What does Chanukkah, the ‘Festival of Lights’ have in common with Tu Bishvat, the ‘New Year for Trees? On the face of it, not a lot… Well, there are some illuminating connections – and I’m not just saying this because the theme of this issue of our shul magazine is ‘ecology’, and as December begins, Chanukkah is just around the corner…
For a start, neither Chanukkah nor Tu Bishvat appear in the Torah, and they were both inaugurated after the system of worship centred on the Temple in Jerusalem, and it’s related calendar of festivals had been established. If you look in the Torah, you will find that there are no sacred days – apart from the weekly sacred day of Shabbat – between Sukkot in the autumn, in the middle of the seventh month (15th – 21st Tishri) and Pesach in the spring, in the middle of the first month (15th – 21st Nissan).
Although neither Chanukkah nor Tu Bishvat are mentioned in the Torah, the Torah does have something to say about what lies at the heart of each of them: the M’norah – the seven-branched candle-stick that is central to Chanukkah; and trees, which are the raison d’etre for Tu Bishvat. The Torah tells us that the M’norah was the ner tamid, the ‘regular light’, kindled each day by the Priests, when they entered the Sanctuary (Exodus 27:20-21); and the key element of Chanukkah is the lighting of a nine-branched M’norah in remembrance of the legend, recorded in the Talmud, that when the Maccabees entered the Temple, they found only enough oil for one day’s lighting, but it lasted for eight (Shabbat 21b). The Torah also teaches that when besieging a city during a war, ‘you shall not destroy its trees’ – at least not the fruit-bearing ones (Deuteronomy 20:19-20).
So, something about the rationale for both Chanukkah and Tu Bishvat is evident in the Torah. And these two ‘minor’ festivals also share a key symbol of Judaism: The tree. The M’norah may be a metaphorical tree, but the metaphor is crucial: every time we close the ark at the end of the Torah service, we quote a passage from the Book of Proverbs that speaks of Chochmah, ‘Wisdom’ (3:18), and say, of the Torah; ‘She is a tree of life to those that grasp her, and happy are those who hold her fast’. Torah is a ‘tree of life’; and our lives depend on trees – and the oxygen they produce. The Rabbis didn’t know about oxygen, of course. For our ancestors, trees were simply a food-source. But the Rabbis did establish a New Year for Trees (Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:1), and the Jewish principle of bal tashchit ‘you shall not destroy’ (Talmud: Shabbat 67b; Chullin 7b, Kiddushin 32a), which is the foundation of any ecological strategy, is derived from that verse in the Torah about not destroying trees. So, don’t wait for Tu Bishvat to consider the importance of trees, start focussing on them this Chanukkah. Chanukkah Samei’ach! Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah