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Jews celebrate trees with Tu Bishvat

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By Judi Siegal

On Feb. 9, Jews all over the world will celebrate Tu Bishvat. This minor holiday, Jewish Arbor Day, celebrates the beginning of spring in Israel with the blossoming of the almond trees. Because of their importance to a dry land such as Israel, trees have played an important part in the ecology of the Jewish State.

The Torah itself (five books of Moses) is called a Tree of Life because it is a living document. The mention of trees in the Jewish Bible can be found in many different sections of the Holy Scriptures, sometimes as metaphor, others as references to the various species indigenous to Israel. I would like to share with you some of these entries.

The first reference to trees is found in Genesis in the creation story. This is Genesis 1:11 when God creates seed-bearing plants and trees. Later on we learn of Adam and Eve, who were instructed not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Continuing along in Genesis, Noah builds an ark of gopher wood to survive the Great Flood and when the dove returns with an olive branch in her mouth, he knows she has found dry land. To this day, the olive branch is a symbol of peace and can be found on the Great Seal of the State of Israel.

The patriarch, Abraham, viewed three strangers as he sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day by the terebinths of Mamre. The Israelites in the book of Exodus, were admonished not to eat the fruit of their trees for five years so they would mature, and in Deuteronomy the land of Israel is described as a “land of vines, figs, pomegranates, a land of olive trees …”

The use of trees as metaphors is found in the prophetic portion of the Hebrew Bible. In a hot, arid land, trees are a valuable resource and coupled with references to springs, oases or brooks, they represent righteous living, ethical behavior and the flourishing of an individual’s life.

The Psalmist compares a righteous person to a palm tree, since they grow vigorously in Israel. Trees are considered stately and beautiful and the names Ilan or Ilana (tree) are often given to children.

In a very poetic psalm that speaks of the exile to Babylon, the Psalmist writes: “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat, sat and wept as we thought of Zion. There on the poplars (others say willows) we hung up our lyres …”

With beautiful imagery, though sad, the psalm conjures up of a people so forlorn for their country they are unable to play music when commanded by their captors.

Other famous references to trees include David’s rebellious son, Absalom, having his long hair catch in a tree as he flees his father’s soldiers, and the description of the Holy Temple, built by Solomon from the famous cedars of Lebanon.

Some of the most beautiful references to trees are found in the words of the Hebrew prophets. Though mainly concerned with the moral and ethical behavior of the Israelites and the actions of their kings, the prophets also spoke of a time of universal peace.

The famous quote found on the U.N. building about beating swords into ploughshares, is taken from Isaiah (Isaiah 2: 4), also Micah (Micah: 4:3-4) Further on in the passage it mentions a time when all will be able to sit peacefully “ under his own grapevine and fig tree.”

I was always puzzled how one could sit under a vine but a grapevine could be made into an arbor and a fig tree throws a lot of shade. This would create a calm, cool environment of serenity.

It is a custom to plant a cypress tree when a male child is born and a myrtle for a female. When the trees are mature, they are used to form the chuppah, wedding canopy.

Isaiah’s prophetic words about these two species are leaden with meaning for us today: “Yea, you shall leave in joy and be led home secure. Before you, mount and hill shall shout aloud and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the brier, a cypress shall rise. Instead of the nettle, a myrtle shall rise; these shall stand as a testimony to the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not perish.”

May all your seedlings grow strong and healthy.

Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Sun Valley with her husband, Phil.