Tu Bishvat, trees, and bringing holiness in to the world
Chag Sameach! Happy Holiday!
Today is the start of Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish new year of the trees! It falls every year on the fifteenth day of the Jewish month Shevat, which is when the rabbis believed is the best time to plant trees in Israel. Jews celebrate Tu B’Shvat in many ways; some practice it as an ecological awareness day, others eat specific fruits from trees in Israel as a part of a Tu B’Shvat Seder.
According to Lurianic Kabbalah, a type of Jewish mysticism, all beings, including trees and fruits, have within them a “Divine Spark” or a seed of holiness. According to this practice, people can release these divine sparks through our actions. That is one reason why Jews eat these fruits on Tu B’Shvat, to release these “Divine Sparks” into the world.
What is a “Divine Spark,” and what does it mean to release it? When it comes to trees, perhaps it means appreciating all that they give us and taking care of them in return. Celebrating a birthday is a form of appreciation, and of celebration. There are also laws of conservation in Judaism; the requirement to let the ground lay fallow every seven years, the laws protecting working animals such as oxen, and the obligation to conserve Judaism by passing it to our children, among others. One such rule for trees can be found in Leviticus 19:23-25:
When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, its fruit is forbidden. For three years you are to consider it forbidden; it must not be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit will be holy, an offering of praise to HaShem. But in the fifth year you may eat its fruit. In this way your harvest will be increased. I am HaShem your G-d.
This rule seems confusing at first glance—why would HaShem want us to let fruit go to waste? It is true, however, that trees that are not harvested from in the first three years tend to last longer and produce more fruit. By leaving the tree alone for three years, we are taking care of it so it will live longer, we are helping it grow its “Divine Spark.”
After these years we are not only allowed to eat the fruit, we are also prohibited from destroying the tree even in conquered lands. Deuteronomy 20:19 states:
When in your war against a city you have to besiege a long time in order to capture, you must not destroy its trees, wielding an axe against them. You may eat their fruit, but you may not cut them down.
This rule makes much more sense, if we are not allowed to eat from trees for three years after they are planted, then of course we shouldn’t chop them down and start anew.
What happens then if we replace “trees” with “people”? The rule requiring us not to take from trees when they are not ready to sustain us applies to people easily- in community, we must not overextend our community members’ responsibilities or expectations beyond what they are capable of providing. Just as we care about the trees, we must care for each other and protect the “Divine Spark” within each of us.
The rule against chopping down trees is also applicable to people. Regardless of who planted the tree, it is holy and must not be destroyed. This is true of people as well; regardless of what identities we hold, we are each holy and deserve respect.
There are seven fruits which Jews generally eat on Tu B’Shvat (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates), but there are many more than that which are celebrated. Mizrachi Jews traditionally eat 30 different types of fruit, and the Indian Jews 50!
Each fruit is related, but they all have significant differences as well. Similarly, people are all inherently the same, but we are also all different. Each fruit, each tree, and each person, regardless of our different shapes, colors, presentations, and identities, is holy.
Lily Fisher Romberg is a contributing writer to My Jewish Learning and Kiddish magazine.