Trees and their New Year in Rabbinic Judaism

Trees were viewed in both economic and symbolic terms by the Rabbis of Talmudic times.

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A tree stood at the very center of the first human moral dilemma, when Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge. One rabbinic tradition holds that this was a fig tree. Even though the fig tree, according to this midrash (interpretive literature), allowed Adam and Eve to doom themselves and their descendants to a life in exile from paradise, the tree also offered them the first step towards spiritual redemption, by providing Adam and Eve fig leaves to cover their nakedness (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 70a-b). Here, and in many other rabbinic stories and interpretations, trees provide a kind of litmus test for human behavior.

According to another midrash, Honi the Circle Maker fell asleep for 70 years, only to discover that a carob tree outlives the one who plants it. Planting trees, a particularly beloved practical and symbolic act in the rabbinic imagination, hence embodies Jewish responsibility for each generation to cultivate resources for the next (Babylonian Talmud Ta'anit 23a). Such deeply practical action within a spiritual framework is magnified by the dictum of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, "If you have a sapling in your hand and are told, 'Look, the Messiah is here,' you should first plant the sapling and then go out to welcome the Messiah" (The Fathers According to Rabbi Natan/Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version B 31). Trees are among the most dependable and useful vessels to guide people to be steadfast in the face of challenges both hidden and revealed, particularly in moments of transition.

When they behave properly, people are compared to the lasting physical and spiritual stature of trees, as they are when God fells them with a thundering crash for behaving badly (Babylonian Talmud Bekhorot 45b). The life and example of trees mirror human experience, and trees are provided special protection in times of dispute (Deuteronomy20:19). In a play on one of the Hebrew words for tree or brush--siah--it is said that trees are created as friends and partners for human beings, engaging them (mesihim) in constant dialogue (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 13:2).

In the traditional liturgy for the conclusion of the Torah service, the rabbis insert the verse, "She is a tree of life to them that grasp her, and all who hold onto her are happy" (Proverbs 3:18). This saying epitomizes rabbinic tradition's most famous metaphorical use of the tree--as a symbol of Torah. Throughout the rabbinic canon, texts refer to the Torah as a tree of infinite knowledge, producing the fruits of new teachings and students over the generations.

Because no Jewish object or concept garners more respect or is more central than the Torah within rabbinic tradition, it is illuminating that the Rabbis choose the tree as a primary symbol for the presence of Torah in the world. If humanity's failure of the moral litmus test at the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden sets humankind on its journey into the world beyond paradise, the Tree of Life of Torah emerges as the source of protection, sustenance, and proper living that allows humankind to continually reconnect with its highest self.

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Stephen H. Arnoff

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is the executive director of the 14th Street Y. He was previously the managing editor of Zeek and the director of Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y.