Celebrating Tu Bishvat as if global survival matters
By Abigail Klein Leichman
TU BISHVAT, the Jewish new year for trees– beginning this year at sundown on January 27 – has become a sort of Jewish Earth Daycomplete with its own Seder celebrating the produce and wines of the Land of Israel.
For environmental and vegan activist Prof. Richard H. Schwartz, Tu Bishvat presents a perfect opportunity to promote plant-based diets and environmental stewardship as expressions of traditional Jewish values.
The retired college professor plans to lead a Tu Bishvat Seder at his retirement village in Shoresh and to lead or participate in several online versions, centered on the theme “Celebrating Tu Bishvat as if global survival matters.”
“It is essential that we do this at a time when climate experts are issuing increasingly dire warnings that the world may have only 10 years or less to make ‘unprecedented changes’ in order to avert a climate catastrophe,” says Schwartz. “Glaciers, polar ice caps and permafrost are rapidly melting, and there has been a significant increase in heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, floods and other climate events. It has been announced that 2020 tied 2016 as the hottest year on record, even though 2020 did not have the El Nino that 2016 had.”
But a Tu Bishvat Seder focuses on festivity, not the doom and gloom. Therefore, the authorvof Vegan Revolution: Saving Our World, Revitalizing Judaism plans a “fun, meaningful, informative and inspiring experience” based on source sheets he compiled, with quotations from the Torah, Talmud and other Jewish texts, available on the website Jewcology.
Though the fellowship feel will be missing, a virtual format allows many more people to participate in such events, including those sponsored by the Israeli Jewish Veg Society, Jewish Veg (US) and the UK Jewish Vegetarian Society.
Participants need only have on hand one fruit with an outer shell, one with a pit and one with neither shell nor pit – as well as white and red wine or grape juice.
Because a Tu Bishvat Seder is “the only sacred meal where vegan foods are eaten as part of the ritual,” Schwartz points out, it can be an ideal kickoff for shifting toward a plant-based diet.
“Such a shift would be consistent with basic Jewish teachings on protecting human health, treating animals with compassion, preserving the environment, conserving natural resources and helping hungry people,” says Schwartz.
Rabbi Yonatan Neril, the Jerusalem-based founder and executive director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and of Jewish Eco Seminars, agrees that “Tu Bishvat is a great day to begin to change.” “The ecological crisis is messaging something to us, beyond the physical symptoms that appear as more intense hurricanes, floods, and fires,” says Neril, co-editor of the new Eco Bible: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus.
“The widespread degradation of the natural world indicates that our way of life is out of balance. Thus, the ecological crisis also reflects a spiritual crisis of the human being and how we live as moral beings in a material world,”says Neril. “Faith perspectives recognize thatecological disruptions arise out of the inner imbalance within billions of human beings. The change required of us to correct this is, to a significantdegree, of a spiritual nature.”
Originally, the 15th of Shvat marked the beginning of the annual cycle for determining tithes of fruit and nuts grown in the Land of Israel. After the Roman destruction of the Temple and subsequent exile in 70 CE, the day became irrelevant. It was revived by Safed Kabbalists in the 16th century to celebrate trees as a symbol of the divine force of nature.
Schwartz wants to see another ancient “new year,” the first of Elul, on which animal tithes were assessed, restored and transformed into a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s doctrines on compassion to animals and how today’s factory farming methods deviate far from these principles.
“Judaism’s eternal teachings can help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path, so we can leave a decent world for future generations,” he says. “Saving the global environment should become a central concern, and tikkun olam [the healing of the world] should become a major focus for Jewish life today.” ■
For more information about a Tu Bishvat Seder, email Schwartz at VeggieRich@gmail.com
24 THE JERUSALEM REPORT FEBRUARY 8, 2021