Tu B’Shvat and Vegetarianism
Richard H. Schwartz
Tu B’Shvat is arguably the most vegetarian of Jewish holidays, because of its many connections to vegetarian themes and concepts:
1. The Tu B’Shvat 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. 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.’” (Gen.1: 29)
2. The Talmud refers to Tu B’Shvat 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’Shvat, especially in Israel, is 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 pastureland 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.
3. Both Tu B’Shvat and vegetarianism are connected to today’s environmental concerns. Many contemporary Jews look on Tu B’Shvat as a Jewish Earth Day, and use Tu B’Shvat seders as a chance to discuss how Jewish values can be applied to reduce many of today’s ecological threats.
The following ancient warning has become all too relevant today:
“In the hour when the Holy one, blessed be He, 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
Vegetarianism is consistent with this important Jewish environmental concern, since modern intensive livestock agriculture contributes to many current environmental problems, including soil erosion and depletion, air and water pollution, the destruction of habitats, and potential global warming.
4. Both Tu B’Shvat and vegetarianism embody the important teaching that “The earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm. 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. With their concern about the preservation and expansion of forests and their focus on plant-based foods, both Tu B’Shvat and vegetarianism, reflect this important Jewish teaching.
5. Tu B’Shvat and vegetarianism both are consistent with the Torah mandate that we are not to waste or destroy unnecessarily anything of value. It is interesting that this prohibition, called bal tashchit (“thou shalt not destroy”) is based on concern for fruit-bearing trees, as indicated in the following Torah statement: “When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shall not destroy (lo tashchit) 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.” (Deut. 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 Ha-Chinuch 530). The sages of the Talmud made a general prohibition against waste: “Whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs up a fountain, or destroys food violates the prohibition of bal tashchit” (Kiddushin 32a). In summary, bal tashchit prohibits the destruction, complete or incomplete, direct or indirect, of all objects of potential benefit to people. The important Torah mandate of bal tashchit is consistent with vegetarianism, since, compared to plant-based diets, animal-centered diets require far more land, water, energy, and other agricultural resources.
6. Tu B’Shvat reflects a concern about future generations. In ancient times it was a custom to plant a cedar sapling on the birth of a boy and a cypress sapling on 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 chupah (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.
7. Both Tu B’Shvat and vegetarianism are becoming increasingly popular today; Tu B’Shvat because of an increasing interest in and concern about nature and environmental issues, and vegetarianism because of increasing concern about health, the treatment of animals, and also the environment and the proper use of natural resources.