Friday, January 21, 2011

Jews Were the First Environmentalists

Starting tonight, January 19, 2011, is the Jewish holiday of Tu B'Shevat (literally the 15th of Shevat). There is still snow on the ground in parts of the United States as we prepare to celebrate this New Year for Trees, but Tu B'Shevat is thought to mark the beginning of spring in Israel because it is the time that the almond tree begins to blossom.

Trees and all things that grow in the ground that are very important to us as Jews. The Torah even compares the human being to a tree. In fact, the Jewish people were the first environmentalists. It was our Torah, given to us over 3300 years ago, that states in Bereishith (the Book of Genesis) how God placed us in the Garden of Eden to work and guard the land. We were the world's first guardians. The Torah also tells us that we are not allowed to cut down fruit-bearing trees, even in times of war when lives are at stake. Its our Torah that says you cannot divert the the water going to a city, even if you are waging war against them. The Torah even discusses how soldiers must carry a spade with them to dispose of waste properly. And that is why Tu B'Shevat is so important to us as Jews.

You can celebrate this New Year (for Trees) in your home by eating a new fruit (something you haven't eaten in the last year) so you'll be able to make a blessing over the fruit and recite the Sheh'heh'chi'yanu blessing (of God who has sustained us). Have a very happy Tu B'Shevat, the New Year for Trees!

While it has been a difficult winter for many of us, it may be time to look beyond the turbulent weather and see that spring is just around the corner. You might wonder how one can possibly think of spring at the present time, but, according to Jewish wisdom, now is precisely the time because now is the time of the New Year for trees: Tu B'Shevat.

Tu B'Shevat, literally, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, marks the official start of spring in Israel, even though the weather is still cold. According to Jewish tradition, this is the day on which the long dormant sap in the trees begins to flow again.

Why is Tu B'Shevat even celebrated as a holiday and elevated to the status of being one of the four New Years on the Jewish calendar? In Judaism, a holiday usually marks a day on which there is a unique connection between the spiritual and physical worlds and signals an event from which we can learn and grow.

Because of Tu B'Shevat, Jews around the world are given a moment to stop and think about the trees and the greenery around them. Spiritually, there is much that one can learn from a tree. For instance, almost every person goes through a "spiritual winter," a time in which it is hard to connect to God or to follow religious beliefs. According to tradition, deep within each Jew there is a pintele yid (Yiddish for a "little bit of Jewish spirit"). Like the frozen sap that is thawed by the coming of spring and brings new life to the tree, the pintele yid can be ignited by a spark of inspiration and revitalize the Jewish soul.

This year, Tu B'Shevat begins on Sunday, February 8, at nightfall and ends after sunset on Monday, February 9. Some people follow the custom of eating special Israeli foods and conduct a special Tu B'Shevat Seder.

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