Jewish Journal

The Vegetarian Holiday

by Richard Schwartz

Posted on Jan. 16, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Tu B'Shevat is arguably the most vegetarian of Jewish holidays, because of its many connections to vegetarian themes and concepts.

The Tu B'Shevat seder in which fruits and nuts are eaten, along with the singing of songs and the recitation of biblical verses related to trees and fruits, is the only sacred meal where only vegetarian, actually vegan, foods are eaten as part of the ritual. This is consistent with the diet in the Garden of Eden, as indicated by God's first, completely vegetarian dietary law:

And God said: "Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit -- to you it shall be for food" (Genesis 1:29).

The Talmud refers to Tu B'Shevat as the New Year for Trees. It is considered to be the date on which the fate of trees is decided for the coming year. In recent years, one of the prime ways of celebrating Tu B'Shevat, especially in Israel, has been through the planting of trees. Vegetarianism also reflects a concern for trees.

One of the prime reasons for the destruction of tropical rain forests today is to create pasture land and areas to grow feed crops for cattle. To save an estimated 5 cents on each imported fast-food hamburger, we are destroying forest areas in countries such as Brazil and Costa Rica, where at least half of the world's species of plants and animals live, and threatening the stability of the world's climate. It has been estimated that every vegetarian saves an acre of forest per year.

Both Tu B'Shevat and vegetarianism are connected to today's environmental concerns. Many contemporary Jews look on Tu B'Shevat as a Jewish Earth Day and use Tu B'Shevat seders as occasions to discuss how Jewish values can be applied to reduce many of today's ecological threats. When God created the world, he was able to say, "It is very good" (Genesis 1:31).

In the hour when God created the first person, He showed him the trees in the Garden of Eden, and said to him: "See My works, how fine they are; Now all that I have created, I created for your benefit. Think upon this and do not corrupt and destroy My world, for if you destroy it, there is no one to restore it after you" (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28).

Today's environmental threats can be compared in many ways to the biblical plagues, which are in the Torah portions in the weeks immediately preceding Tu B'Shevat: When we consider the threats to our land, water, and air; pesticides and other chemical pollutants; resource scarcities, and threats to our climate, we can easily enumerate 10 modern "plagues."

The modern plagues are threatening us simultaneously. The Jews in Goshen were spared the biblical plagues, while every person on Earth is imperiled by the modern plagues. Instead of an ancient Pharaoh's heart being hardened, our hearts today have been hardened by the greed, materialism and waste that are at the root of current environmental threats. God provided the biblical plagues to free the Israelites, while today we must apply God's teachings in order to save ourselves and our precious -- but endangered -- planet.

The talmudic sages assert that people's role is to enhance the world as "co-partners of God in the work of creation" (Shabbat 10a). They indicated great concern about preserving the environment and preventing pollution. They state: "It is forbidden to live in a town which has no garden or greenery" (Kiddushin 4:12; 66d). Threshing floors had to be placed far enough from a town so that it would not be dirtied by chaff carried by winds (Baba Batra 2:8).

Both Tu B'Shevat and vegetarianism embody the important teaching that, "The Earth is the Lord's" (Psalms 24:1) and that people are to be stewards of the earth, to see that its produce is available for all God's children. Property is a sacred trust given by God; it must be used to fulfill God's purposes. No person has absolute or exclusive control over his or her possessions.

Tu B'Shevat and vegetarianism both reflect the Torah mandate that we are not to waste or destroy unnecessarily anything of value. It is interesting that this prohibition, called ba'al tashchit ("thou shalt not destroy") is based on concern for fruit-bearing trees, as indicated in the following statement from the Torah: "When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shall not destroy the trees thereof by wielding an ax against them; for thou mayest eat of them but thou shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged of thee? Only the trees of which thou knoweth that they are not trees for food, them thou mayest destroy and cut down, that thou mayest build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it fall" (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).

This prohibition against destroying fruit-bearing trees in time of warfare was extended by the Jewish sages. It is forbidden to cut down even a barren tree or to waste anything if no useful purpose is accomplished (Sefer Hachinuch 530). The sages of the Talmud made a general prohibition against waste: "Whoever breaks vessels, tears garments, destroys a building, clogs up a fountain or destroys food violates the prohibition of ba'al tashchit" (Kiddushin 32a). In summary, ba'al tashchit prohibits the destruction, complete or incomplete, direct or indirect, of all objects of potential benefit to people. The important Torah mandate of ba'al tashchit is consistent with vegetarianism, since, compared to plant-based diets, animal-centered diets require far more land, water, energy and other agricultural resources.

Tu B'Shevat reflects a concern about future generations. In ancient times, it was a custom to plant a cedar sapling after the birth of a boy and a cypress sapling after the birth of a girl. The cedar symbolized strength and stature of a man, while the cypress signified the fragrance and gentleness of a woman. When the children were old enough, it was their task to care for the trees that were planted in their honor. It was hoped that branches from both types of trees would form part of the chuppah (bridal canopy) when the children married. Vegetarianism also reflects concern about the future since this diet puts a minimum of strain on the earth and its ecosystems and requires far less water, land, energy and other scarce agricultural resources than animal-centered diets.

It is customary to recite Psalm 104 on Tu B'Shevat. Psalm 104 indicates how God's concern and care extends to all creatures, and illustrates that God created the entire earth as a unity, in ecological balance. "Thou [God] art the One Who sends forth springs into brooks, that they may run between mountains. To give drink to every beast of the fields; the creatures of the forest quench their thirst. Beside them dwell the fowl of the heavens.... Thou art He Who waters the mountains from His upper chambers.... Thou art He Who causes the grass to spring up for the cattle and herb, for the service of man, to bring forth bread from the earth.... How manifold art Thy works, O Lord! In wisdom hast Thou made them all; the earth is full of Thy property."

Vegetarianism also reflects concern for animals and all of God's creation, since for many it is a refusal to take part in a system that involves the cruel treatment and slaughter of 9 billion farm animals in the United States annually, and, as indicated above, that puts so much stress on the earth and its resources.

Both Tu B'Shevat and vegetarianism are becoming more popular; Tu B'Shevat because of an increasing interest in and concern about nature and environmental issues, and vegetarianism because of increasing concern about health, treatment of animals, the environment and proper use of natural resources.

On Tu B'Shevat, the sap begins to fill the trees and their lives are renewed. A shift toward vegetarianism means, in a sense, that there is an increased feeling of concern for the earth and all its inhabitants, and there is a renewal of the world's people's concerns about more life-sustaining approaches.  

Richard Schwartz is the author of several books including "Judaism and Vegetarianism" (Lantern Books, 2001) and "Judaism and Global Survival" (Lantern Books, 2002).

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