Dvar Torah - January 2022 (Tu B'shvat)

Learning how to save resources
by Rabbi Mauricio Balter

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Jewish festivities is the constant search for and renewal of their meaning. Some festivities appear in our sources with a certain sense, but with the passage of time and changing values they mutate their content to adapt to new messages we want to give them: Hanukkah was reformulated with the growth of Zionism and celebrates the struggle for independence; Tu B’Av was reshaped, especially in Israel, as the day of love. Thus, each festivity develops new characteristics; Tu B’Shvat is one of them.

The Mishnah mentions four new years. Rosh Hashanah, of course is the most important, and celebrates the creation of the world. The origins of another new year, Tu B’Shvat are humbler; it marks the new year of the trees. Differently than Rosh Hashanah, Tu B’Shvat was not marked with joy and celebrations, rather, when the Temple still existed, the 15th of Shvat was the day of the tithing of the fruits. The trees that had borne fruit for over three years were subjected to taxes used to maintain the Temple. The trees that had been planted less than three years before Tu B’Shvat –or less- were considered orlah and the Torah (Lev. 19:23) banned eating their fruit. In the fourth year, the tithed fruit was used as offerings. After the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), Tu B’Shvat went silently into history as a minor festivity. 1

In recent years, we have seen how Tu B’Shvat has become a festivity that refers to the care of the environment, ecology, and our bond with nature. The idea to celebrate the trees and their fruit, the environment and Mother Earth, is especially relevant at a time when greenhouse gas emissions; pollution, global warming and corporations’ awareness are increasing.

Of course, the care of the environment involves multiple aspects. I would like to share one with you that I consider very important and is rooted in the Torah: the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit – do not destroy and do not waste. The origin of the mitzvah is found in Deuteronomy:

“When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit... However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls”. (20:19-20)

At times of war, when siege is lain to a city, trees should not be cut; this brings out the ecological sense of preserving natural resources and preventing distress and pain in the heart of man. The interpretation of the verse was extended to other areas. We therefore learn two very important values for our bond with nature and its resources.

The first one: do not waste

Already in the Talmud Rabbi Zutra warns us that when a candle is lighted, it is forbidden to cover unnecessarily the oil lamp, or open the fuel receptacle, since in both cases fuel consumption is higher.

Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid (13th century) taught us that if someone wears expensive clothes in the sun they are committing Bal Tashchit (because of the wear and tear).

The Second: do not spoil

Our tradition teaches us that we should be careful not to spoil, this means we should pay attention to our actions. For instance, when we render a garment in grief, an action called Kriah, the tear should not be excessive so that the garments can be mended and reused. Another example is the custom of not passing a glass of wine over bread (or the challot) and in that same sense, not throwing the challah to prevent the possibility of spoiling the wine that is on the table.

Now let us transfer the mitzvah to our everyday lives: What is our bond with natural resources and with resources in general? How much do we care not to waste, spoil or destroy the environment in vain? What is our bond with the objects around us, garments, or food?

Maybe on this Tu B’Shvat we can become aware of all this and introduce changes, e.g. to take better care of the environment, and our resources. The mitzvah teaches us to love the good and to have a positive view of life, to move away from evil and by taking care of nature, to join those who love peace and walk with them along that road.

Rabbi Mauricio Balter

Executive Director of Masorti Olami and MERCAZ Olami

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