Eitan Cooper describes the transformation of Ancient Israel’s New Year for the Trees, Tu b’Shevat, into the modern Jewish holiday promoting sustainability of the Earth’s resources.
Tu B’shevat our holiday for trees was one of four New Years in the Hebrew calendar according to the 1st Mishna of Tractate Rosh Hashanah. Of the four only the month of Nissan is actually mentioned as such in the Torah (Exodus Ch. 12), marking the Exodus from Egypt. The Mishna, however, refers to the 1st of Nissan as the beginning of the pilgrim holiday season and the date for recording the years of the reign of the ruling monarch. Our familiar Rosh Hashanah in the month of Tishrei is the described as the day of judgement, the time to account for our deeds over the previous year. The other two New Years, in Elul for counting domestic animals born, and in Shevat for counting produce of trees, were for the purpose of tithing agricultural products, their times coinciding with the agricultural cycles in the Land of Israel.
Today Tu B’shevat is observed by eating dried fruit, planting trees in Israel, and through the custom of holding a Seder Tu B’shevat that has spread to Jewish communities around the world. But the original purpose – counting what we produce from the land, is still very relevant today.
Thousands of years ago the agricultural revolution supplanted natural selection as the principal driver of biological change on earth. It was followed by the metallurgic revolution and the forging of tools and weapons that have launched ancient empires and the spread of civilization. Over the past two centuries, the industrial revolution accelerated the conquest of nature, bringing with it profound economic and demographic changes.
Along the way, we changed. Most of us stopped accounting for our use of natural resources, and as a result we lost track of their value. Western consumerism is the ultimate (dare I use the word?) alienation from nature: What we eat, wear and use are processed and accounted for long before we have had any contact with them.
Bal Tashchit (do not destroy) is a principle of Jewish Law that prohibits wasting useful things, and it is based on the Torah’s commandment (Deuteronomy Ch. 20) prohibiting the destruction of fruit trees in war. The Torah enjoins soldier not to cut down fruit trees in battle. Why? “For (is) a man like the tree of the field to lay siege against you (?)”. The Torah enjoined armies to put aside the destructive impulse driving them in war in order to prevent its cruelest result: famine. Some contemporary scholars of Jewish Law claim that Bal Tashchit should in our time be extended to include the preservation of all natural resources, incorporating sustainability into Halacha. While engaged in the day-to-day of producing and consuming goods, we are required to think about the resources we use – they do not belong to us alone.
Our liberal political beliefs, bolstered by digital technology in the 21st century, are driving a rapid globalization that values individual autonomy and choice above all. But this new world towards which we are moving quickly also holds out some serious risks to our wellbeing. We are by nature social beings: it is the connection and obligations to the group that enabled our ancestors to evolve. Homer likened our lives to leaves that bud, grow, wither and die, while the trees of the forest live on. Our agent sage Hillel made the same point with the rhetorical question, “…and if I am only for myself, what am I?”
Thus our Sages offered up a unified message that for me resonates in this era of globalization and the challenges it poses both to human nature and to natural resources.
Telling us to stop four times a year to count our days and seasons, to account for our deeds towards one another, count the animals we have bred, and the fruit of the trees we have cultivated for our own purposes. If we all learn to account for ourselves and the use of the earths’ resources, the great lessons of wellbeing and sustainability will follow.
In addition to the Sages and Darwin, I want to acknowledge and recommend the writings of contemporary teachers and friends that helped inform the views expressed above:
Shavua Tov & Happy Tu B’shevat from Schechter
Eitan Cooper is the Executive Vice President of The Schechter Institutes. Since coming to Schechter in 2000, he has served in various capacities, including TALI Outreach Coordinator and Vice President for Development. Mr. Cooper holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MA from the Hebrew University. He is a graduate of the Mandel School for Educational Leadership and a licensed Israeli tour guide.
Eitan and Anita Cooper made Aliya from the United States in 1983, and are proud parents and grandparents to their growing Israeli family.