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Reprinted with permission from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook (Jason Aronson).
In the Jewish scheme of the world, trees have always occupied a key and revered role. According to the Creation story, seed bearing plants and fruit trees were put on the Earth before any other living thing (Genesis 1:11-12). In other words, the first thing God did once He had firm land was to plant trees!
The Tree of Life, which God placed at the heart of the Garden of Eden, became a symbol of Jewish existence, a core value of individual and communal living: continuity.
The Talmud sages held wonderfully imaginative discussions about trees in life and legend. They believed that mankind, which they often compared to trees, owes its existence to them and should treat them with special recognition. Serious consequences would result from destroying a tree. The Torah (itself called a Tree of Life in Proverbs 3:18) prohibits the destruction of fruit trees, even in times of war (Deuteronomy20:19-20), and to prevent the loss of Israel’s natural forests, the sages prohibited the Jews from allowing goats to graze freely. Today in Israel, anyone who wants to destroy a tree must apply for a license, even if the tree is on his or her own property.
Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who lived in Jerusalem when it was being sacked by the Romans, cleverly taught the priority of planting. “If you should be holding a sapling in your hand when they tell you the Messiah has arrived,” he advised, “first plant the sapling, then go out and greet him.”
Planting a tree–a concrete, practical act–has represented hope since ancient times. On Tu Bishvat in Palestine, trees were planted for children born during the previous year: for a boy, a cedar, with the wish that the child would grow to be tall and upright, for a girl, a cypress, which was graceful and fragrant. Later, branches from the cypress and cedar of a bride and groom were used to make the huppah (canopy) for their wedding ceremony. The planting was associated with two of the most important times in an individual’s life, birth and marriage, two occasions when we concentrate on the possibilities for the future. So powerful is this connection that even in the Theriesenstadt concentration camp, children planted a tree.
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