Tu B'shvat, The New Year for Trees


Tu B'shvat, The New Year for Trees


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Tu B'Shvat and Vegetarianism

By Richard H. Schwartz

Tu B'Shvat is arguably the most vegetarian of Jewish holidays, because of its many connections to vegetarian themes and concepts:

1. The Tu B'Shvat Seder in which fruits and nuts are eaten, along with the singing of songs and the recitation of biblical verses related to trees and fruits, is the only sacred meal where only vegetarian, actually vegan, foods, are eaten. This is consistent with the diet in the Garden of Eden, as indicated by God's first, completely vegetarian, dietary law:

And God said: "Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit--to you it shall be for food." (Gen.1:29)

2. The Talmud refers to Tu B'Shvat as the New Year for Trees. It is considered to be the date on which the fate of trees is decided for the coming year. In recent years, one of the prime ways of celebrating Tu B'Shvat, especially in Israel, is through the planting of trees.

Vegetarianism also reflects a concern for trees. One of the prime reasons for the destruction of tropical rain forests today is to create pasture land and areas to grow feed crops for cattle. To save an estimated 5 cents on each imported fast food hamburger, we are destroying forest areas in countries such as Brazil and Costa Rica, where at least half of the world's species of plants and animals live, and threatening the stability of the world's climate. It has been estimated that every vegetarian saves an acre of forest per year.

3. Both Tu B'Shvat and vegetarianism are connected to today's environmental concerns. Many contemporary Jews look on Tu B'Shvat as a Jewish earth day, and use Tu B'Shvat seders as a chance to discuss how Jewish values can be applied to reduce many of today's ecological threats.

When God created the world, he was able to say, "It is very good" (Genesis 1:31). Everything was in harmony as God had planned, the waters were clean, the air was pure. But what must God think about the world today?

What must God think when the rain he sends to nourish our crops is often acid rain due to the many chemicals poured into the air by our industries? when the ozone layer that He provided to separate the heavens from the earth is being depleted at such a rapid rate? when the abundance of species of plants and animals that He created are becoming extinct in tropical rain forests and other threatened habitats, before we are even been able to catalog them? when the fertile soil that He provided is rapidly being depleted and eroded? when the climatic conditions that He designed to meet our needs are threatened by global warming?

Vegetarianism is consistent with this important Jewish environmental concern, since modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes to many current environmental problems, including soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, the destruction of habitats, and potential global warming.

4. Tu B'Shvat and vegetarianism both reflect the Torah mandate that we are not to waste or destroy unnecessarily anything of value. It is interesting that this prohibition, called bal tashchit ("thou shalt not destroy") is based on concern for fruit-bearing trees, as indicated in Torah statement that forbids the destruction of fruit bearing trees in wartime (Deut. 20:19-20)

The prohibition of bal tashchit (destroying with no need) is consistent with vegetarianism, since, compared to plant-based diets, animal-centered diets require far more land, water, energy, and other agricultural resources.

5. Tu B'Shvat reflects a concern about future generations. In ancient times it was a custom to plant a cedar sapling on the birth of a boy and a cypress sapling on the birth of a girl. The cedar symbolized strength and stature of a man, while the cypress signified the fragrance and gentleness of a woman. When the children were old enough, it was their task to care for the trees that were planted in their honor. It was hoped that branches from both types of trees would form part of the chupah (bridal canopy) when the children married.

Vegetarianism also reflects concern about the future since this diet puts a minimum of strain on the earth and its ecosystems and requires far less water, land, energy, and other scarce agricultural resources than animal-centered diets.

7. It is customary to recite Psalm 104, as well as other psalms, on Tu B'Shvat. Psalm 104 indicates how God's concern and care extends to all creatures, and illustrates that God created the entire earth as a unity, in ecological balance:

...Thou [God] art the One Who sends forth springs into brooks, that they may run between mountains, To give drink to every beast of the fields; the creatures of the forest quench their thirst. Beside them dwell the fowl of the heavens;... Thou art He Who waters the mountains from His upper chambers;... Thou art He Who causes the grass to spring up for the cattle and herb, for the service of man, to bring forth bread from the earth.... How manifold art Thy works, O Lord! In wisdom hast Thou made them all; the earth is full of Thy property....

Vegetarianism also reflects concern for animals and all of God's creation, since for many people it is a refusal to take part in a system that involves the cruel treatment and slaughter of 9 billion farm animals in the United States alone annually, and, as indicated above, that puts so much stress on the earth and its resources.

8.. Both Tu B'Shvat and vegetarianism are becoming increasingly popular today; Tu B'Shvat because of an increasing interest in and concern about nature and environmental issues, and vegetarianism because of increasing concern about health, the treatment of animals, and also the environment and the proper use of natural resources.

With the world's ecosystems threatened as never before, it is important that Jews increasingly discover the important ecological messages of Tu B'Shvat. Similarly, it is also urgent that Jews and others recognize that a shift toward vegetarianism, the diet most consistent with Tu B'Shvat, is not only an important individual choice today, but increasingly it is a Jewish imperative since the realities of modern intensive livestock agriculture and the consumption of animal products are inconsistent with many basic Jewish values, as well as a societal imperative, necessary for economic and ecological stability.

Richard H. Schwartz, Ph. D. is Professor, Emeritus, Mathematics, at the College of Staten Island and author of "Judaism and Vegetarianism"


from the Febuary 2001 Edition Jewish Magazine

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