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Trees "R" Us

by Rabbi Michael Skobac


Library » Holidays » Tu B'shvat | Subscribe | What is RSS?


In the first Mishnah of tractate Rosh Hashanah, the School of Hillel asserts that the “New Year” for trees is on the 15th day of the month of Shvat. The significance of this date is to determine when the year begins for assessing the tithes and other agricultural obligations for fruit trees. Basing themselves upon the famous Biblical passage that “man is like the tree of the field”,1 Chassidic masters suggest that this day also has a Rosh HaShanah significance for humans as well.

My first encounter with the idea of a linkage between people and trees occurred shortly before getting engaged to my wife Chashi. We went to meet with Rabbi Chaim Lipshutz, a renowned Israeli educator, protégé of Piaget and graphologist. Rabbi Lipshutz asked us each to submit a short paragraph of our handwriting and to draw a picture of a tree. He was able to get a very accurate bead on our personalities, and I began to think about why a walk in the forest can be like a visit with relatives.

Like trees, we are often our own worst enemies
Our entanglement with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil caused humanity’s first exile. But the Midrash observes that Adam and Eve were not the only ones to sin in the Garden of Eden – the trees themselves sinned first. G-d commanded the earth to bring forth fruit trees (where the tree itself would be edible) that would also produce fruit. The earth and trees “rebelled” and didn’t produce trees that were edible, so G-d cursed the earth.2

We are close in death as well. Pirke De Rebbi Eliezer teaches that when a person dies, and when a fruit tree is cut down, “their voices go from one end of the world to the other, and their voices are inaudible”.3

And we have similar issues. An insightful Midrash relates that when iron was first created, the trees began to shake with fear. The iron rebuked them and said, “Why are you so afraid? If you don’t allow your wood to be used by me (as an ax handle), no harm can come to you!”.4 Like trees, we are often our own worst enemies.


Mankind was given a dual mandate in relating to the world of trees and the environment in general. Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden and charged “to work it and to protect it”.5   Even though humanity was given permission to “exercise dominion” over the world into which they were placed6  and to “subdue” it by harnessing its resources,7 the Torah warns us not to wantonly destroy or waste the earth’s bounty.8 The Midrash relates that G-d led Adam through the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at all of my creations and how beautiful and wonderful they are. I have created everything for your benefit. Consider this and be careful not to damage or destroy My world. For if you damage it, there will be no one to restore it after you.”9


  • 1. Deuteronomy 20:19.
  • 2. Genesis Rabbah 5:9.
  • 3. Chapter 34.
  • 4. Genesis Rabbah 5:10.
  • 5. Genesis 2:15.
  • 6. Genesis 1:26.
  • 7. Genesis 1:28.
  • 8. Deuteronomy 20:19-20, Sefer HaChinuch Mitzvah 529.
  • 9. Koheles Rabbah 7:28.


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Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Rosh Hashanah
The Jewish New Year. An early autumn two day holiday marking the creation of Adam and Eve. On this day we hear the blasts of the ram's horn and accept G-d's sovereignty upon ourselves and the world. On Rosh Hashanah we pray that G-d should grant us all a sweet New Year.
(Pl.: Chassidim; Adj.: Chassidic) A follower of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of "Chassidut." Chassidut emphasizes serving G-d with sincerity and joy, and the importance of connecting to a Rebbe (saintly mentor).
The horn of a Kosher animal. The Shofar is sounded on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, and is intended to awaken us to repentance. Also blown to signify the conclusion of the Yom Kippur holiday.
(Pl. Midrashim). Non-legal material of anecdotal or allegorical nature, designed either to clarify historical material, or to teach a moral point. The Midrashim were compiled by the sages who authored the Mishna and Talmud (200 BCE-500 CE).
The first man, created by G-d on the sixth day of creation. He was banished from the Garden of Eden after eating from the forbidden fruit of the forbidden knowledge. Died in 2830 BCE.
1. One of the greatest prophets, lived in the 7th century BCE. 2. One of the 24 books of the Bible, containing the prophecies of Isaiah. The book is filled with prophecies concerning the Messianic redemption.
Acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, widely known as Maimonides. Born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
First written rendition of the Oral Law which G-d spoke to Moses. Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishna in the 2nd century lest the Oral law be forgotten due to the hardships of the Jewish exiles.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.