Tu B’Shevat Torah Learning

This library of Torah learning articles connected to Tu b’Shevat includes articles previously featured in Canfei Nesharim’s annual Tu b’Shevat Learning Campaigns. All materials are available and free to share with your audience, so long as you include reference to Canfei Nesharim and our website (www.canfeinesharim.org).

Trees, Torah and Caring for the Earth
By Dr. Akiva Wolff and Rabbi Yonatan Neril.

A part of the “Trees in Jewish Thought” Series. This material was prepared as part of the Jewcology project. Jewcology.com is a new web portal for the global Jewish environmental community. Thanks to the ROI community for their generous support, which made this project possible.

Tu b’Shevat, “the New Year of the Tree,” has become known as a day for raising Jewish-environmental awareness. That the New Year of the Tree has come to be associated with sensitivity to and appreciation of the natural environment is not by chance. Many Jewish sources connect trees with our proper stewardship of the earth. Understanding these teachings on Tu b’Shevat can help us improve our relationship to G-d’s creation, our world.

Tu B’shvat: The Power of Blessings
Rabbi Prero writes a wonderful Dvar Torah on saying blessings before eating. In the book of Yeshaya, the Jews are compared to a worm; Rabbi Prero discusses why that is and relates it to blessings ending off with a beautiful lesson. Written in: 1999

Am I My Planet’s Keeper?
By Evonne Marzouk. In the story of Cain and Abel, when Cain murders Abel and G-d questions him, Cain responds with the answer, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This often-quoted rhetorical question has come to represent an ethical responsibility that all human beings have toward each other, also reflected in Hillel’s famous characterization of Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your brother.”

What a Beautiful Tree
by Rabbi Elli Fischer. Tu b’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, is a good time for Torah learning about trees. I’d like to share with you a mishnah that has always concerned me, and see if we can learn something new that will help us enhance our appreciation of nature. Rabbi Shimon says: one who is walking on a path and is repeating, and he interrupts his repetitions and says, “What a beautiful tree! Or, what a beautiful plowed field!” the Torah treats it as though he owes his life.

Use and Re-use
By Rebbetzin Chana Bracha Siegelbaum. One of the major signs of the process of “Geula” (redemption) is the renewed awareness by Torah observant communities of how to relate to our physical environment. Now that we are returning to our own Land, the time has come to reevaluate our relationship with the Earth, and to start keeping the Torah laws that relate to the importance of recycling, minimizing waste and protecting the environment.

Are We Lagging Behind on Green Issues?
By Rabbi Yossi Ives, MA. As a boy of six I was walking to shul with my father one morning and I unthinkingly tore some leaves off the hedge we were passing. In disapproval my father told me the Chassidic tale (Sefer Hatoldot-Chabad Vol XIII) of how Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch as a young boy carelessly ripped a leaf of a tree and was told by his father, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, that God had his intention for that leaf and he was not to damage it unnecessarily. An almost identical story is told by Aryeh Levine about Rav Kook: “As we were walking I plucked some flower or plant: he trembled, and quietly told me that he always took great care not to pluck, unless it were for some benefit…” (Lachai Ro’i p. 15).

Cosmic Consciousness, Man, and the Worm
By Rabbi David Sears. Ecology is a highly practical branch of science. Nothing could be more “down to earth” than preservation of the planet. Yet there is a facet of ecological awareness that is often overlooked. This is its spiritual dimension. When we act as self-absorbed individuals, with little regard for anyone or anything that exists outside ourselves, we immediately fall into moral and spiritual error. As the Yiddish saying goes, “A blind horse heads straight for the pit!”

The Land is Mine
by Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen. This Tu b’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, also takes place during the year of Shemittah, the seventh year of rest for the land. It is therefore a special time for us to reflect on our responsibility to the land – and our relationship with it. In the Torah we find the following Divine proclamation: “The land shall not be sold permanently, as the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me” (Leviticus 25:23).

