15 Shvat 5783
February 5–6, 2023
The Mishnah indicates that, in ancient Israel, there were four new years: one for counting the time of the reign of kings and the others related to the correct accounting of offerings. Specifically, the school of Shammai called the first day of the month Shvat as the beginning of the count for the tithing of the first fruits, and the school of Hillel cemented it on the 15th of Shvat month. Hence the name of this celebration: Tu Bishvat means “15 of Shvat” and is called the “New Year of Trees”, since each letter of the Hebrew alphabet represents a number. Thus, the letter “Tet” represents “9” and the letter “vav” (pronounced “u”) represents “6” (9+6=15), avoiding writing the letter “yud” (10) next to the letter “hey” (5), forming half of God’s name.
To help make the accounting clear, this Mishná indicated that, if a tree gave fruit before that date, these fruits should be accounted for the previous year, otherwise for the following year.
In the 17th century, the Kabbalists of Israel instituted a Seder of Tu Bishvat, a dinner with a special ritual in which the fruits of Israel are eaten, blessings are recited on fruit and bread, and one travels through the four seasons and through the four levels of creation: emanation, creation, formation, and action.
From a series of biblical verses and rabbinical maxims, this festivity was transformed into the celebration of the Land of Israel and nature:
“For the Lord, Your God brings you to a good land… land of wheat and barley, of the vine and fig tree, of pomegranate, land of olive trees and honey.”
“And God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and care for him.”
The Midrash says, “When God created the first human being, He showed him all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘Look at my works! See how beautiful they are, how excellent they are! I raised them for you. Worry about not ruining or destroying My world because if you do, there will be no one to fix it after you.”
In the Torah, it is written: “ki ha’adam etz hasadeh”, “because man is like the tree of the field”. From this one learns that destroying a tree is ethically equivalent to murdering a person, and hence the Jewish teaching of “bal tashchit”, “not destroying”, which implies not breaking something without reason, not wasting, not causing suffering to animals, not cutting down fruit trees, and not destroying nature. The philosopher Maimonides (1135–1204) added: “This law does not apply only to trees. Anyone who breaks containers, tears clothes, destroys buildings, covers wells, or wastes food violates the prohibition of destroying.”
In 1908, the Israeli Teachers’ Union declared Tu Bishvat as a day of tree planting, as a symbol of the rebirth of the new State of Israel. The party has been accepted by all and is respected to this day.
In 1977 Kibbutz Yahel and later Kibbutz Lotan were founded, located in the Negev desert in Israel, and affiliated with the World Union of Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). They emerged with the aim of creating cooperative communities based on Jewish ecological values. They have palm plantations, perform ecotourism, and offer courses in organic agriculture, solar energy, natural buildings, permaculture, energy efficiency, and creative ecology.
In 2017, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) in the United States signed a document calling on Reform congregations to take an active stand in generating awareness of the serious problem of climate change.
The activities proposed in the document can be presented in a wide range of formats, from rabbinical preaching related to the subject to environmental education in youth camps and in bar and bat mitzvá preparation courses, from an ecological look to each Jewish festivity to political activism in favor of sustainable environmental development legislation.
Rabbi Dalia Marx wrote, “This year, let us look around us with love and fear and concentrate our efforts not to plunder our world and to commit ourselves to the recovery of the human being and the earth.”
Rabino Martín Hirsch
Concepción – Chile