One Chabad rab­bi calls Tu B’Shevat Rosh Hashanah for Trees.”[1] A Reform Jew­ish writer refers to the day as Jew­ish Arbor Day.”[2] In Israel, Tu B’Shevat marks the end of win­ter and begin­ning of spring. Marked with eat­ing cer­tain fruit, drink­ing wine, and plant­i­ng trees, it is observed more as an agri­cul­tur­al cel­e­bra­tion than a hol­i­day. Cer­tain­ly, this is a minor hol­i­day on the Jew­ish cal­en­dar. The ques­tion aris­es: exact­ly how sig­nif­i­cant is it?

Refor​mJu​daism​.org explains that although the cel­e­bra­tion of Tu BiSh­vat [sic] has a long and var­ied his­to­ry, the theme most com­mon­ly ascribed to the hol­i­day today is the envi­ron­ment.” Refer­ring to Leviti­cus, 25:23, the : Envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion is a fun­da­men­tal Jew­ish con­cern (‘the Earth is Mine, you are but strangers and sojourn­ers with Me.’).”[3

To what extent does the hol­i­day remind us of our respon­si­bil­i­ties as ten­ants of the Earth? What are our oblig­a­tions to the environment?

We begin with the man­date of the first mitz­vah (Jew­ish law) con­tained in the Bible: 

G‑d blessed them and G‑d said to them, Be fruit­ful and mul­ti­ply, and fill the earth, and sub­due it; and rule over the fish of the sea, and over the bird of the sky, and over every liv­ing thing that moves on the earth.” 

In Judaism, Nature and the Envi­ron­ment” pub­lished on Aish​.com, Rab­bi Mordechai Bech­er argues that we each have per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty to take care of the Earth: A won­der­ful Rab­binic com­men­tary in the Midrash relates that God showed Adam and Eve around the world and told them, Look at my works! See how beau­ti­ful they are — how excel­lent! For your sake I cre­at­ed them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’”

On the one hand, mankind is giv­en domin­ion over the Earth. We are man­dat­ed to sub­due it” and rule over every liv­ing thing. On the oth­er, we must bear in mind that it is His, not ours. At most we are here for a short time, mere sojourn­ers.”

Cli­mate sci­en­tists around the world equate the burn­ing of fos­sil fuels as the lead­ing cause of cli­mate change. Bear­ing that in mind, con­sid­er this state­ment from the IPCC, the lead­ing research enti­ty on cli­mate change:

Human-induced cli­mate change is already affect­ing many weath­er and cli­mate extremes in every region across the globe. Evi­dence of observed changes in extremes such as heat­waves, heavy pre­cip­i­ta­tion, droughts, and trop­i­cal cyclones, and, in par­tic­u­lar, their attri­bu­tion to human influ­ence, has strength­ened since 2014.[4]

Here are a few considerations:

  • Recent­ly, the US EPA has said methane (i.e. nat­ur­al gas) is a strong green­house gas. It is more than 28 times as potent as car­bon diox­ide at trap­ping heat in the atmos­phere. Over the last two cen­turies, methane con­cen­tra­tions in the atmos­phere have more than dou­bled, large­ly due to human-relat­ed activities.”[5]
  • In my home state, Penn­syl­va­nia, 95% of all elec­tric­i­ty is gen­er­at­ed by fos­sil fuels (over half is from nat­ur­al gas). Only 5% comes from renewables.
  • Would it be fea­si­ble to just stop using nat­ur­al gas, coal, and/​or nuclear and tran­si­tion imme­di­ate­ly to solar, wind and conservation?
  • Will cli­mate change dev­as­ta­tion and envi­ron­men­tal harm fall dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly on poor peo­ple and poor nations? If so, how do we take care of our respon­si­bil­i­ty toward them?
  • The UN and vir­tu­al­ly every sci­en­tif­ic orga­ni­za­tion in the world that stud­ies cli­mate change asserts the con­tin­ued use of fos­sil fuel and the result­ing increase in green­house gasses will cause huge harm to the Earth. What is our duty? 

Scrip­ture presents us with two posi­tions, both of which find their basis in the mitzvot. Should we sub­due” the Earth and rule over every liv­ing thing? Fos­sil fuels pro­vide ener­gy for peo­ple so they can live decent lives, pro­duce food, pro­vide trans­porta­tion, heat and pow­er their homes, and make a pletho­ra of prod­ucts. Despite the poten­tial envi­ron­men­tal harm, in the short run, the more fos­sil ener­gy that is pro­duced, the bet­ter off peo­ple will live. One could argue that the US and oth­er coun­tries should pro­duce more fos­sil fuel and low­er the cost of energy.

Or is it more impor­tant to treat the Earth as G‑d’s prop­er­ty, since we are noth­ing more than strangers and sojourn­ers”? Fos­sil fuels (coal, oil, nat­ur­al gas) cause pol­lu­tion when they are extract­ed, pol­lu­tion when burned, and con­tribute to cli­mate change. There is great harm to peo­ple caused by the use of fos­sil fuel. One could argue that coun­tries should move away from using fos­sil fuel as quick­ly as pos­si­ble, even if that means that the cost of ener­gy and neces­si­ties may go up.

Which solu­tion adheres more close­ly to Jew­ish val­ues? My view is that the sci­ence of cli­mate change — as opposed to the pol­i­tics of it — is clear. Green­house gasses gen­er­at­ed by the use of fos­sil fuels pose an exis­ten­tial risk to the plan­et and will affect all peo­ple, espe­cial­ly poor peo­ple and poor­er nations. We, as Jews, have a reli­gious oblig­a­tion to do what we can to ful­fill our sacred com­mand­ment — tak­ing care of and repair­ing the Earth. 

Tu B’Shevat is a good time to pause and con­sid­er these chal­leng­ing ques­tions about the envi­ron­ment and human impact on our Earth. 

Per­haps that is the larg­er mean­ing of this seem­ing­ly minor holiday.

[1] Tu BiSh­vat: What and How, Naf­tali Sil­ber­berg, Chabad​.org. 

[2] Tu BiSh­vat or the New Year of the Trees” is Jew­ish Arbor Day, Refor​mJu​daism​.org (“Refor​mJu​daism​.org.”).

[3] Id. Quot­ing Leviti­cus, 25:23.

[4] Cli­mate Change 2021: The Phys­i­cal Sci­ence Basis, Sum­ma­ry for Pol­i­cy­mak­ers, Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (August 192021)

[5] Impor­tance of Methane, Glob­al Methane Ini­tia­tive, US EPA (Nov. 12023).

A grad­u­ate of The Penn­syl­va­nia State Uni­ver­si­ty and Ver­mont Law School, Joel Bur­cat has writ­ten short sto­ries for The Mon­tre­al Review, Kalei­do­scope, Diverse Voic­es Quar­ter­ly, the North­ern Appalachia Review, and antholo­gies, among oth­ers. Before becom­ing a full-time author, he was an envi­ron­men­tal lawyer. He worked as an Assis­tant Attor­ney Gen­er­al for the Pa. Dept. of Envi­ron­men­tal Resources and was in pri­vate prac­tice. His first three nov­els were envi­ron­men­tal legal thrillers, includ­ing Strange Fire, a thriller about frack­ing for nat­ur­al gas. Reap the Wind, his new cli­mate change nov­el about three lawyers flee­ing a hur­ri­cane hit­ting Hous­ton, is his fourth nov­el. He lives in Har­ris­burg, Penn­syl­va­nia. https://​joel​bur​cat​.com/