The Green Belt of the Torah: For Us and Our Animals
by Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen. The New Year of the Trees is upon us. It’s time to consider the value of our world, and the importance of connecting to nature in our lives. Let’s look at a mitzvah from the Torah that helps us understand the ideal balance between space for humanity, space for other creatures, and open space for nature. “Command the Children of Israel that they shall give to the Levites, from the heritage of their possession, cities for dwelling; and open space all around the cities shall you give to the Levites. The cities shall be theirs for dwelling, and their open space shall be for their animals, for their possessions, and for all the amenities of life” (Numbers 35:2,3).

A Jewish Perspective on the Tragedy of the Commons
By Rabbi Akiva Wolff. In 1968, in one of the seminal articles written on the subject of environment protection, Garrett Hardin assured himself a place in the annals of the environmental movement. His article, title The Tragedy of the Commons became a ‘must-read’ for every budding environmentalist in the nation if not the world.

The Environment in Contemporary Jewish Law
By Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld. In classical Judaism, many references are made to issues we nowadays would define as “environmental”. These are found, for instance, in both the Tanakh’s halakhic parts and the narrative. The stories of Paradise, the Flood, the ten plagues, and the falling of the manna have multiple environmental aspects. Talmud, Midrash literature, rabbinical responsa and other texts also refer to many environmental issues. Together they present a specific Jewish position on what emerged only a few decades ago as a separate field.

Ecological Problems–Living on Future Generations’ Account
By Rabbi Yehudah Levi. Before we can hope to solve the problems of ecology in the tech­nological age, we must get at the roots of these problems. These lie primarily in our basic attitude toward the purpose of our life—in our choice of priorities. In the secular society, the top priority is self-interest. Any sense of responsibility toward the world at large is—if it exists at all—extremely secondary. Let us illustrate this with a typical example. In a certain industry, it is standard practice to use a manufacturing process which is highly economical, but at the same time contributes to the destruction of the protective ozone layer in the atmosphere. If we were to suggest to the manager of a company in this industry that he use an alternative process which reduces pollution, but is more costly, he would answer, “My first responsibility is to the stock­holders. I do not have the right to tell them to reduce their profits in order to preserve the quality of the atmosphere fifty years from now.” From a secular standpoint, this claim is difficult to refute. The Torah attacks this problem by helping us to change our inner motivation.

Fruit and Vegetables, Man and Animals
by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, Zoo Torah (This essay is adapted from Seasons of Life). Tu BiShevat, the new year for trees, is a time of great festivity. We may wonder, though, why this should be so. We do not find such celebration on the new year for vegetables or crops. What is so special about fruit. A distinction between fruit and crops is found at the beginning of the Torah.

What is Our Responsibility to Other Creatures?
By Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW and Chaya Feuerman, LCSW, Psychotherapists. Tu b’Shevat is known as the New Year for Trees. As such, we appreciate the bounty of fruit and produce offered by the land through Hashem’s kindness and wisdom. One way to show this appreciation is to explore some themes regarding protection of the environment in light of Torah. In this article we will focus on one aspect of this issue, namely our relationship to other species. There is much confusion about the topic of animal rights, animal suffering, and whether Judaism recognizes the concept of conservationism to protect species from extinction. Let us study this matter to see what we can learn about our role on the planet and our responsibility to the environment.

Learning Faith and Gratitude Through Our Relationship to Hashem’s Creation
By Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz. Tu b’Shevat, the new year of the trees, is a good time to focus on the natural world. Appreciating the natural world can help us deepen our relationship with Hashem, through emunah (faith), love and fear of Hashem, and gratitude for all of our blessings. The first seder (order) of the Mishna is the order of Zeraim, dealing with agricultural laws. Each seder of the mishna has a nickname, an alternative name. What is the alternative name for the order of zeraim? It is called the Order of Emunah, the order of faith and belief. Why is the order related to agriculture called “emunah”? Because when a person lives close to the land, that person understands very clearly how much we depend on it. The farmer knows how much he needs the rain and the sun, how much he relies on Hashem for the blessing of our natural resources.

