A Tree of Life – and life giving trees: Tu b’Shevat

“One day Choni the circle maker was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree; he asked him, How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you certain that you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [ready-grown] carob trees in the world; as my ancestors planted these for me so I too plant these for my children”.            ( Talmud Bavli: Taanit 23a)

Trees are deeply important in our tradition, and also have their own relationship with God. They are prominent in our texts – mentioned at the Creation, vital to the narrative in the Garden of Eden; the Hebrew word for tree appears in the bible over 150 times and more than 100 different kinds of trees, shrubs and plants are named. The Mishnah follows suit, naming hundreds more plants in its legal codification. In all more than 500 different plants are named in our traditional texts.  Trees are a signifier of the connection the Jews have with the land, and reflect the relationship that we have with the Land of Israel – Moses repeatedly reminds us that we must care for the land and treat it well, and not only land but people – otherwise we will be driven out from there as other nations apparently were before us.  

Trees have a special place in how we create awareness of God. For they are not only part of the natural world, they are also used repeatedly in our texts as a metaphor for humanity, for life, for reaching upwards to God and rooting the self in the world.  Trees symbolise so much, they have a quasi-divine element, a quasi-human element. They feed us, they provide shelter, they bridge the generations, and they act as a bellwether for our moral state.

We read in Deuteronomy “ When you will besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy the trees by wielding an axe against them; you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged by you? (20:19)

This image, comparing the fruit tree to human beings, powerfully reminds us of the damage that can be inflicted in a war between people, and in obliging us to protect the trees reminds us of what we have in common with them. If we should not cut down the fruit bearing tree, how much more so should we consider the safety of the people being besieged?

We are about to celebrate the festival of Tu b’Shevat – the fifteenth day of the month Shevat. Originally Tu b’Shevat was simply the way by which the age of trees was measured for purpose of tithing and of orlah (the first three years when the fruit was considered strictly God’s property and not to be eaten by anyone). In effect it marks the boundary of a tax year.

After the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70CE the taking of tithes from fruit trees fell into disuse, but the date remained special in our calendars. The Mishnah recorded four new years  and their dates: – Rosh Hashanah le’ilanot (Tu b’Shevat) for trees, Rosh Hashanah for years, Rosh Hashanah lema’aser behemah for tithing animals, and Rosh Hashanah le’mel’achim for counting the years of a king’s reign.

The date of Tu b’Shevat has stayed in our calendar throughout the time we were without our land, celebrated and noted by communities all over the world. The Kabbalists of Sfat in the 16th and 17th century developed a ritual – the Tu b’Shevat Seder – to represent our connection to the land of Israel and also to reflect the mystical concept of God’s relationship with our world being like a tree.  The Seder consisted of eating the different types of traditional fruits grown in Israel and connecting the different types of these fruit with each the Four Worlds of Kabbalistic theology, drinking four cups of wine that were each mixed with different proportions of wine with each cup of wine symbolizing one of the four seasons, and reading texts about trees.

The mystics understand Tu B’Shevat as being the day when the Tree of Life renews the flow of life to the universe.  And they taught that by offering blessings on Tu B’Shevat, a person can help in the healing of the world. From this came the belief that since on Tu B’Shevat we offer a blessing for each fruit before we consume it, the more fruits we eat, the more blessings we can offer to help heal the world.

In more modern times Tu b’Shevat has been a gift to the Zionist movement and the return to the Land. They have used it as an opportunity to plant trees in Israel as a way of transforming  the land, as well as re-attaching ourselves to the physical Land of Israel. And most recently the Jewish ecological movements have adopted the day to remind us in  powerful messages of our obligation to care for the environment.

All these themes bound up in Tu b’Shevat are important and helpful to our own Jewish identity and spirituality. There is an overarching theme of healing the world through our connections with nature, of the importance and symbiosis of our relationship with the natural world. And in our relationship with nature, we express our relationship with God. Caring for our world is a sacred task. As we read in Proverbs (3:18)

עֵץ־חַיִּ֣ים הִ֭יא לַמַּחֲזִיקִ֣ים בָּ֑הּ וְֽתֹמְכֶ֥יהָ מְאֻשָּֽׁר׃ 

[Wisdom] is a tree of life to those who grasp her, And whoever holds on to her is happy.

