Bar mitzvah lessons on Tu Bishevat

The path to understanding Tu Bishevat

for The Brooklyn Paper
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There’s a good chance that as you’re reading these words, wind chills are in the single digits. It’s January 16th for goodness’ sake, so there’s probably plenty of snow on the ground and everything is frozen solid.

The Jewish religion says that this is the perfect time to plant a tree!

Tu Bishevat, the Jewish birthday of trees, takes place today according to the Hebrew calendar, and it can provide a fresh and relevant perspective for b’nei mitzvah students. Let’s get some background (or barkground) on this often overlooked but little gem of a day.

The words “tu bishevat” literally mean “fifteenth of Shevat,” referring to the date that it falls on the calendar, and this date is considered the birthday of trees. And why do trees need a birthday?

According to an instruction in the Bible, after you plant a tree and then sit around for a couple of decades or so waiting for it to bear fruit, you’re still not allowed to eat any right away. Instead, you have to wait three years. Then, in the fourth year, you can pick the fruit, but have to dedicate it to God (translation: you still can’t eat it). Finally, in the fifth year, you can sit down to a really well deserved fruit salad.

That’s a lot of work for a couple of apples.

But what if you owned an orchard? Are you really expected to keep track of that five-year cycle for every single tree?

That’s nuts! (Also provided by tress, by the way).

So the Jewish religion came along and made things much easier by instituting Tu Bishevat, an across-the-board birthday for every tree. On this day, each tree, no matter when it was planted, is hereby one year older. That makes keeping track of when you can eat the fruit a snap.

The bigger message of Tu Bishevat is, however, that we humans are responsible for the environment. By stressing that there are some things on earth that live a lot longer than we do, it shows that we have to take care of what we have. Tu Bishevat, with its emphasis on trees, helps teach us that we should consider ourselves caretakers of this planet.

It is a perfect message to send to kids who are just starting down the road of adult responsibility. In fact, there’s a traditional story in the Talmud that illustrates this fact:

One day, a kid was out walking and saw an old man planting a tree. He said, “Hey old man, how come you’re planting a tree? There’s no way you will be around when it grows and bears fruit.” (What a lovely and polite young man.) The man responded, “That’s true. But just as others planted trees so I could eat fruit, so too am I planting this tree for the next generation.”

I would suggest that this is a perfect way for students to branch out a bit and consider dedicating their mitzvah or community service project to the environment. This might include getting involved in recycling, beautifying a portion of the neighborhood, or looking at ways of reducing pollution. Another simple way to make a difference is to use some bar mitzvah money to make a donation to the Jewish National Fund, which plants trees all over Israel. Tu Bishevat provides every bar mitzvah student the chance to turn over a new leaf.

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