Trees in Jewish Thought

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

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A commentator to the Shulhan Arukh, the Sm’ah, explains: "That which is more permanent on the land better fulfills [the mitzvah of] yishuv ha’aretz. Houses are more permanent than crops, and trees are more permanent and rooted in the land than houses."

Fruit-Producing Trees

The protection of fruit-producing trees was given even greater status. The Mishna in Tractate Tamid teaches: "It is forbidden to bring wood from olive trees or grape vines [and some say also, wood from fig trees and date palms] to the [Temple] altar because of [the mitzvah of] yishuv Eretz Yisrael."

Aside from the benefits olive trees and grape vines provide, the commentaries explain that wood from these trees produces excessive smoke (air pollution), which would also reduce the quality of life and detract from yishuv ha'aretz.

The Talmud in Bava Metzia stresses the importance of olive trees in the observance of yishuv ha'aretz: "If a [flooding] river washes away an olive tree and plants it in a neighboring field, and the owner of the tree wants to uproot the tree and replant it in his field, in the land of Israel we don’t allow him, because of yishuv Eretz Yisrael."

The purpose for this ruling is to increase the number of olive trees in the land of Israel. The rabbis understood that the original owner, upon losing the tree, would be likely to plant another to replace the one that was washed away. The owner of the land upon which the tree was replanted (by the river), who had not invested time or effort in the tree, would be less likely to bother to plant another olive tree if the original owner were to reclaim his tree.

Beyond Israel

Finally, lest we think that yishuv ha'aretz only has relevance to the settlement of the land of Israel, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the settlement of the Jewish people in the land of Israel is meant to be a model for the rest of the world.

Hirsch writes: "Man was created outside Paradise, and he was destined, already here below, to live in a Paradise...We are shown what we should be, how we should live, how the world of ours would form a Paradise for us, if we would be that which we should be.  A similar lesson was to be repeated, on a reduced scale for a small sample, chosen as an example for the whole human race in Eretz Yisrael--which was also to be a Gan Eden for the people of Creator’s law. It was meant to show the world, a second time, by its prosperity and its progress, what an abundance of blessing and happiness would be attained here on earth when the will of the Creator is taken as the sole measure for arranging all phases of human life ".

Tu Bishvat gives us an opportunity to refocus on God's creation and to increase our appreciation for the good land and good trees He provides for us. In this way, we can be a positive example for the rest of the world.

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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.