The Jewish Earth Day

Tu B’Shevat

Monday, February 9th, is Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish new year of the trees.  The name of this holiday is actually its date: “Tu” is a pronunciation of the Hebrew letters for the number 15, and it falls in the Hebrew month of Shevat.

In ancient times, Jewish farmers relied on Tu B’Shevat to determine when they were permitted, under Jewish law, to receive the fruits of their harvests.  The Torah states, “When you enter the land [of Israel] and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden.  Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23).  The law required that the fruit of the fourth year be offered in gratitude to the priests of the Temple.  The fruit of the fifth year, and all years following, was finally for the farmer.  This law raised the need to mark the “birthday” of a tree.  The Rabbis therefore established the 15th day of the month of Shevat as a general “birthday” for all trees, regardless of when they were actually planted.

Today, Tu B’Shevat is a holiday that raises awareness and appreciation of the land of Israel as well as our natural world.  In Israel, Tu B’Shevat commemorates the time when sap begins running in the trees, the first early mark of the coming of spring.  At this time in most other parts of the world, the beginnings of the spring season are still a long way off.  Nevertheless, Jews all around the world have come to view Tu B’Shevat as a Jewish “Earth Day” that highlights Jewish sensitivity to the environment as embodied by the principles of bal tashchit – “do not destroy” – and tikkun olam – “repairing the world” – as well as the Jewish values of justice, stewardship, and intergenerational responsibility.  Even though Tu B’Shevat is only one day, the Jewish values associated with the holiday apply every day throughout the year.

Tu B’Shevat festivities celebrate plentiful gifts of nature, with a focus on the seven biblical fruits native to Israel—olives, grapes, wheat, barley, figs, dates, and pomegranates.  The kabbalistic Tu B’Shevat seder, modeled after the Passover seder, involves blessing and enjoying these and other symbolic fruits, drinking four cups of wine, and discussing themes associated with the holiday, such as environmentalism, Israel, and social justice.  Many Jews also observe Tu B’Shevat by planting trees in Israel.

Tu B’Shevat is a time to focus on protecting the environment.  Take action now:

We are facing a grave climate and energy crisis.  Evidence of global warming is mounting and we are seeing the effects in the form of melting polar ice, rising sea levels, and loss of biodiversity.  Furthermore, our national addiction to oil is making us increasingly reliant on protecting access to reserves in undemocratic, conflict-ridden countries, mostly in the Middle East.  This reliance jeopardizes our national and economic security and positions us at the whim of regimes that are hostile to Israel.