Why the Torah is green

Ahead of Monday’s New Year for Trees, we look at the lengths we must go to in order avoid chopping one down

By Rabbi Ariel Abel, February 5, 2009
Ramban asserts the talmudic view that certain trees may not be cut down wantonly; acacias were planted by Jacob

Ramban asserts the talmudic view that certain trees may not be cut down wantonly; acacias were planted by Jacob

In February 2008, a fig tree was mauled in Bodh Gaya, India. Allegations focused on a thick branch of the tree that was mysteriously lopped off and sold in Thailand in 2006. The branch reappeared for sale on the black market; accusations of corruption followed. Apparently, police never resolved the case; it was hard to conclude whether the tree had been legitimately pruned, or whether the nefarious activities of the black marketeers were to blame. Nowadays, the tree is surrounded by protective railings.

“Holy” trees are certainly not a Jewish concept. Part of the Mosaic war on pagan worship in Canaan includes the cutting down of trees dedicated to idolatrous practice. The Asherah (a sacred tree), described as a female companion to the Eternal of Israel, appears in ancient Hebrew inscriptions dated 800 BCE. The showdown on Mount Carmel between Elijah the prophet, who lived at this time, and the priests of Baal also featured 400 prophets of Asherah. Yet trees are most definitely endowed with a degree of sanctity. Last week, I introduced the Chief Rabbi of Rehovot, Rav Simcha Hacohen Kook, to an eager crowd of students at the Hasmonean in Hendon.

He explained that the correct name for Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees, which we celebrate on Sunday night, is Rosh Hashanah La’Ilan, New Year of the Tree (in the singular), thus stressing that trees and human beings both have a singular purpose to fulfil in life. Beyond its fruit, the tree itself is celebrated, and singled out in creation for special consideration.

The first Israelite war manual, in Deuteronomy, includes a surprising rhetorical question: “Is the tree a man that it should be cut down in siege before you?” Picture the scene: Canaanites harbouring dangerous guerrilla forces pour hot oil over Israelite soldiers outside impregnable city walls. Bordering the green belt are thick woods, orchards of fruit-bearing trees.

Imagine the Jewish Army chaplain, a priest anointed to lead the troops and motivate them, breaking the news: they must proceed scaling the walls without thinning surrounding copses and refrain from demoralising the enemy by destroying surrounding groves. “Only a tree that you know is not for consumption shall you cut down,” he reads out of the war guide. “You may not destroy its wood and cut it down.”

“What of the principle of saving life?” queries the ordinary foot soldier. “Is that not more important a consideration than the future of an orchard? What if an enemy cells use groves of citrus as a shield for a flank attack?” Ibn Ezra compares felling trees to actual bodily harm since mankind’s very existence depends on the trees of the field. Rashi takes it a stage further: trees should not suffer hunger and thirst, like the men of the besieged city. Ramban asserts the talmudic view that fruit trees may not be cut down wantonly, only sparingly and for specific use. However, the biblical verse seems plainly to indicate a level of equality between human life and trees!

One wonders whether the Torah preaches mercy for trees even while human beings die in conflict. Sforno (16th century) synthesises the commentaries of his predecessors by stating that the Torah teaches us to limit damage wherever possible.

Human life is necessarily vulnerable during wartime, but the ensuing ruin should in addition not affect the environment, wherever possible. Perhaps this serves as a reminder that beyond enjoying fruit salad on Tu Bishvat, we should remember that our existence — even the air we breathe — is dependent upon an arboreal world. Yet when in conflict, either man or tree must prevail! The front line in the territorial confrontation in Israel, Judea and Samaria occasionally finds expression in olive groves.

Back in 1995, I recall how olive trees were gradually advancing over the hilltop across the valley from East Talpiot, Jerusalem, where I was then resident. In time, Arab shepherds and bell-ringing goats began to emerge from the foliage. Finally, the municipal bulldozers arrived, clearing away hundreds of year-old saplings. In the first instance, it looked horrific. How could Israel be seen to attack the environment in this blatant way? But then the story emerged: across Israel, clandestine planting was a tactic rooted in Ottoman law.

To claim land, one need only plant trees. Public land, earmarked for a ring road around Jerusalem, was being “claimed” in this way by locals. One could argue that if the planting was a hostile tactic, the uprooting of such trees may be justified. Conversely, human rights groups opposed the practice of bulldozing trees on halachic grounds, that one may not destroy groves even during wartime. Clearly, sensitivity to trees is as hot an issue nowadays as in biblical times.

The New Year for Trees is subject to a dispute between the two first-century schools of rabbinic thought, Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel. Bet Shammai rules that the New Year should be on the first of the month. Commentaries suggest this is because most of the winter rains have fallen by that date. Bet Hillel disagrees, suggesting the fifteenth is more appropriate in this case, since the ground thaws and life-giving sap has time to form and rise up into the trunk.

Rainfall is enough for ordinary plants; trees are a higher level of growth, they “come to life” only when warmth and life seeps into their veins. The revival of trees in springtime is reminiscent of techiyat hametim — revival of the dead. The trunk, however bare, is the symbol of hope of future life, of belief in tomorrow. The Midrash relates that when Jacob left Canaan for Egypt, he knew someday his children would return, so he planted acacia trees in the desert.

It was the trees from those groves from which the tabernacle was built. Thus the Divine presence, the source of all holiness, declares residence among planks and beams grown with foresight and harvested responsibly.

Ariel Abel is rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue

Last updated: 2:41pm, November 15 2010