belongs to us.”
This Tu B’Shevat, we can plant a tree, vow to use less paper and packaging, choose renewable energy, recycle metals and reject genetically modified food and rainforest products. And we can reject arrogance and greed with each of our charitable and political decisions.
On this day, let us eat fruit, drink wine, say blessings, commit to caring for Creation and sustaining life for generations to come.
Paula Maccabee, founder of Just Change Law in Saint Paul, Minn., has devoted her 36-year law career to social justice and environmental law. She appears on the Jewish Women’s Archive’s list of Jewish Women in Environmental Activism. This article originally ran in Hadassah Magazine.