> Holidays > Tu bShvat > Insights

Man Is a Tree

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

The Torah compares a person to a tree. Roots, branches, leaves. What's the connection?

Torah is a tree of life for all who grasp it. (Proverbs 3:18)

You may remember from Hebrew School... once a year you'd get a little bag with some raisins, dates, and carob (the hard, brown fruit sometimes known as boxer). And you'd collect money to plant trees in Israel. That was Tu B'Shvat.

Of course, there's a deeper meaning behind the holiday, beyond that 13-year-old's view of Judaism!


The source for Tu B'Shvat is the opening statement of the Talmudic Tractate Rosh Hashana: The Academy of Hillel taught that the 15th of Shvat is the New Year for the Trees.

What does that mean, New Year for the Trees? Do all the cedars and pines get together, make resolutions to improve themselves, and dip apples in honey?!

Of course not. Tu B'Shvat is technically the day when trees stop absorbing water from the ground, and instead draw nourishment from their sap. In Jewish law, this means that fruit which has blossomed prior to the 15th of Shvat could not be used as tithe for fruit which blossomed after that date.

So what relevance does this have for us in the 21st century?

In various places, the Torah compares a person to a tree:

- A person is like the tree of a field... (Deut. 20:19)

- For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people. (Isaiah 65:22)

- He will be like a tree planted near water... (Jeremiah 17:8)

Why the comparison?

A tree needs the four basic elements in order to survive -- soil, water, air, and fire (sun). Human beings also require the same basic elements. Let's examine these, one at a time:


A tree needs to be planted firmly in the earth. The soil is not only the source through which nourishment is absorbed, but also provides room for the roots to grow.

This is true of a person as well. The Talmud explains:

A person whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds is likened to a tree whose branches are numerous, but whose roots are few. The wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down.

But a person whose good deeds exceed his wisdom is likened to a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are numerous. Even if all the winds of the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place. (Avot 3:22)

A person can appear successful on the outside, with full branches and a fancy car. But if the roots are few -- if there is little connection to one's community and heritage -- then life can send challenges that are impossible to withstand. A strong wind can turn the tree upside down. A person alone is vulnerable to trends and fads that may lead to despair and destruction.

But if a person -- irrespective of wealth and status -- is connected to community and heritage, then even if all the winds of the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place.

Humans require a strong home base, where values and morals are absorbed, and which provides a supportive growth environment. In a world rife with negativity; we need a filter, a safe haven to return to and refresh. A community provides an impervious shield -- the soil where we can be ourselves, make our mistakes, and still be accepted, loved and nourished.


Rain-water is absorbed into the ground and -- through an elaborate system of roots -- is carried throughout the trunk, branches and leaves of the tree. Without water, the tree will whither and die.

The Torah is compared to water, as Moses proclaims: May my teaching drop like the rain (Deut. 32:2). Both rain and Torah descend from the heavens and provide relief to the thirsty and parched. The Torah flows down from God and has been absorbed by Jews in every generation. Torah gives zest and vitality to the human spirit. A life based on Torah will blossom with wisdom and good deeds.

Deprived of water, a person will become dehydrated and ultimately disoriented, even to the point where they may not be able to recognize their own father. So too, without Torah, a person becomes disoriented -- to the extent they may not even recognize their Father in Heaven, the Almighty God of Israel.


A tree needs air to survive. The air contains oxygen that a tree needs for respiration, and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. In an imbalanced atmosphere, the tree would suffocate and die.

The Torah (Genesis 2:7) states that God breathed life into the form of Man. The Hebrew word for breath -- nesheema -- is the same as the word for soul -- neshama. Our spiritual life force comes, metaphorically, by way of air and respiration.

We use our senses of taste, touch and sight to perceive physical matter. (Even hearing involves the perception of sound waves.) But smelling is the most spiritual of senses, since the least physical matter is involved. As the Talmud says (Brachot 43b): Smell is that which the soul benefits from, and the does body not.

In the Holy Temple, the incense offering (sense of smell) was elevated to the once-a-year Yom Kippur offering in the Holy of Holies. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 93a) also says that when the Messiah comes, he will smell and judge -- that is, he will use his spiritual sensitivity to determine the truth about complex matters.


A tree also needs fire -- sunlight -- to survive. The absorption of energy from the light activates the process of photosynthesis, a chemical reaction that is essential for the growth and health of the tree.

Humans also need fire -- warmth -- to survive. This is the warmth of friendship and community. People absorb the energy of peers, friends, family, neighbors and associates -- and channel that into identity and actions. All the essential observances and ceremonies of Judaism are based on family and community -- from the celebration of birth, through the attainment of maturity, marriage, education, and even death.

The power of community is illustrated in the following Talmudic story:

An old man was planting a tree. A young person passed by and asked, What are you planting?

A carob tree, the old man replied.

Silly fool, said the youth. Don't you know that it takes 70 years for a carob tree to bear fruit?

That's okay, said the old man. Just as others planted for me, I plant for future generations.


This year on Tu B'Shvat, as you're gnawing that slab of carob, ask yourself:

Am I getting the spiritual food and shelter I need to survive, or is my tree being blown down by the forces of information overload and rampant materialism?

Am I part of a strong Jewish community, providing a warm and nurturing environment? Or am I cast into the pale bleak anonymity of urban life and cyberspace?

Am I looking to future generations knowing that I am providing them with the proper foundations for their lives?


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