The Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat is, strictly speaking, a tax deadline: fruit that ripen prior to this date are considered to be part of the previous year’s crop for the purposes of various tithes. But 17th-century kabbalists invested the day with mystical significance, and thereafter it became a date symbolizing Jews’ connection with the Land of Israel, before being repurposed again as the basis for a tenuous sort of Jewish environmentalism. This transformation of the date described in the Talmud as “the new year for the trees” may seem commonsensical, but Etan Golubtchik argues that in fact it is antithetical to the day’s meaning. As he explains, the idea of a human obligation to subdue and cultivate nature, rather than to leave it wild and untrammeled, is deeply rooted in Jewish theology, beginning with God’s commandment to Adam “to work and to guard” the Garden of Eden and further evidenced by the rabbis’ description of an encounter between the 1st-century sage Rabbi Akiva and the Roman provincial governor Turnus Rufus:
When Turnus Rufus challenged Akiva by asking why there is a commandment to circumcise one’s son if God’s creations are perfect, “Rabbi Akiva brought Turnus Rufus grains of wheat and some bread, and said, ‘These grains of wheat are God’s handiwork, and the bread is the handiwork of man. Is the latter not greater than the former?’” In both breadmaking and circumcision, man is expected to take the resources provided by nature and improve upon them. Here Akiva articulates a central tenet of Jewish philosophy: the natural environment made by God provides the resources for man to build upon. Man is expected to use these resources in order to take care of himself and those in need, as well as to create religious structures, like the tabernacle and Temple, in which to worship God.