Tu B’shvat is upon us, and while the holiday is meant to commemorate the birthday of all trees (and also, perhaps optimistically, the midway point of the wet season in the land of Israel), Judaism is rife with specific trees that are especially worthy of mention during our one tree-holiday. These trees are real, folkloric, historical, imagined, and metaphorical—all of which crop up over Jewish history and culture, pretty much from the very beginning. Here are the 13 greatest.
1. The Tree of Life (Etz Chayim)
The Torah is a tree of life to those who cleave to it, but what about the Tree of Life? The first and greatest of the Jewish trees appears in chapter 2 of Genesis, and is mentioned just a few words before the fateful Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad is introduced. The Etz Chayim stood in the center of the Garden of Eden and was so powerful that it became a key part of God’s justification for expelling Adam and Eve from Eden: “Now that man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and also take form the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” the Lord wonders with alarm.
The Tree of Life is one of the central metaphors in Kabbalism and is a cherished symbol in Judaism more generally (my childhood synagogue has an enormous and tastefully minimalist sculpture of the Etz Chayim stretching across the sanctuary wall). As for the tree itself, there’s no topping this description from the 13th century rabbinic text Yalkut Shimeoni (as quoted in Abraham Cohen’s 1995 book Everyman’s Talmud):
In the center is the Tree of Life, its branches covering the whole of Gan Eden, containing five hundred thousand varieties of fruit all differing in appearance and taste. Above it are the clouds of glory, and it is smitten by the four winds so that its odour is wafted from one end of the world to the other. Beneath it are the disciples of the Sages who expounded the Torah, each of them possessing two chambers, one of the stars and the other of the sun and moon. Between every chamber hangs a curtain of clouds of glory, behind which lies Eden. Inside it are three hundred and ten worlds, and in it are seven classes of the righteous…The Holy One, blessed be He, sits in their midst and expounds Torah to them.
Yup, that’s the #1 Jewish tree alright.
2. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad (Etz Ha’daat Tov v’Rah)
The second and second-greatest of the Jewish trees is the mythological origin of all spiritual and existential angst. This tree essentially kick-started all of human (and therefore Jewish) history, while exposing the corrupt yet ever-inquisitive state of human nature. It also unleashed a never-ending wave of neuroses, large and small, Jewish and otherwise: As soon as Adam and Eve eat the tree’s fruit, “the eyes of both of them were opened” and they immediately realize that they’re both naked.
3. The Burning Bush
Really more of a shrub than a tree—nowhere is the bush described as an “etz” in chapter 3 of Exodus, when God chooses a notably vegetative means of summoning Moses to his destiny. But the burning bush is important enough to warrant a very high spot on any ranking of great Judaic flora. And St. Katherine’s, the fortress-like 6th century monastery at the foot of what Christians believe to be Mount Sinai, maintains a thick, mushroom-shaped desert shrub that the monks claim to be a descendant of the original burning bush, and it sorta looks like a tree. So we’ll count it.
4. The metaphorical tree from Buber’s I and Thou
In his 1923 masterpiece I and Thou, the German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber finds himself contemplating a tree: a solid object rooted to its environment and existing within a broader natural order, but one that also has significance beyond just its physical being. “As I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation,” Buber writes. Human and tree are an intrinsic part of each other’s reality: “The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it–only differently.”
This is a powerful metaphor for humans and God, but it’s also a pretty compelling vision of the relationship between humans and nature, too. Even when taken at face value, “the tree itself” is something sublime, and worthy of humility and understanding. Humans have certain obligations to their leafy counterparts: “One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation,” Buber writes. “Relation is reciprocity.”
5. Eli Cohen’s eucalyptus trees
Syria’s wartime record against the Jewish state is entirely unblemished by victory, and Israeli super-spy Eli Cohen’s arboreal exploits are part of the reason why. Cohen, who infiltrated the upper echelons of the Syrian government in the mid-1960s, recommended that the country’s military plant fast-growing eucalyptus trees in the Golan Heights in order to provide shade for soldiers and conceal their military positions. When war broke out in 1967, the Israelis had tall, non-native trees marking the enemy’s deployments and was able to capture the heights in a matter of days. Cohen himself had been caught and executed two years earlier, in 1965.
6. The kikayon
Bible scholars have long debated the identity of the plant that springs up over Jonah’s head as he awaits the destruction of Nineveh. Whatever it was, the kikayon doesn’t last long: God sends a worm to devour the pleasantly shady and perhaps tree-like plant, provoking a suicidal hissy-fit from the reluctant prophet. God then explains that the tree was meant to teach Jonah about what really matters in this easy-come, easy-go cosmos of ours. “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight,” the Lord says. “And should I not care about Ninevah?”
