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." [1]

Tu bi-Shevat is connected to today's environmental concerns. Many contemporary Jews look upon the day as a Jewish earth day, a day on which to discuss and focus on ecological threats — destruction of tropical rain forests; global climate change; acid rain poured into the air by our industries; a rapidly depleted ozone layer; plants and animals quickly becoming extinct; depleted soil.

An ancient midrash has become all too relevant: "In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, created the first person, He showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: "See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, For if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you." [2]

Today's environmental threats can be compared in many ways to the Biblical ten plagues, which appear in the Torah portions read on the Shabbatot immediately preceding Tu bi-Shevat. When we consider the threats to our land, water, and air, pesticides and other chemical pollutants, resource scarcities, threats to our climate, etc., we can easily enumerate ten modern "plagues." Like the ancient Pharaoh, our hearts have been hardened by the greed, materialism, and waste that are at the root of current environmental threats.

The sacred environment

The Talmudic sages express a sense of sanctity toward the environment: "The atmosphere (air) of the land of Israel makes one wise." [3] So, too, do they assert that people's role is to enhance the world as "co-partners of God in the work of creation." [4] The rabbis indicate great concern for preserving the environment and preventing pollution:

"It is forbidden to live in a town which has no garden or greenery." [5]
Threshing floors are to be placed far enough from a town so that the town is not dirtied by chaff carried by winds. [6]
Tanneries are to be kept at least 50 cubits from a town and to be placed only on its eastern side, so that odors are not carried by the prevailing winds from the west. [7]

"The earth is the Lord's" [8]

We are the stewards of God's earth, responsible to see that its produce is available for all God's children. Property is a sacred trust given by God; it must be used to fulfill God's purposes. The story is told of two men who were fighting over a piece of land. Each claimed ownership and bolstered his claim with apparent proof. To resolve their differences, they agreed to put the case before the rabbi. The rabbi listened but could come to no decision because both seemed to be right. Finally he said, "Since I cannot decide to whom this land belongs, let us ask the land." He put his ear to the ground and, after a moment, straightened up. "Gentlemen, the land says it belongs to neither of you but that you belong to it." [9]

"Thou shall not destroy"

The prohibition not to waste or destroy unnecessarily anything of value (bal tashhit - "thou shalt not destroy") is based on concern for fruit-bearing trees, as indicated in the following Torah statement: "When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you under siege? Only trees that you know to not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been destroyed." [10]

This prohibition against destroying fruit-bearing trees in time of warfare was extended by the Jewish sages. It it forbidden to cut down even a barren tree or to waste anything if no useful purpose is accomplished. [11] The sages of the Talmud made a general prohibition against waste: "Whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs up a fountain, or destroys food violates the prohibition of bal tashchit" [12]

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 19th century philosopher and author, states that bal tashhit is the first and most general call of God: We are to "regard things as God's property and use them with a sense of responsibility for wise human purposes. Destroy nothing! Waste nothing!" He indicates further that destruction includes using more things (or things of greater value) than are necessary to obtain one's aim. [13]

Ecological balance

It has become customary to recite Psalms on Tu bi-Shevat, among them Psalm 104. This Psalm speaks of God's concern and care extended to all creatures, and illustrates that God created the entire earth as a unity, in ecological balance: "You make springs gush forth in torrents;; they make their way between the hills, giving drink to all the wild beasts; the wild asses slake their thirst. The birds of the sky dwell beside them and sing among the foliage. You water the mountains from Your lofts; the earth is sated from the fruit of Your work. You make the grass grow for the cattle, and herbage for man's labor, that he may get food out of the earth, wine that cheers the hearts of men, oil that makes the face shine, and bread that sustains man's life." [14]

Tu bi-Shevat is indeed an appropriate time to apply Judaism's powerful environmental teachings to help move our precious, but imperiled, planet to a more sustainable path.


[1] Gen.1:29
[2] Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28
[3] Baba Batra 158b
[4] Shabbat 10a
[5] Kiddushin 4:12; 66d
[6] Baba Batra 2:8
[7] Baba Batra 2:8,9
[8] Psalms 24:1

[9] Story told by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in "Biblical Ecology, a Jewish View," a television documentary directed by Mitchell Chalak and Jonathan Rosen
[10] Deut. 20:19-20; JPS translation
[11] Sefer Ha-Chinuch 530
[12] Kiddushin 32a
[13] Horeb; Chapter 56
[14] Psalm 104: 10-15   See: Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy: A Creative Guide to the Jewish Holidays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982)

Richard H. Schwartz, PhD, Professor Emeritus, College of Staten Island, is author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and Mathematics and Global Survival. He has posted some 100 articles on his Jewish Vegetarianism website.
Sharing God's fruitfulness: Generation and regeneration: A mystical seder
"Do not destroy": Variants readings of the famous verse

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