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Jewish Traditions and the Green Holiday: Ancient Jewish Customs Remade in the 21st Century

Jewish traditions have always had a close relationship to the earth. One has only to consider Tu B’Shevat to realize the inseparable tie that binds Judaism to nature and the earth’s ecology.

Celebrated for thousands of years, Judaism’s “Festival of the Trees” is the quintessential green holiday. It is often called Judaism’s “New Year of the Trees,” and gives homage not only Judaism’s ancient agrarian roots, but the importance of preserving the delicate balance between man and nature.

But nature has always played an important role in Jewish holidays as well. Even festivals whose theme seem unrelated to the environment can claim their origins in ecological concepts.

Shavuot and The Spring Harvest

The holiday of Shavuot (the Holiday of the Weeks) is celebrated in contemporary times to mark the Jewish community’s receipt of the Torah on Mount Sinai, but in earlier days it signaled the beginning of the spring harvest season in Israel. Traditional foods such as cheese, ice cream and other dairy foods are served at this time to commemorate the spring holiday.

Passover as well has its origins in the environment. One of Judaism’s most important holidays, it commemorates the ancient Jews’ flight from Egypt. Most Jews equate this spring holiday with the commandment to eat matzo at this time of year, but according to the 19th century Orthodox rabbinic scholar, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Pesach’s importance is inextricably linked to the spring season.

“The festival of our historical revival must at the same time be the festival of the revival of nature,” says Rabbi Hirsch in his commentary on Deuteronomy (16:1). The Passover Seder commemorates not only the new life of the Jews freed from Egypt, but the new awakening of the spring season.

Earth Day and the Passover Seder

An increasing number of Jewish communities have chosen to celebrate this link as part of their Passover Seders. The coinciding of Earth Day with the first days of Pesach in 2008 inspired an interest in “green Seders” and in finding ways to make their Pesach celebrations as ecologically sound as possible. Today this effort continues with newly inspired haggadahs that help readers and participants understand that Passover is not just a testament to the Jews’ survival, but to the earth’s survival and growth as well.

No holiday better illustrates the significant link between man and nature than Sukkot, the Festival of the Tabernacles. During Sukkot Jews are commanded to construct a sukkah, or booth as a reminder of the ancient Jews’ life after Egypt. For seven days, Jews eat, pray, meet, sleep and spend their time in a sukkah built out of branches, twigs, cloth and other temporary materials. Their lives are at least symbolically if not wholly, linked to the earth and its ecology for those seven days.

The Sukkah and the Green Holiday

Some communities have taken the challenge of building a sukkah as a way to reacquaint themselves with nature and to encourage “green living.” Organizations like ARZA, a Reform Judaism affiliated organization have used the experience to teach participants how to construct recyclable sukkahs and plan eco-friendly dinner gatherings. Orthodox Jewish organizations have taken up the challenge as well, by organizing teaching materials and gatherings that promote the use of recyclable decorations that don’t clog landfills.

The 21st century, with its growing focus on ecology and green living continues to inspire new outlooks on Judaism’s ancient traditions, and their inseparable link to the earth’s environment.