Trees in Jewish Thought

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

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God as Horticulturalist

The Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah stresses the importance--during times of major transition, such as the creation of the world and the entrance of the Jewish people into the land of Israel--of first preparing the necessary life-support system, expressed as trees: "It is said, 'follow the Lord, your God.' This means follow His example. When He created the world, His first action was to plant trees, as it written, 'and God planted a garden [of trees] in Eden.' So you, too, when you will enter the land of Israel, planting trees should be your first involvement."

A Lesson in Sustainability

Parenthetically, it might be suggested that--as a symbol of the life-support system for man--trees also play an important educational role in the Jewish sources. Originally, the sources tell us, trees were meant to be entirely edible, with the trunk and branches tasting like fruit. Since trees were meant to be the main source of food for man, the entire tree could be consumed for immediate benefit. Consuming the entire tree, however, would destroy its productive capacity. Alternatively, the tree could be left intact to produce edible fruits which could be continuously consumed without destroying the tree itself (Rashi, Midrash Bereishit Rabbah).

This teaching points to the need to forego the destructive exploitation of natural resources for immediate, short-term benefit, in favor of preserving the productive capacity of resources--to allow the sustained utilization of their fruits. This important ecological principle is known today as sustainability.

The above texts demonstrate the vital importance Jewish sources place on trees as representative of the life-support system for man, and on the management of their long-term viability.

Yishuv Ha'aretz: Settling the Land

On a more practical level, trees are also given great importance in the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz--settling the land of Israel. 

The mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz requires us to develop the natural world to provide for our needs, including a suitable place to live, work, learn, and serve the Creator, and also to develop appropriate systems for the supply of food, energy, water, and transportation needs. This must be in balance with other considerations including the ecological integrity of the land.   

For example, according to Jewish law, someone selling land in Israel must give first consideration to any neighbor whose land abuts the parcel of land being sold. If, however, the neighbor wants to use the land for a purpose which will contribute less to yishuv ha'aretz than other buyers would, he loses this privilege and the land can be sold to another buyer.

According to the Shulhan Arukh (16th century legal code): "If someone wants to buy a parcel of land to build houses, and the ben maitzra [neighbor with land abutting the land being sold] wants to buy the same parcel of land to plant crops, the buyer [who wants to build houses] has first right because of yishuv ha’aretz, and the rule of ben maitzra doesn’t apply. Some say, if the ben maitzra wants to plant trees, he takes precedence over the other buyer."(Hoshen Mishpat, 175:21)

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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.