Tu B’Shvat ( the Jewish New Year for Trees)

Israeli elections, Tu B’Shvat and the history of ‘righteous trees’

26 January 2013

The deck chairs are being shuffled about in the Knesset with no real prospect of change on the Palestinian front whether a fragile centre/right or fragile right/ultra-right coalition emerges. As usual, the seats won by Israeli Arab parties (12 in total) are not even in the reckoning for any complexion of governing bloc.

So in the circumstances, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about trees.

Why trees? Well today (Saturday January 26th) it’s the festival of Tu B’Shvat which is the Jewish New Year for Trees. And trees have their own particular story to tell when it comes to Judaism and Israel/Palestine.

Trees have been on my mind for a while now, ever since I rediscovered the Israeli tree certificates I received for my Bar Mitzvah in 1979. I had one from my synagogue and 13 from my parents’ B’nai Brit lodge. This was the traditional gift at the time, along with a copy of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew bible). I’ll come back to my own personal piece of Israeli woodland later, but first a swift history of trees in Judaism and Zionism.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Genesis, the Garden of Eden, and the ‘Tree of Knowledge’. This is our very first call to lead a righteous life. Adam and Eve having eaten of the fruit, are given the ability to know good from evil, the knowledge to discern right from wrong. From now on we are expected to carry the burden of making ethical choices for how we live, our relations with others and with the planet itself.

Next up we have the story of the Noah and the Great Flood. Remember how the dove returns with leaves from an olive tree indicating that the waters are subsiding along with God’s wrath at humankind’s behaviour. We are given a second shot at righteousness and the olive tree makes its global debut as a symbol of restored peace and harmony.

By the way (and one day you may just find this useful to know) there are thirty varieties of tree mentioned in the Hebrew bible. Alphabetically, they go from Algum in Second Chronicles to Vine trees in Deuteronomy via Mulberries in Samuel and Myrtles in Isaiah.

While we are tree hunting in Deuteronomy, here’s an interesting commandment (20:19) concerning behaviour to our enemies during wartime:

“When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an axe to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them?”
In modern terminology this is a prohibition against scorched earth tactics that destroy the enemy’s capacity to care for itself and rebuild life after defeat. I’ll come back to this later.

And if it is us that are defeated and we find ourselves living in exile, then the advice from Isaiah is to plant ourselves firmly in the host community to become “trees of righteousness” (61:3).

And now to Tu B’Shvat itself. It’s a minor Jewish festival which originated in biblical times with the need to establish a ‘tax year’ for the income from fruit harvests so that a tithe (one tenth) could be made to the Temple in Jerusalem and for the poor. Since tithing must be in proportion to individual income that makes it a progressive tax going to a righteous cause!

Even after the Temple was destroyed, in 70 CE, the tradition of tithing continued in the Jewish diaspora with money being given to those studying Torah, and to the least well off.

The festival became associated we tree planting and the reciting of ‘nature’ psalms, in particular Psalm 104:

“The trees of the Lord are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the junipers.”
The festival began to take on a new layer of symbolism and significance around the 16th century when the Jewish mystics of Safed, in northern Galilee, draw on Kabbalistic traditions and took the tree as an image to represent the dynamic aspects of God’s creative power.

Leaping ahead to the 20th century, in the late 1960s Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (one of the truly great Jewish theologians of the last century) reached back to that verse in Deuteronomy, harnessing Judaism’s prophetic tradition in his campaigning against the U.S. war in Vietnam. The Jewish Campaign for Trees for Vietnam, with Heschel as its chairman, challenged the actions of the U.S. government in deliberately destroying the forests of Vietnam to deny tree cover to Vietnamese guerrillas.

The Jewish Renewal movement, predominantly in north America, has taken up the festival as a ready-made Jewish commitment to environmental sustainability. With typical Renewal creativity and drawing on mystic and Hasidic thinking, they have re-imagined the festival as an opportunity to emphasise Judaism’s ‘green’ credentials and general concern for the well-being of the planet.

And so to Zionism’s contribution to trees and righteousness.

The Jewish National Fund (where may Bar Mitzvah trees came from) was created in 1901 to purchase land for Jewish settlement in Ottoman-controlled Palestine. Here’s how the JNF website sums up its own history:

“Over the past 109 years, JNF has evolved into a global environmental leader by planting 250 million trees, building over 210 reservoirs and dams, developing over 250,000 acres of land, creating more than 1,000 parks, providing the infrastructure for over 1,000 communities, bringing life to the Negev Desert and educating students around the world about Israel and the environment.”
In short, making the desert bloom.

Of course there is another way of looking at this and an alternative Palestinian narrative that challenges all the desert blooming activity in a land that was certainly not without a people and nor without an established agricultural economy.

To quote from the Stop the JNF website, the actual consequence of all this land buying and tree planting has led directly to:

“…the creation of an exclusive and discriminatory Jewish state [and] also the destruction of Palestinian land ownership, community, livelihood, and the land itself.”
The land was often bought by the JNF at inflated prices from absentee Arab landlords for the benefit of the early Jewish immigrants to establish their own agricultural communities. But the left wing Zionist pioneers of the 1920s and 30s did not see the local Arab population as part of their socialist Jewish dream.

When I began to read the works of the Israeli Jewish revisionist historians who have challenged the myths of Jewish state building, I became to feel less comfortable with my own little patch of Israeli greenery. It also made me reflect on how the State of Israel and Jewish identity have become so interwoven by diaspora Jewry to the point where they have become indistinguishable.

There’s nothing on my tree certificates to tell me exactly where they were planted so I have no idea if they added to the woodland and forests that have covered over many of the Palestinian villages that were abandoned, fled from or demolished during the civil war/Independence war of 1947-1948. The very existence of the villages and their history has also been grassed over by the tourism guides and the park websites.

Yes, Israel has certainly planted a great deal of trees but a great many have been destroyed too, usually in the name of ‘security’ including the construction of the Separation Wall.

Some of the more militant Jewish West Bank settlers (ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist) also take opportunities to destroy their neighbours’ livelihood in ways that seem totally at odds with Jewish ethics. Last year the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported 7,500 olive trees were destroyed by settlers between January and October 2012.

I don’t know what they teach in Torah school these days on the West Bank but they’re clearly skipping that verse from Deuteronomy.

During the election campaign in Israel there was little talk of trees, planted or uprooted, righteous or unrighteous. Netanyahu’s handling of the economy and his failure to address the concerns of the social protests of the last two summers, had more to do with his party’s drop in support than his belligerence over the Israel/Palestine question.

At Tu B’Shvat we think about God’s creation and the annual nature cycle as we begin to emerge from the gloom of winter and look forward to new life emerging from the cold ground.

I don’t hold much hope that the new Knesset will have the vision required or the bravery and imagination that will be needed to take Israel forward on the question of Palestine. For Jews like me though, this remains the project that will determine the well-being of the Jewish People and the future of Judaism for this century and beyond.

At Tu B’Shvat we may marvel at the miracle of God’s creation, as we see the sap begin to rise once again, but it is God and not the soil that we should worship.


As the politicians cut their deals in the back rooms of Jerusalem to decide who gets control of which government department, I offer the following observation from Abraham Joshua Heschel, which made after his first visit to the State of Israel in 1969.

“Judaism is not a religion of space and does not worship the soil. So too the State of Israel is not the climax of Jewish history, but a test of the integrity of the Jewish people and the competence of Judaism.”

Posted by Robert Cohen at Saturday, January 26, 2013

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