7. Die Judenbuche (The Jew’s Beach-Tree)
Unless you’re a German literature nerd, or you’re into compiling a ranking of 13 great Jewish trees, you probably haven’t heard of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff enigmatic 1842 gothic horror novella Die Judenbuche, or The Jew’s Beech-Tree. A creepily prescient saga of anti-Semitism and ecological disaster in 18th-century rural Germany, Die Judenbuche tells the story of a psychopathic timber poacher named Friedrich who murders, among others, a Jewish man named Aaron to whom he was in debt. Gradually, poachers claim nearly every tree near Friedrich’s village. One survives: the towering beech near where Aaron’s body was discovered. When the local authorities fail to bring Aaron’s killer to justice, the Jewish community purchases the tree, to preserve it as a monument and a symbol of future vengeance against Aaron’s killer:
“Do you want to cut it down? Now in full leaf?” asked the master.
“No, Your Excellency, it must stand, summer and winter, as long as a chip of it remains.”
“But if I cut down that wood, then it will damage the new growth.”
“We are prepared to give much more than the ordinary price.”
They offered 200 talers. The deal was closed, and all the rangers strongly enjoined on no account to damage the Jews’ Beech.
In the evening a procession of at least sixty Jews, their Rabbis at the head, all silent and with downcast eyes, was seen to make its way to Breder Wood. They remained more than an hour in the wood, and then came solemnly and silently back, through the village of B. to the Zellerfeld, where they separated, each going his own way.
8. Abraham’s tamarisk
Abraham reaches a peace agreement with the Philistine ruler Abimelech in chapter 21 of Genesis, exchanging cattle for recognition of Abraham’s right to use a well he had constructed in the place that becomes known as Beersheva. Abraham commemorates the occasion by planting a tamarisk tree and invoking the name of God. Abraham’s cattle-for-water-rights deal and arboreal tribute to a higher power ends up paying off: Per the final line of the chapter, Abraham lives peacefully in the land of the Philistines for “many days.” I certainly can’t think of any modern-day parallels to be found in this story, but you can visit “Abraham’s well” in modern-day Be’ersheba anyway.
9. The palm groves of Ein Gedi
The lush plant life is a big part of why Ein Gedi is one of the most dramatic landscapes in Israel. In the Bible, the Dead Sea oasis is sometimes referred to as Hazazon Tamar—tamar is Hebrew for date palm, a large number of which still grow around the modern-day kibbutz and nature preserve. There’s also a reference to “the vineyards of Ein Gedi” in the Song of Songs, and for the purposes of this ranking we’ll pretend that refers to the palms trees, too.
10. ‘Methuselah’—the tree
In 2005, Israeli researchers successfully grew a date palm sapling from a 2,000-year-old seed that archaeologists found in a jar uncovered at Masada in the mid-1960s. The resulting and now over decade-old tree, nicknamed Methuselah, is a trailblazer: Now planted in Kibbutz Ketura in Israel’s Arava Valley, it’s the result of the oldest seed ever successfully germinated and is the only living Judean date palm, a tree that last went extinct some 800 years ago.
11. The Witness Tree
There are thousands of stories about clever or heroic rabbis, but this has to be the best tree-related one. In this tale of the 18th century Moroccan sage Rabbi Chaim ben Moshe ibn Atar, a tree becomes the rabbi’s key to unraveling a series of lies. Two men come to the rabbi’s beit din, with one claiming that the other pocketed money he had left in his friend’s safe-keeping over Shabbat. Since there were no human witnesses, the rabbi says to go fetch the tree under which the exchange supposedly took place. When the aggrieved party leaves to undertake this plainly impossible task, the rabbi subtly coaxes the other man into admitting the location of the tree—thus forcing him to concede the tree’s existence, and, along with it, the fact that he had received and then stolen his friend’s money under its branches.
12. The Oak of Mamre
For a time, Abraham dwelt under “The oaks of Mamre” and constructed an altar there; a particularly ancient tree on the outskirts of Hebron was once a minor Jewish pilgrimage site. The real story of Abraham’s oak is perhaps even more interesting: Mamre, which is just south of modern-day Hebron, was a Canaanite cultic site supposedly focused around a single large tree, and there’s evidence that pre-Israelite Hebron was a hotbed of tree worship. Could this be a Pagan tree that turned Jewish—or tantalizing evidence of the Jews’ own tree-worshipping past?
13. The Netanya sycamore
Just look at this monster. It’s huge!
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.