Trees in Jewish Thought

Jewish sources single out trees as one of the most important aspects of the natural world.

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Reprinted with permission of Canfei Nesharim.

The Mishnah teaches that Tu Bishvat is the new year for the trees. By Tu Bishvat, the majority of the winter rains have already fallen, sap is rising, and new fruits are beginning to form. Therefore, when it comes to mitzvot such as orlah (fruits prohibited in the first three years of a tree’s production), Tu Bishvat distinguishes between the last year’s fruits and the fruits of a new year.Forest

That Tu Bishvat has come to be associated with sensitivity to and appreciation of the natural environment is not by chance. Trees occupy a special place in Jewish thought, which closely relates to man’s relationship with the natural environment, our life-support system. 

Trees in the Midrash

For example, the Midrash in Kohelet Rabbah teaches: “When God created the first man he took him and showed him all the trees  of the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world–for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.'”

This Midrash singles out the trees of the Garden of Eden–rather than the Garden of Eden itself–to represent the natural world, the work of the Creator. Why should trees be chosen to symbolize the natural world?

Trees are at the pinnacle of the plant world, which transforms the earth from a barren and lifeless mass into an environment capable of supporting other forms of life such as animals and humans. We find this expressed in the Midrash Sifrei: “[the phrase] ‘because a man is a tree of the field’ teaches that the life of man is from the tree.” (Piska 203)

Likewise, Rabbenu Bahya, a medieval Jewish philosopher, writes: “The commentators explain that the life of man and his food is [from] a tree of the field…and it is not the way of a wise and understanding nation to needlessly destroy something so worthy, and therefore you should not cut down a tree of the field, rather you should protect it from destruction and damage, and take benefit from it.”

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Rabbi Akiva Wolff is director of the environmental responsibility unit of the Center for Business Ethics in Jerusalem. He also teaches environmental management at the Jerusalem College of Technology--Machon Lev.

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