Winter is always unique in Texas and Tu B’Shevat is early this year (almost time for two Adars so we can catch up). We may be able to be outside and enjoy nature, or we could be freezing on Jan. 17. No matter the weather, it is always a wonderful time to experience Tu B’Shevat — the Birthday of the Trees. Most of us have memories of collecting money to plant trees in Israel at this time of year, and we continue to plant, especially on this “birthday.”
This holiday is a great time to appreciate the wonder of nature and to learn that the Jewish people have been ecologists and environmentalists since biblical times — commanded by G-d to care for our earth. The term “shomrei adamah” means “guardians of the earth.” We must be the protectors of the earth now more than ever. Tu B’Shevat is a very special time to learn and remember how we can take care of our world!
The rabbis tell us a story in Ecclesiastes Rabbah that, after the creation of humans, G-d took Adam and Eve around the Garden of Eden. G-d showed them all of its beauty, then said, “See how beautiful is my handiwork. I have created all of it for you to use. Please take care of it. Do not spoil or destroy my world.” This is a special message to us even though the rabbis could not have imagined that we would do such damage to our world. The mitzvah of bal tashchit comes from this verse from Deuteronomy 20:19 — “When you wage war against a city…do not destroy its trees.” The rabbis tell us that we must not destroy any object from which someone might benefit.
Shabbat teaches us the relationship between nature and mankind. We were given six days to manage the earth, but on Shabbat, we must neither create nor destroy. On Shabbat, we can just enjoy the beauty of the universe. Talk about these texts:
Care is to be taken that bits of broken glass should not be scattered on public land where they may cause injury. Pious people often buried their broken glassware in their own fields. —Talmud, Baba Kamma 30a
A tannery must not be set up in such a way that the prevailing winds can send the unpleasant odor to the town. —Jerusalem Talmud, Baba Batra 2:9
Whoever breaks vessels, tears clothes, demolishes a building, stops up a fountain or wastes food, in a destructive way, transgresses the law of bal tashchit. —Mishneh Torah, Melachim 6:10
Some special things to do for Tu B’Shevat
Save money to plant a tree in Israel. Contact Jewish National Fund.
Plant with your children: Parsley grows well indoors, so start now and you will be ready for Passover! You can also plant horseradish for Passover but it is a little tricky.
Start recycling — or if you already recycle paper, start recycling plastic. Keep adding to all that we can do. We can also challenge ourselves to watch what we “waste” and work on reusing!
Have a Tu B’Shevat Seder! There are many new Tu B’Shevat Haggadot but you can create your own. The 16th-century tradition includes the following:
Four cups of wine: First, enjoy white wine for winter; second, have pink (a little red mixed with a little white) for the first sprouts; third is light red as the first fruits ripen; fourth is all red when all is in full bloom and we give thanks.
Four different fruits: first, fruits with outer shell that we cannot eat, but the inside is all delicious (almond); second, fruits with pits, eat all but the inside (dates); third, entirely edible (fig); fourth, wheat, barley, rye, oats, grain — BREAD!
With each, say a blessing, be sure to taste a new and different fruit for the Sheheheyanu, end with hamotzi and enjoy a delicious meal together.
Laura Seymour is Jewish Experiential Learning director and Camp director emeritus at the Aaron Family JCC.