Tu B’Shevat: more than simply planting trees

Dear Families,
It is winter, and it has been cold. Yet Tu B’Shevat — the Birthday of the Trees — is just around the corner. With it is coming a feeling of spring.
Tu B’Shevat is the 15th day of Shevat; this year the holiday will be celebrated Jan. 31. Most of us have memories of collecting money to plant trees in Israel at this time of year. We continue the planting of trees on this “birthday.” Additionally, there are so many wonderful ways of teaching our children to appreciate the wonders of nature, and to learn that the Jewish people have been ecologists and environmentalists since biblical times. God commands us to care for the earth, and Tu B’Shevat is a very special time to remember this.
The Torah tells us how the world was created, but then goes on to tell us how to protect and preserve the earth. A very important Jewish law is bal tashchit — in other words, do not destroy. The Torah tells us we must not destroy and we must not waste.
This is a good time of year to talk with your children about the meaning of the various comments from Jewish texts on taking care of the earth. One very good resource for such a discussion is a book, Listen to the Trees — the Jews and the Earth by Molly Cone.
Don’t be nervous if you have never studied a Jewish text. Simply read the full text out loud, then ask your children what they think it means. As you break the text into smaller pieces, continue to ask questions. There is no “right” or “wrong” answer. Just the answer in which we can find meaning for ourselves with this holiday. Even young children are capable of finding such meaning.
Here are some examples of appropriate texts for Tu B’Shevat:
“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, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai)
“It is forbidden to live in a town in which there is no garden or greenery.” (Jerusalem Talmud, Kodashim 4:12)
“When you besiege a city for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. You may eat from them, but you must not cut them down.” (Deuteronomy 20:19)
“Whoever destroys anything that could be useful to others breaks the law of bal tashchit.” (Babylonian Talmud, Kodashim 32a)
“The whole world of humans, animals, fish, and birds all depend on one another. All drink the earth’s water, breathe the earth’s air, and find their food in what was created on the earth. All share the same destiny.” (Tanna de Bei Eliyahu Rabbah 2)

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