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Why do we apologise on Tu Bishvat?

The kabbalists gave the New Year for Trees a deeper spiritual signifance

    Photo: Getty Images
    Photo: Getty Images

    On my Facebook wall, there is an annual parade of hotly-debated posts related to Tu Bishvat. It might be expected that these are the types of conversations that rabbis engage with on social media: the nitty-gritty of Jewish law and the interpretations of a specific line in the weekly parashah.

    However, the most contentious debate about Tu Bishvat, without fail, is whether the Hebrew should be transliterated as Tu Bishvat or Tu B’Shevat. 

    It’s almost comical, but in a world with access to so much knowledge and the ability to reimagine and reframe the meaning behind Jewish holidays, squabbles over English transliteration seem to be a symptom of a larger problem. We’re not quite sure, today, how to tackle Tu Bishvat and its complex history in meaningful ways, so we focus on the mundanities and the things we can control, like apostrophes and the addition of a vowel here or there. 

    So what is the message of Tu Bishvat? Is it an annual battle-cry for environmental justice? Is it taking a moment to consider nature in a world that so often concerns itself with the spiritual outside of the physical realm? Or perhaps just a time to sing “Happy Birthday” to the trees?

    The answer is stereotypically rabbinic: it is simultaneously, all — and none — of the above.

    The milquetoast observation of this fauna-friendly holiday we see today is perhaps the interpretation furthest from its original context. Tu Bishvat began as a casual reference in the Mishnah, a minor footnote from which to calculate agricultural years, for the purposes of planting and tithing (Rosh Hashanah 1:1). Over time, it evolved, becoming more significant and more spiritual as a celebration in its own right, rather than simply an acknowledgment of time passed and work left to do in a season.
    The question, then, is a celebration of what, exactly?

    The rehabilitation of Tu Bishvat and its ascension into the ranks of spiritual Jewish holidays is due, largely, to one exceptional man: Rabbi Isaac Luria. Rabbi Luria was responsible for giving order and practical focus to the loose constellation of ideas known as Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism; his students created a “Seder” for Tu Bishvat, honouring nature through species of fruits and nuts and glasses of wine in a format familiar (and far more delicious) for Jews. 

    From there, modern Israeli society adapted Tu Bishvat as a sort of nationalistic “Arbour Day,” using it as an opportunity to discuss the function of environmental protection and its importance. And in cheder and Jewish day schools across the globe, students celebrate Tu Bishvat as the “Birthday of the Trees,” while many communities engage in social action projects related to green initiatives and eco-friendly living. Each facet of Tu Bishvat carries meaning, and holiness within that meaning, but perhaps we can enhance it with just an ember of spiritual connection.

    The prayer opening the very first Tu Bishvat Seder asks God to bless the fruit which we eat, reminds God of the divinity within all creation and then turns to us with an appeal of sorts: “May all the holy sparks which were dispersed by us or by our ancestors and [also] through the sin that Adam committed with the fruit of the tree now return to be included in the splendid power of the Tree of Life.” 

    The language carries some of the unsettling undertones related to the concept of “original sin” but it also seriously complicates the meaning behind our actions. Eating fruit is not a celebration of the trees, but rather, it is a sort of reparation that we owe them,  it’s an apology. 

    But what is it an apology for and how can this have meaning for all of us, no matter how we’ve framed Tu Bishvat within our own lives?

    There is an oft-overlooked biblical concept known as me’ilah (appropriation), which was the crime of taking, accidently or on purpose, the objects set aside for the Temple as kodesh, sacred. These instruments of sanctity were holy, of course, but not clearly related to anything to do with Tu Bishvat. In the Talmud the rabbis help us connect the dots, writing, “One is forbidden to derive benefit from the natural world without first reciting a blessing” (Berachot 35a-b). They assert that if benefit is taken without a blessing given, that person is guilty of me’ilah and is considered a thief. 

    The analogy is startling. The natural world is consecrated to God; in order to benefit from it, we recite a blessing that permits our consumption, whether it’s over gathered flowers for a Shabbat table, fossil fuel or drinking water. 

    If not for blessings, we have stolen from God. Rabbi Luria saw Tu Bishvat as an opportunity to make annual amends for the things we steal daily from the natural world, a sort of Yom Kippur to the natural world that God granted us stewardship over. The Tu Bishvat Seder is, more or less, a series of blessing to apologise for previous acts of me’ilah and a means of reminding us who has dominion over all that we tend to rely on.

    Tu Bishvat can be many things and all of them can be meaningful and thought-provoking; and all of them can be enhanced by taking a moment — or the whole day — to apologise to the natural world, often abused and used without a second thought. We can take the time to remember, during our social action programmes on recycling or donating to plant a tree in Israel, that we are obligated to affirm the holiness of the natural world, and to consider a model which calls for our own accountability and responsibility, lest we all be thieves. 

    Adam Zagoria-Moffet is rabbi of St Albans' Masorti Synagogue