Next week Jews around the world, and here at the Moishe House in Washington, DC, will be celebrating Tu B'Shevat - the Jewish Arbor Day, if you will. Since I was young, I always looked forward to my community’s tradition of planting trees on this day, one in a park in the city, and another in Israel. I was always told that the intention was to imbue a sense of stewardship for our environment (weren’t biblical Jews environmentally progressive?), but recently discovered it has more to do with ancient tithing systems than a notion that we needed to protect and enhance the natural world.
Let me explain: Tu B’Shevat actually marks the “new year” for trees. For the first three years after a tree is planted, its fruit cannot be eaten. In the fourth year the fruit belongs to God (meaning it was tithed to the high priests in Jerusalem). In the fifth year you can go ahead and enjoy those apples.
However, Judaism has a strong tradition of environmental awareness and protection that we have connected to Tu B’Shevat, found within and outside of the Torah and Mishnah. Deuteronomy 20:19 famously reminds us that “man is a tree of the field” Since the early 20th century, Jews have used the day to plant trees and promote environmental awareness (as well as an excuse to enjoy olives, pomegranates, dates, and other fruits associated with the holiday) .
The tradition of environmental protection and awareness is one that we in the DC Moishe House are continuing. We are beginning to compost our food waste, trying to become more aware of how our choices as consumers have a real impact on the world, and ensuring that our environmental beliefs exist alongside our compassion for our fellow man, as we develop programming that addresses issues in the environment and our communities.