Trees, Jews, and Israel

Dear Josep,

I have always had a thing for trees.

When I was six years old, I learned about the rainforests and the importance of trees in the ecosystem, and became completely obsessed with these topics. When my parents and grandparents would take me to a bookstore, I always wanted something about rainforests or trees, the kind with the big, glossy pictures. I loved trees. I would hug them, and put my face right up to the bark and breathe in their scent. (…If it were socially acceptable, I would totally still do this. 😛 ) I saw them as my friends and enjoyed their “company”. I knew all about how they grew, and how the leaves used chlorophyll to convert light into energy, and how it was the loss of that chlorophyll that made them change color in the fall. In my childhood in northeastern America, I had a favorite tree: the maple tree. (The one with the signature leaf that appears on the Canadian flag.) I loved its broad, star-shaped leaves, its sturdy trunk, and most of all, the smell of its autumn leaves: the brilliant reds, oranges and golds that carpeted the ground. I think that scent is one of the things I miss most about America.

Very different types of trees grow in Israel. Olive, cypress, pine, oaks, palm trees, acacia, pistachio, eucalyptus… and they weren’t always so plentiful. Israel is one of two countries in the world that, at the turn of the millennium, had a net gain in trees; and the only country that has managed to actually reverse the process of desertification–by planting so many trees. When settling the land, the pioneers started an afforestation project to make the soil better… and it worked. The Jewish National Fund is known for its projects of planting entire forests in Israel. They initially used a lot of non-native pine trees, because they grow a lot faster than the kind of tree that grows here naturally. The problem is that they are a lot more flammable. :-/

This is the Yatir Forest, the largest planted forest in Israel. "Yatir Forest, Israel no.1". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
This is the Yatir Forest, the largest planted forest in Israel.
Yatir Forest, Israel no.1“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The trees that grow naturally in this region are less flammable because they grow more slowly and are much denser.

There’s an allegory in there somewhere.

In any case, planting and honoring trees is an ancient Jewish tradition. In Deuteronomy 20:19 there is a specific commandment not to destroy trees for no reason while besieging a city: “For is the tree of the field man, that you should besiege it?” This is a rhetorical question in the text, but removed from its context, this phrase: “כי האדם עץ השדה”, reads: “for man is the tree of the field”, and has been used thus allegorically. The Talmudic rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai taught that if the Messiah comes while a person is planting a tree, he should first finish planting the tree, and then go greet the Messiah.

I would probably say that my favorite trees are are now almond and olive. The almond tree for its beauty during flowering season, and the olive tree for its character. You have olive trees in Catalonia, so you must know what I mean. There’s something about its ancient, gnarled trunk, its characteristic elliptic leaves, and the deep symbolic significance it has acquired over the thousands of years of history so rich within this soil.

And look how they both posed for me so nicely. An almond tree in the middle of a young olive grove in the outskirts of Jerusalem.
And look how they both posed for me so nicely. An almond tree in the middle of a young olive grove in the outskirts of Jerusalem.

So I guess it is not a big mystery that Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for the Trees (as explained here), has more significance in Jewish tradition than simply a technical beginning to an agriculture year. We love trees, and see them as a way to connect us to the land and to our privileges and responsibilities regarding it. This year, because of shmita, we can’t plant them, but we can still celebrate them.

And with that, allow your personal Jewish Calendar to wish you a Happy Tu B’Shvat. 😉

Lots of love,


1 thought on “Trees, Jews, and Israel

  1. I love olive trees too!
    as a child i loved climbing trees (still do…) and everytime I see a “climb-fitting” tree a have the urge to climb it 😉

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