The Trees Sang with Joy: A Teaching for Tu b’Shevat

by Yonatan Neril.

Beit Hillel teaches that Tu b’Shevat is the new year of the trees. [1] At this time of sap rising within trees it is an appropriate time to explore a teaching of the Sages on how our forefathers related to trees.

According to the Midrash [2] , when Yaakov went down to Egypt, he received a prophecy that his descendants would be redeemed from there and be commanded to build a Mishkan (Sanctuary) in the desert. The Sanctuary existed as a center for Divine worship for over 400 years in Israel until King Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem in 832 BCE. Yaakov instructed his children to plant acacia trees in Egypt. Over the hundreds of years of slavery, those saplings grew into large, mature trees. Before the Exodus, the Israelites cut down those trees and brought them with them through the Sea of Reeds into the desert.[3] When the Israelites built the Sanctuary out of these trees, the trees sang jubilantly before God, as it says in Psalms, “then all the trees of the forest will sing with joy before Hashem.”[4] Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch understands the word used to describe the trees' singing—from the root 'ranan'–as joyful singing—in exaltation and jubilation.[5]

Why did the cut-down trees (now planks of wood) sing joyously when they were being brought to build the Sanctuary?[6] The trees' singing may be rooted in two significant factors: the relationship of the people to the trees, and how they were to be used.

First, according to the Sages, these trees and those that preceded them were in relationship with people for thousands of years. According to Rabbi Ibn Sho'eev of medieval Spain,“They [the Sages] said that Adam took trees from the Garden of Eden and gave them to Avraham, and Avraham [gave them] to Yitzhak, and Yitzhak [gave them] to Yaakov. Yaakov took them down to Egypt, and from there the tribes of Israel took them out. This is the acacia wood [commanded for use in the Sanctuary].”[7]

The previous Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson zt'l teaches that when the Israelite slaves saw these trees, they recalled Yaakov's prophesy and were reminded of their future redemption.[8] These descendants of Yaakov,who used the wood for the Mishkan, cut down the forest and then carried the wood logs out of Egypt, through the sea, and into the desert. The Israelites' positive connection to these trees from Avraham to Moshe likely contributed to the trees' celebrating their being used, even though that meant being cut down.

A second factor why the trees sang relates to the purpose for which they were used. They were to become the pillars of the Sanctuary of God, which the Torah describes as the dwelling place of the Shechina (Divine Presence) amidst the Jewish people.[9] The Ohr HaChaim explains the deep kabbalistic significance of these planks, which in their vertical position connected the upper holiness to the lower holiness. God commanded that they measure ten amot (cubits), which corresponds to the ten spiritual emanations (sefirot).[10] In this we can find the ultimate example of use of trees for a higher goal. Thus, perhaps the reason the trees were singing in such exultation was because they would be used for a holy purpose in the Sanctuary over many centuries.[11]

We have seen that our ancestors related to trees in such a way that the trees broke into song when they were used toward an elevated, long-term use. Their example is instructive for us in terms of how we use trees. Oftentimes, we are not even aware that we are using a tree. Instead, we relate to a product made of trees in its consumer form—a cardboard box, an envelope, etc. Even if we do know, we may not understand the significance of cutting a tree that may support a rich ecosystem and benefit us in a myriad of ways.

The recent Jewish custom to plant trees on Tu b’Shevat is important and praiseworthy, but it will not make up for the rate at which our consumption of trees results in their being cut down. According to statistics based onthe governor-appointed Wisconsin Council on Forestry, “In just one year, the average American consumes enough wood and paper to make up a tree 100 feet tall and sixteen inches in diameter. That breaks down to 43 cubic feet of wood and 681 pounds of paper per American per year for building supplies, newsprint, printing and writing paper, tissue towels, product packaging, mail and thousands of other products.”[12] It is as if an average US resident cuts down a large tree every year, likely without being aware of it. In our lifetimes, each of us will probably consume a small forest of 70 to 80 large trees. Consider the usage of the members of ourextended family, and we can see that our family will likely consume several thousand trees in our lifetimes.

