Religion & Beliefs

How the Jewish Income Tax Day Became an Eco-Holiday

Wouldn’t it seem strange if you discovered that April 15, Income Tax Day, had been transformed into a festival for celebrating God’s reemergence? Yet that is what the Kabbalists of Safed did in the sixteenth century when they recreated Tu … Read More

By / February 2, 2009

Wouldn’t it seem strange if you discovered that April 15, Income Tax Day, had been transformed into a festival for celebrating God’s reemergence? Yet that is what the Kabbalists of Safed did in the sixteenth century when they recreated Tu B’Shvat, which Jews will celebrate this year on February 8-9. Tu B’Shvat, the full moon of mid-winter, had been important only in Holy Temple days as a tax day. It marked the end of the "fiscal year" for trees, the key capital investment in an agricultural society. Fruit that appeared  before that date was taxed for the previous year; fruit that appeared later, for the following year. But the Kabbalists saw this New Year for Trees as the New Year for the Tree of Life itself–for God’s Own Self, for the Tree Whose roots are in Heaven and Whose fruit is the world and all God’s creatures. To honor the reawakening of all trees and the continued presence of the Tree of Life, they created a mystical Seder that  honors the Four Worlds of Acting, Relating, Knowing, and Being. These Four Worlds were enacted with four cups of wine or grape juice and four courses of nuts and fruit. The fruit moved from less permeable to more permeable. 1. To represent Acting, those fruits with tough shells and soft, edible insides, e.g. walnuts were chosen. 2. For Relating, fruits with soft outsides and hard insides e.g. peaches were chosen. 3. For Knowing, those that are soft and edible all the way through e.g. figs were chosen. 4. And to represent Being, fruits are chosen that are so "permeable" they are not tangible at all and exist only on the plane of Spirit. The symbolic system of this Seder held still deeper riches: echoes of the generation and regeneration that occurs yearly in the worlds of plants and animals. Nuts and fruit are the only foods that require no death, not even the death of a plant. Our living trees send forth their fruit and seeds in such profusion that they overflow beyond the needs of the next generation. The Kabbalists of Safed saw that God’s shefa, or abundance, would keep flowing only if a portion of it were returned as rent to God, the Owner of all land and all abundance. And who were God’s rent collectors? The poor and the landless, including those priestly celebrants and teachers who owned no piece of earth and whose earthly task was to teach and celebrate. Spiritual knowledge was tied to social justice through the Tu B’Shvat ceremony: The Kabbalists of Safed said that to eat without blessing the Tree was robbery; to eat without feeding others was even worse! Because without blessing and sharing, the flow of abundance would choke and stop. Returning our Rent Today, the poor of the world are still in need; the teachers and celebrants of the world are still at risk. But now, in addition, the trees of the world are themselves in danger. So Tu B’Shvat today must become a time of action to feed the endangered earth as well as the endangered poor. Both are in danger from the poisonous overload of carbon dioxide and methane that human societies are pouring into God’s wind, the ruach ha’olam, and from the destruction of trees that soak up the CO2. Already the spreading desertification and resulting genocidal hyperviolence in Africa; the unprecedented drought in the state of Georgia; the melting of polar ice and of the Himalayan snows that give water to moré than a billion human beings; the diminishment of the Great Lakes so they can no longer bear the larger vessels that bring food to the world; the Katrina hurricane — all these are caused in part by the global climate crisis, global scorching. Earth, air, water, fire — all are in danger. So today Tu B’Shvat must once again change as it has in the past, becoming a day to act – to demand new laws and interrupt old destructions. We must use this day as a time to commit ourselves to restoring earth’s abundance. We must tax ourselves through our labor, our investments, and our activism in order to restore the natural balance we have upset. This tax will reap dividends. It has already in Illinois, where the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC)  of Evanston will be celebrating both the re-birthday of the trees, and the first birthday of the sustainable re-construction of their own synagogue. Led by Rabbi Brant Rosen, JRC has built an entirely new, deeply green, building for the congregation-so green  that it has been awarded LEED Certification at the Platinum Level by the US Green Building Council (USGBC) –  the highest level of certification for green architecture. JRC is the very first house of worship in the world to receive this designation. In recognition of this fact, JRC will receive The Shalom Center’s third annual Green Menorah Award. JRC did not originally set out to build a green building. In 1998, the congregation realized its building needed drastic repairs, and after an in-depth investigation of options they decided that the most cost-effective solution was to tear it down and rebuild. What made this rebuild different was that the congregation then took the extra step and invested a bit more time, money and energy to make the new building as green as it could be. Your synagogue does not need to rebuild to honor Tu B’Shvat, nor do you need to renovate your home. Small changes can make useful differences. Replace incandescent with fluorescent light bulbs; open windows instead of using conditioned air; replace garbage cans with a trio of cans for garbage, recycling and compost. The biggest differences require that we act as a community to change public policy. Create a Tu B’Shvat seder that incorporates time to write a letter to the local papers and political bloggers, calling on Congress to pass strong laws capping the emission of C02, to tax fuels according to the amount of carbon each fuel releases into the atmosphere (coal and oil, very high; solar and wind energy, very low), and to end subsidies for coal and oil while greatly increasing them for solar and wind research. (You can find a sample letter here) Give! Share! Act! Or the flow of abundance will choke on the friction of its own outpouring, and God’s Own Self will choke on our refusal of compassion.


Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center and the author of many books on Jewish practice, including Down-to-Earth Judaism and three others on the history and practice of co-Judaism.  Victoria Finlay is Communications Director of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), which is especially active in the United Kingdom.