Tu B’Shevat, the “New Year for trees” that falls on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, occurs in less than two weeks, on Jan. 16. Trees get their own New Year for a very practical reason: There is a Torah prohibition regarding eating the fruit from trees for the first three years. Tu B’Shevat, a time when the first blossoms are typically seen in Israel, is used for calculating the age of trees and their fruit for this negative mitzvah, known as orla, as well as for the laws of the seven-year agricultural cycle, known as shmittah.
In Israel it is the nearing of the end of winter, after the rains have soaked through the earth, replenishing the ground with the strength to bring forth a new season. But for many of us in this part of the country, it’s still the middle of winter. Various traditions have been created around the significance of the day, such as eating a new fruit and planting a tree and donating or collecting for planting trees in Israel. To reflect upon the more spiritual significances, organized seders have been adopted in many communities, which often relate to our role and partnership with nature.
Trees are a central focus in Judaism. The Torah is referred to as etz chaim, the tree of life, throughout our liturgy. “It’s a tree of life for those who hold fast to it, and all of its supporters are happy.” Like a tree with massive roots anchoring it in the ground, the Torah is our link through the generations; it’s what connects us to our creator and our purpose on earth, providing sustenance for who we are and why we’re here.
In Deuteronomy 20:19-20, we read how unlike people, trees cannot defend themselves, and we are forbidden from destroying them. It is this prohibition against the meaningless destruction of the trees that was extended by great Torah commentators to a generalized prohibition against waste, known as bal tashchit: “This is the law not only for trees; anyone who breaks containers, tears clothes, destroys a building, stops up a well or wastes food violates the prohibition of ‘do not destroy.’”
Tu B’Shevat has come to be associated with recognition and appreciation of our natural world and our stewardship of the earth. Environmental and sustainability efforts often employ graphics using parts of or whole trees. They are symbols that tie us to the earth and symbolize deep, meaningful and long-lasting roots that can sustain generations. There are many great resources and teachings to use this Tu B’Shvat. Here are a few suggestions:
• Baltimore County’s Big Tree Sale >> (every spring and fall)
Aleeza Oshry is a professional geologist, educator and sustainability expert.