Back to nature

10th January 2003 at 00:00
The Jewish festival of Tu b'Shevat teaches the importance of environmental conservation, says Julia Bowditch

Across the world, forests are in decline. More than half the tropical rainforests have been destroyed and only remnants of ancient temperate forests survive. With this in mind, much can be learned from the Jewish festival of Tu b'Shevat ("the 15th of Shevat"), celebrated each year in January. Shevat is the fifth month in the Jewish calendar. The festival is dedicated to raising awareness of man's relationship with nature. Central to this is our role as custodians of the world, based on the Old Testament text (Genesis 2:15): "God took man and put him in the Garden of Eden (the world) to work it and take care of it."

In the Jewish faith, trees symbolise life and goodness, their beauty and usefulness long acknowledged. It is an old Jewish custom to mark the birth of a baby by planting a tree - cedar for a boy as a symbol of strength and fragrant cypress for a girl.

As scientific knowledge has advanced, the pivotal role of trees has become better understood. We now know that trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and emit oxygen, and that the destruction of forests exacerbates the greenhouse effect, which is partly caused by a build-up of carbon dioxide. Trees prevent landslides, protect against floods and enrich the soil. In the UK, more than 230 threatened species have their habitats in vulnerable ancient woodlands.

The festival features planting trees, taking fruit to old people and enjoying a meal with family and friends. Ideally, 15 different fruits are tasted. Poems, stories, songs and prayers focus on thanking God for trees. With the coming of spring, new life and hope for the future is celebrated, too.

By encouraging people to care for trees, Tu b'Shevat is also about treasuring and preserving ecosystems. Since Israel became an independent state in 1948, more than 180 million trees have been planted there, six million of them near Jerusalem in memory of Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Incongruous with this reafforestation is the current destruction by Israeli soldiers and civilians of thousands of olive trees on Palestinian land. Yet the olive tree and its fruit, recorded in the Bible, the Qu'ran and the Torah, is a symbol of peace for Christians, Muslims and Jews. The trees are of vital economic importance to the Palestinians, but the Israeli government argues that they need to be cleared for roads and settlements to be built and because they provide cover for Palestinian attacks.

There is division among Jews over the issue. True to the message of Tu b'Shevat, the campaign group Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel is seeking to replant trees in several Palestinian villages. The Olive Trees for Peace Campaign by Jews outside Israel is supporting this programme as part of its endeavour to heal the rift between Palestine and Israel.

Tu b'Shevat has a global message - that we ignore conservation at our peril. It can teach everyone, regardless of creed or location, to leave an acceptable ecological legacy to future generations.


Tu b'Shevat can be presented at varying levels of complexity according to age group. It sets caring for the environment in a religious context (AT1 = Practices amp; Lifestyles) and raises awareness of man's relationship with nature (AT2 = Values amp; Commitments) All ages Make a wall display about Tu b'Shevat. Use the ideas for a presentation at a school assembly. It can include:

* pictures of different types of trees and forests, with artwork and written accounts

* tree stories, songs and poems, for example, The Story of Johnny Appleseed and Jean Giono's The Man Who Planted Trees

* accounts of trees near the school. Are any used for marking boundaries or displaying public notices? What age, size and type are most notable in the area?

* a collection of wooden artwork and classroom objects, such as pencils.

Older children

* The Trees for Schools Fund 2003 gives grants to help schools plant trees in National Tree Week, November 26 to December 7. Visit

* Find out about trees in religions, such as the Boddhi tree in Buddhism, the asvattha tree in Hinduism, the Tree of Knowledge in the Judeo-Christian tradition and the yggdrasil tree in Scandinavian mythology.

* Investigate the benefits of trees and the need for sustainable growth.

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