Protection of the Environment, Protection of Ourselves
By Rabbi Zecharyah Tzvi Goldman. Tu b’Shevat is a time when we express our appreciation for the bounty of Hashem’s creation through the fruits of trees. Today, some fruits and other food products are being threatened and, possibly, made unhealthful through practices that also damage the environment. What is the halachic response regarding the need to protect one’s health? For example, some foods, including non-organic foods, animal foods and dairy products with hormones and antibiotics in them, and genetically-engineered foods, may be considered to be unhealthful. Is there an obligation not to eat these foods, or to avoid unhealthful environmental practices that may cause damage to our health?

You Shall Not Covet
By Rabbi Yonatan Neril. The Ten Commandments given in the Torah portion Yitro culminate with the command not to covet: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor.”[1] The 19th century Torah commentator Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg explores this commandment, and in so doing offers a Jewish approach to spiritual living and material consumption.

Tree = Man? Or Tree = Man!
Resolving the Ambiguity at the Heart of Bal Tashchit. By Rabbi Yehoshua Kahan. Tu BiShevat is popularly referred to as “The New Year for the Trees”. This evokes in many of us an image of anthropomorphized trees getting together and celebrating, perhaps along the lines of the Ents, those humanized trees of Lord of the Rings. The truth is that Tu BiShevat is less of a new year for the trees as it is a new year for the halachot of the trees. Many halachot which relate to trees and their fruit are time-dependant, and one of the critical dates for determining the applicability of those halachot is Tu BiShevat. Over time, however, custom has enable Tu Bishevat to expand and address many other ways in which trees appear in Jewish tradition and literature. One of the most well-know of all tree-related traditions is the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit – the prohibition of cutting down fruit trees even in times of war.

G-d, Man, and Tree
by Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Strikovsky (Reprinted with permission from B’Or HaTorah) Fill the land and conquer it. Dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every beast that walks the land (Genesis 1:28) G-d’s blessing to Adam and Eve is interpreted by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rabbi Isaac Breuer, and Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik as a positive mitsva (Commandment) calling man to develop and improve G‑d’s world. Our sages praised labor and saw the mitsva of creative activity as expressing the Divine image in all branches of human culture.

The Ten Sayings of Creation: Unity, Multiplicity, and Ecology
By Rabbi Dovid Sears. Jewish mystics speak of “Four Worlds.” These Four Worlds are actually four stages in a sequence that spans the first point of creation with the last, the highest with the lowest: Emanation, Creation, Formation and Action. Beyond them all is the primordial Divine Oneness, the encompassing Infinite Light of God known as Ein Sof. The great Italian kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (RaMCHaL, 1707-1746), explains, “The Four Worlds of Emanation, Creation, Formation, and Action are not four graduated domains, actually divided from one another . . . Rather they comprise one category . . . one hierarchy . . . Each contributes its own part to the creatures [that live in the physical universe].”

Global Ecology: On the Road to Redemption
By Dr. Aryeh Gotfryd. If the science of ecology has demonstrated anything at all, it is this: No act thuds into isolation or oblivion. Everything is interwoven and responsive, with all natural processes intimately linked in a precisely balanced global ecosystem. Each species, each creature, each organ, each cell, is finely attuned and adapted to its natural environment, and yet each one has its significant role in creating the precise environmental conditions for the next cell, the next organ, the next creature, and the biosphere as a whole.

The Unity and Purposefulness of Creation
By Rabbi Gavriel Weinberg. Tu b’Shevat is an appropriate time to appreciate the greatness of Creation, and to honor it. We read in the third chapter of Pirke Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) a mishna that symbolizes the essence of the Torah’s regard for the purposefulness of all God’s creation. Ben Azai would be accustomed to say: He used to say, Despise not any man, and carp not at any thing; for thou wilt find that there is not a man that has not his hour, and not a thing that has not its place. (Translation by Charles Taylor)

Trees are Us
by Rabbi Michael Skobac. In the first mishnah of tractate Rosh HaShanah, the School of Hillel asserts that the “New Year” for trees is on the 15th day of the month of Shvat. The significance of this date is to determine when the year begins for assessing the tithes and other agricultural obligations for fruit trees. Basing themselves upon the famous Biblical passage that “man is like the tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19), Chassidic masters suggest that this day also has a Rosh HaShanah significance for humans as well. My first encounter with the idea of a linkage between people and trees occurred shortly before getting engaged to my wife Chashi.