Our tradition asks: “How can a person of flesh and blood follow God? … God, from the very beginning of creation, was occupied before all else with planting.  Therefore … occupy yourselves first and foremost with planting.  – Midrash: Leviticus Rabbah 25:3

It reminds us that  “If you have a sapling in your hand and people tell you that the Messiah has come, plant the sapling and then go and greet him” (Avot de Rabbi Natan)

Mishpatim – following God’s time and learning the lessons of God’s world

In amongst the diverse laws of Mishpatim, laws about slaves and murder, about kidnap and assault, about how to treat parents, damage to livestock, theft, seduction, damage to crops, sorcery, bestiality, idolatry, loans, treatment of the enemy in war, bribery etc. we have the statement

“Six years you shall sow your land, and gather in the abundance of it; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beast of the field shall eat. Similarly you shall deal with your vineyard, and with your olive grove. (Ex 23:10-11)

 This instruction is repeated and expanded in Leviticus chapter 25, verses 1-7:

And the Eternal spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath for the Eternal. Six years shall you sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather its produce. But the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Eternal; you shall not sow your field, nor prune your vineyard. That which grows by itself from your harvest, you shall not reap, and the grapes of your untended vine, you shall not gather [in quantity, as if to sell]; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. And the sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you: for you, and for your servant and for your maid, and for your hired servant and for the traveller who sojourns with you; and for your cattle, and for the wild beasts that are in your land, shall all the abundance be for food.”

And even more so in Deuteronomy:

At the end of every seven years you shall make a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release that which he lent to his neighbour; he shall not exact it of his neighbour and his brother; because God’s release has been proclaimed…..If there be among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which the Eternal your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy fellow;) but you shall surely open your hand to them, and shall surely lend them sufficient for their need. Beware that there be not a base thought in your heart, saying: ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand’; and your eye be evil against your needy fellow, and you do not give to they; and they cry out to the Eternal against you, and it be sin in you. You shall surely give to them, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give; because for this thing the Eternal your God will bless you in all your work, and in all of the works of your hands. For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You shall surely open your hand unto your poor and needy fellows, in your land. If your fellow, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, be sold to you, they shall serve you six years; and in the seventh year you shalt let them go free. And when you let them go free, you shall not let them go empty; you shall furnish them liberally out from your flock, and your threshing-floor, and your winepress; of that which the Eternal your God has blessed you, shall you give to them. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Eternal your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing to-day.’ (15:1-2, 7-15)

 The concept of a sabbatical year, a year when the land is not worked, planted or harvested, but instead allowed to lie fallow, and any produce that grows despite the lack of planting or maintenance is available to anyone, is a biblical innovation that promotes three different social “goods” – allowing the land to lie fallow and recuperate, setting free the Jew who had sold themselves into bonded labour, and the annulment of debts which, if allowed to grow unfettered, would prevent a family ever  leaving poverty.

(The Jubilee, after every seven cycles of sabbatical years, had the added feature of returning any hereditary land and property to their original ownership or their descendants).

The rest for the land is not only about recuperation and restoration – the bible tells us that the consequence for not observing the sabbatical year is exile.  So clearly this is more than an agricultural technique co-opted into a ritual observance – there is further learning to be gained from this mitzvah. What does the enforced rest from working the land do to make our failure to comply mean we are punished so severely?

When we added to the other factors specific to the sabbatical year – those of freeing slaves and annulling debts – it seems that the common theme is to remind us that “ownership” is a fragile phenomenon; that we cannot presume to do what we like with what we own because the ultimate owners are not us. We are simply the stewards, the possessors of the usufruct, holding it on temporary loan and required to return it in good condition.

In the shemittah year, the landowner and the landless are made equal. Both must search for their food – and this mitzvah is not a brief event. For a full year the rights of the landowner and the rights of the landless are the same. For a full year the land is allowed to rest. All people and all animals are able to eat from the produce that grows without help – fruits from the trees, any crop that had self-seeded, any perennial vegetable.

Living like this for a year must reset so many societal assumptions.  Not only is private ownership suddenly not a given, the land cannot in this year be locked away from others – they must have access to glean what food they can. The land itself is expected to rest – something we rarely ask today of our earth, instead we fertilize and spray and burn and rotate in order to get something more from the land. But in the biblical shemittah year the land is like a person, getting its own Shabbat.  In the cycle required by God, six days of labour followed by a day of rest; six years of the landowner sowing and harvesting followed by a full year of “hefker”, of the produce of the land being available to all – we are reminded that we live to a different expectation, we live to a divine expectation.