Multiply this by millions and billions of people around the worldand one can begin to comprehend how humans deforest about thirteen million hectares of forest every year.[13] Deforestation to such an extent presents significant challenges for the long-term viability of human civilization which depends on healthy forests to maintain a climate in balance and to support an array of species from which humans benefit.[14] It also raises myriad religious questions about our stewardship of the planet to which Hashem entrusted us 'to work and to protect.'[15]

The Sages allude to the far-reaching impacts of cutting trees in teaching that “the lights [of the world] suffer…because of the destroyers of beneficial trees.”[16] While the Torah places particular importance on fruit-bearing trees, according to some rabbis the definition of 'beneficial trees' can be extended today to include all trees given that humans depend on trees for a range of 'ecosystem services' like filtering water, preventing soil erosion, and converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.[17]

Of course, the Torah and Midrash is not telling us not to use trees. Judaism recognizes that humans need to use natural resources. The question is how we use them. Thus our Midrash can be understood as communicating an ethic of proper use. From it we can learn a Jewish litmus test for how we use trees and other resources: would the tree sing based on how I am using it? From this flows the question: Am I using the wood towards a higher goal? Each person judges this for himself or herself. Each time we ask this question we bring consciousness into our consumption and come closer to consuming in holiness. At a practical level, one might commit to reading the news online and canceling the daily newspaper and monthly magazine subscription; buying 100% recycled printer paper; or purchasing wood only from producers certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.[18] Click here for more action suggestions.

Increasing our awareness of how we use natural resources can help us to better elevate these resources in holy use. In so doing we can appreciate the abundant blessings Hashem bestows upon us, and make our daily consumption part and parcel of our Jewish practice.

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[1] Mishna Rosh Hashana 1:1

[2] Midrash Tanchuma (Warsaw edition), Parshat Teruma, Section nine.

[3] This is implicit but unstated in the Midrash.

[4] Psalms 96:12-13, Artscroll translation. This chapter is read or sung every week during Kabbalat Shabbat.

[5] Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, based on the commentaries of Samphson Rafael Hirsch, by Rabbi Matityahu Clark, Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1999, p. 245

[6] Please note that the reading of the Midrash accords with the view of some rabbis that the song of the trees and other creatures in Perek Shira can be understood literally, that those creatures themselves sang the song mentioned in the text. See Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman explaining Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh's teaching on this, inThe Mystical Power of Music, Feldheim: Jerusalem, 2005, p. 68

[7] On the end of the Torah portion of Terumah, cited in Torah Shlema, compiled by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher (1895-1983), p. 14 of volume that includes Parshat Terumah, to Exodus verse 25:6. Translation here by the author.

[8] Bi'urim l'perush Rashi al HaTorah, on Shemot 25:5, based on Shiurim of R' Menachem Mendel Schneerson ztz'l,, Kehot Publication Society, Brooklyn, 1993, p. 220-221

[9] Shemot 25:8

[10] Rabbi Chaim ben Atar, commentary to Shemot 26:15

[11] It is not clear whether or how often these specific planks were replaced with new wood over the centuries, since wooden structures can last for hundreds of years. The Talmud in Shabbat 74b states how the cloth coverings damaged by moth holes (as per Rashi's understanding) of the Sanctuary would be repaired by sewing, indicating that at least some of the materials of the Sanctuary were actually repaired when they became damaged.

[12] From “Wisconsin Forestry,” a group sponsored by the governor-appointed Wisconsin Council on Forestry and with leadership from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The group is comprised of leaders in the Wisconsin forestry community who direct the state's efforts to achieve sustainable forestry. Available online at

[13] According to The Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005 of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.(FAO). The FAO describes the report as “the most comprehensive assessment to date of forest resources, their uses and value, covering 229 countries and territories between 1990 and 2005.” It is available online.
[14] For an important examination of the central role of deforestation in the demise of numerous pre-modern societies, see Pulitzer-prize winning author Dr. Jared Diamond's book Collapse.

[15]Genesis 2:15. This is based on an understanding of this command as applying beyond the Garden of Eden, where it was given.

[16] Sukka 29a. Rashi understands 'lights' here as referring to the moon and the stars. He also links cutting down beneficial trees with not appreciating the goodness God bestows on us.

[17] For example, Rabbi Natan Greenberg, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Bat Ayin, accepts such an understanding.

[18] Information is available at

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