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Tu B’shevat Feature (1): Sources Offer Varying Interpretations of Trees

January 28, 1998
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

On the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees is celebrated. According to Webster’s Deluxe Unabridged Dictionary, a tree is “a woody, perennial plant with one main stem or trunk which develops many branches.”

So, on Tu B’Shevat, we celebrate oak trees, maple trees, olive trees, fig trees and so on.

Except that the word “tree” has many more meanings and uses. In the same dictionary, “tree” is used in nearly 100 other contexts.

In the Bible, the Hebrew word for “tree” “etz,” occurs 109 times; the plural, “etzim” is found an additional 28 times. A dictionary of Biblical Hebrew indicates that “etz” has almost as many uses and meanings as does the word tree in English.

So what exactly is celebrated on Tu B’Shevat?

Perhaps the tree of life. “And from the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden,” says the Bible.

God banished Adam and Eve from the garden to prevent them from eating from the tree of life and living forever. What would it mean to celebrate a tree that gives everlasting life? Who lives forever? God? Only God? Perhaps a celebration of the tree of life is a celebration of God, of holiness, of the sacred.

The Bible is also the source of the familiar phrase in the Torah service liturgy, “She is a tree of life to those who grasp it, and whoever holds on to her is happy.” Here, the “tree of life” is a figurative reference to the Torah, and so one can celebrate the Torah and all that is associated with it.

In Proverbs, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life.” If we celebrate this tree of life, we celebrate both the righteous among us and the fruits of their labors — the effects of their righteousness upon us.

Another possibility: We could celebrate the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which God commanded Adam not to eat, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat, but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.”

Of course, Eve ate of the fruit, gave it to Adam — who also ate of it — and as a result, the two were banished from the garden. How can we celebrate a tree that caused us the pain of living outside paradise? One answer might be that since we do live in this world, our ability to distinguish between good and evil is critical to our survival — physically, emotionally and spiritually.

The word “tree” also has some less pleasant usages in the Bible. It was a “tree” upon which Haman was hanged. They also mean “pole,” and when Joseph is in prison and tells the baker the meaning of his dreams, he says, “In three days, Pharaoh will lift off your head and impale you upon a pole (etz).”

Do we want to celebrate gallows and poles on which heads have been impaled? We have no problem celebrating the demise of Haman — we do it every year at Purim, but we might not want to celebrate the deaths of all whose heads were impaled upon poles. Many were certainly criminals, but why would we celebrate the death of the baker?

Possibilities also arise from modern uses of the word “tree.” A family tree, turned upside down, shows how a single set of ancestors branches out and multiplies. Perhaps you want to celebrate family, or, maybe life itself. Like trees, we thrive when deep roots hold us in place — whether to family, community or religion.

Our roots give us a foundation from which to grow, ever larger and stronger, and branch out in all directions. We can then leaf out, reach upward toward the sky and the light. We can flower, bear fruit, and allow new trees to grow in our shadow — whether they be our children, our students, or our proteges.

For children, such as Christopher Robin in A.A. Milne’s children’s classic, “Winnie-the-Pooh,” a tree may bear a tree house and become a home away from home, a place to live and grow in fantasy and in reality, at an age too tender to want or be able to actually leave home. Celebrate tree houses and you celebrate children’s growth and imagination.

But perhaps you wish to leave behind the realm of metaphor and celebrate the real, living trees outside your window. Thick bark protects each one, yet hidden within is constant movement. Nutrients are transported from the leaves to all the tree’s cells, and life-giving water moves upward from the roots. Every spring, sap rises, bringing new life, buds, flowers and leaves. Always, the trees are renewed.

Trees have an important role in the natural community. Their leaves convert the sun’s energy to food, which is passed along the food chain and gives animals energy, too. In a forest, the trees provide shelter and food to a variety of organisms, and when they die and fall to the ground, the nutrients within them return to the soil, enriching it for the seedlings that will soon emerge in the newly created sun-lit opening.

Trees. They are a cause for celebration: real trees, the Torah, a life of righteousness, your family tree, the tree in the garden of Eden, tree houses, our own lives. The possibilities are endless.

Let your imagination fly. Celebrate a New Year for trees. Celebrate life. Celebrate metaphor. Celebrate trees, whatever they mean to you.

Katy Z. Allen is a freelance writer and storyteller.

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