Tu B’shvat: Trees, Torah, and tradition | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Tu B’shvat: Trees, Torah, and tradition 


This year Tu B’shvat (the 15th of the month of Shvat), the Jewish New Year for Trees, falls on Jan. 28. I always find it challenging to celebrate the holiday in the middle of winter but find it heartening to think of the almond trees blooming in Israel.  

There are many ways of celebrating Tu B’shvat. There is the mystic tradition of a Tu B’svhat Seder, where we eat fruits and nuts from the Land of Israel, and drink four different colors of wine, symbolizing the four seasons. In modern times, people use Tu B’shvat to talk about the environment, global warming, recycling, and saving the planet. People plant trees in Israel. 

For me, one of the most moving parts of Tu B’shvat is to reflect on trees and their symbolism in Jewish tradition. Jewish texts have a lot to say about trees and what we can learn from them. Here are three of my favorites: 

“Happy is the person who has not followed the counsel of the wicked, or taken the path of sinners, 
or joined the company of scorners; he delights in the teaching of God, and studies God’s teaching day and night. This person is like a tree planted beside streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, whose leaves never fade, and whatever he does prospers.” (Psalms 1: 1-4) 

Psalms compare trees to people. When a person avoids evil and studies Torah, that person will be as successful as a tree living near water. This text reminds us of both action (avoiding evil) and study. By studying Torah, a person learns to avoid bad actions, be a better person, and find success. Of course, we all make mistakes, and there are no guarantees of success, but it gives us an approach to life that will guide our deeds in a positive direction. 

“One whose wisdom is more than his deeds — to what may he be compared? To a tree whose branches are many and its roots few. The wind comes and uproots it and turns it over on its face . . . But one whose deeds are more than his wisdom — to what may he be compared? To a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are many. Even if all the winds in the world come and blow against it, they cannot move it from its place. (Pirkei Avot 3: 17)  

Pirkei Avot also compares trees to people, reminding us that our actions are even more important than wisdom. People who are wise, but don’t put that wisdom to work in their lives, are like a tree with few roots and no stability. A person who does good deeds is like a tree with deep roots that stands firm. This is a reminder that study is only valuable when it leads to action. 

“Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: Why are Torah matters likened to a tree, as it is stated: ‘It is a tree of life to them who lay hold upon it’ (Proverbs 3:18)? This verse comes to tell you that just as a small piece of wood can ignite a large piece, so too, minor Torah scholars can sharpen great Torah scholars and enable them to advance in their studies. And this is what Rabbi Ḥanina said: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students I have learned more than from all of them.” (Taanit 7a) 

The Talmud (quoting Proverbs) compares trees to the Torah. Just as a small piece of wood can ignite a larger one, each of us can teach others. Every moment of every day, we can learn from those around us. This can be in a formal way, when we purposefully share our knowledge. There is a Chasidic saying, “If you know alef, teach alef,” meaning, teach what we know even if it is only a small amount. It also means that we learn from talking to and observing others. As Rabbi Ben Zoma said: “Who is wise? One who learns from all.” (Pirkei Avot 5:1) 

During this cold winter, may we learn from our tradition and from the trees. Let us avoid evil, make our study lead to action, and learn from everyone we meet. Happy Tu B’shvat. 

Jewish Education Community Planner Tziporah Altman-Shafer leads the Coalition for Jewish Learning at Milwaukee Jewish Federation.