By Laura Seymour
February 8 — 15 of Shevat — is the wonderful holiday of Tu B’Shevat. Once considered the “birthday of trees” or even the “Jewish Arbor Day,” Tu B’Shevat these days reminds us that it’s important to be stewards of the earth and to protect it.
To that end, most of us have memories of collecting money to plant trees in Israel at this time of year.
Planting trees is certainly a good way to observe this holiday, but the good news is that there are so many wonderful ways of teaching our children to appreciate the wonder of nature and to learn that the Jewish people have been ecologists, conservationists and environmentalists since biblical times.
We are, after all, commanded by God to care for our earth. According to Genesis, He created mankind to have dominion over the animals, flora and the earth itself; within that, it’s implied that we’re responsible for everything on the planet. The Torah then gives us detailed instructions on how to protect and preserve the earth. Our Jewish sages have reinforced this theme.
For example, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai wrote: “If you have a sapling in your hand and you are told that the Messiah has come, first plant the sapling and then go welcome the Messiah.” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 31b).
Other areas of the Talmud point out that “It is forbidden to live in a town in which there is no garden or greenery (Jerusalem Talmud, Kodahsim 4:12)” and “Whoever destroys anything that could be useful to others breaks the law of Bal Tashchit (Babylonian Talmud, Kodashim 32a).” Bal Tashchit, by the way, is an important Jewish law which tells us we’re forbidden to destroy.
You can help make Tu B’Shevat more meaningful for your family in the following ways.
Save money to plant a tree in Israel
Check with your local synagogue’s religious school to see if they have a program along these lines.
Plant greens and herbs with your children
Though it’s still too cool for outdoor planting, some herbs do well indoors. For example, parsley grows well indoors, so grow it — and it will be ready for Passover!
Conduct a Tu B’Shevat seder!
We think of seders in conjunction with Passover, but Jewish tradition provides a seder to celebrate the earth as well. There are many new Tu B’Shevat Haggadot available, or you can create your own. The seder tradition includes the following rituals before a delicious meal:
• Four cups of wine. The first cup is white, to represent winter; the second can be pink (or mix a little red with the white) to celebrate the first sprouts. The third cup is light red, to represent ripening fruits, with the fourth cup all red, representing fruit in full bloom.
• Four different fruits. Much like the wine ritual above, different fruits represent different stages of growth. The first consists of fruits with a hard, inedible outer shell and a tasty inside (such as almonds or pomegranates); the second is fruits with pits of which all can be eaten except for the inside. The third types of fruits are entirely edible (such as figs); while the fourth fruits are actually grains: Wheat, barley, rye and oats, all of which are found in breads. Before eating each fruit, say a blessing and before eating the bread, say the motzi.
Take time to talk with your children about the meaning of Jewish texts and their commands to us to take care of the earth
One good resource for this is “Listen to the Trees — Jews and the Earth” by Molly Crone. There is no right or wrong answer in discussing these texts.
Laura Seymour is director of Camping Services at the Jewish Community Center of Dallas.