The Jewish Earth Day
By Candace Nachman. Nearly 38 years ago, the first Earth Day was observed in the United States. Twenty million people, 2,000 colleges and universities, 10,000 grammar and high schools and 1,000 communities mobilized for the first nationwide demonstrations on environmental problems. The response was nothing short of remarkable, and the modern American environmental movement began. Long before the beginning of the environmental movement, Torah Judaism recognized our moral and ethical obligation to protect the Earth. On Tu b’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, let’s look at some of the Jewish teachings related to the environment.

Shepherd Consciousness
By Fivel Yedidya Glasser, with contributions from Rabbi Chanan Morrison. Our ancestors were shepherds. The Torah tells us that our forefathers, as well as Moshe Rebbeinu, Rachel Immeinu and King David all herded goats and sheep. And in the Torah portion of Vayeishev we see that Joseph (Yosef) also worked as a shepherd alongside his brothers.[1] The greatest of our early Jewish leaders chose this profession, a livelihood scorned by surrounding cultures. Years after Yosef’s exile to Egypt and rise to viceroy of the king of Egypt, when his brothers came to him in exile, Yosef presented them to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. The question that most interested the king was: “What is your occupation?” “We are shepherds,” they replied to Pharaoh, “like our fathers before us.”[2] Shepherding was not a respected occupation in Egypt, and Pharaoh relegated Yosef’s family to the far-off land of Goshen.

Planting The Tabernacle
by Ariel Shalem. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) was not the first to plant forests in Israel. According to the Midrash Tanhuma (ch.9) on the Torah portion of Terumah, we have a precedent for the first plantation in the Bible planted by Yaakov (Jacob) a few thousand years before. According to the Midrash, Yaakov received a prophecy that his descendents, while in the desert, would be instructed to build a dwelling place for God. He subsequently planted saplings in the land of Israel and instructed his children to transplant them diligently to Egypt. By making this wise decision, Yaakov prepared a whole forest that would later supply the Sanctuary with at least 800 cubic feet of usable wood-that’s over twenty tons!

Perceptions on the Parsha
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston (1998, posted in 2001). A nicely written article describing what Tu B’shvat is about and what is occurring in the ground during that time. The paper ends with a Dvar Torah on why Tu B’shvat is called the New Year for the tree and not trees; revealing to us a goal we must strive for.

Planting the Seed of Eternity
by Rabbi Yehuda Prero (2000) This is a beautifully written article about Choni HaM’agel. Using an analogy with a carob tree this paper teaches a wonderful lesson about the importance of every person no matter how fleeting our time on earth seems.

The Trees and the Eruv
by Rabbi Shlomo Levin. On Jewish New Years we analyze our deeds and repent. Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees, celebrated February 13th, is a time for me to do some soul searching regarding this tree-related incident with my neighbor.

Trees and the Urban Environment: Getting along with the Natives
By Ben Schott. Everyone thinks of Tu b’Shevat as a good time for planting in Israel. We can also use this time of year to explore planting in our own neighborhoods. You can make a difference in your community as part of a growing effort to re-plant our cities and suburbs with native plants and trees. Planting around your home and city can offer economical and environmental benefits, from lower utility bills to clean air and water. Urban greenery provides aesthetic, as well as functional value to the local community. Around your home, a well planned out landscape and well cared for trees can even raise the monetary value of your property. The National Arbor Day Foundation reports that healthy, mature trees can add 15% or more to the value of your home.