Tree of Life

(dedicated to the memory of my cousin, Ilan Manns, z"l)

"Sunrise" - Bonnie Levron 

Trees are beautiful! Readers my age and older will remember the song "Trees" by Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918): "I think that I will never see / a poem lovely as a tree". (Listen here for a wonderful rendition by Paul Robeson). The reverence expressed in the last two lines of the poem – "Poems are made by fools like me / But only God can make a tree" – echoes the blessing that Jews make upon seeing something beautiful: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who has this in His world" (B. Brachot 58b).

The Tree of Life

With its branches reaching upwards, its trunk on the ground and its roots steeped in the unknown, the tree of life is a mystical symbol in many cultures and religions, linking heaven, earth and the underworld.

"Trees of life" in Mexico, Azerbaijan and Iceland

Gustav Klimt, "Tree of Life", 1909

The tree in Jewish culture

1) The Tree of Life is featured in several different aspects of Jewish thought. First of all, with its implied promise of immortality, it is contrasted to – and often regarded as complementary to – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden (Bereishit [Genesis] 2:9, 3:22). What was the fruit - tapuach - that lead to the banishment of Adam and Eve? Here is a discussion of the many possibilities.

"The Garden of Eden" by Jan Breughel & Peter Rubens (1615) 

2) In Jewish Kabbalistic tradition, the Tree of Life is an arrangement of ten interconnected sephirot ["enumerations" or "attributes"] through which God reveals Himself and continuously creates both our physical realm and the chain of higher metaphysical realms. "Etz Chaim" [Tree of Life] is the title of the book written by Rabbi Chaim Vital which expounds the work of Rabbi Isaac Luria, the "Ari" (1534 – 1572), father of contemporary Kabbalah.


3) From the point of view of practical Jewish philosophy and everyday living, the "Tree of Life" symbolizes the wisdom of the Torah: "Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace. It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and those who draw near it are fortunate." (Mishlei [Proverbs] 3:17-18). These verses are sung in the synagogue as the Torah is returned to the Ark, preceded by the verse from Proverbs, 4:2: "For I have given you good teaching; do not forsake My Torah."

4) Laws and customs connected with trees permeate the Bible and Talmud, providing an ethical basis underlying human relationships (tithing and charity) and the environment (ecology). These are brought into focus on Tu Bishvat [15th of Shevat], Jewish Arbor Day: see my web-page Tu Bishvat for more details about this festival and its seder [festive dinner]. Jewish sensitivity to nature is illustrated in this Hassidic tale.

For more examples of the special place that trees occupy in Jewish thought, read this very interesting article.

Left: "Tree of Life" tallit, designed by Marilyn Jackler


"Tree of Life" landscape sculpture in Jerusalem
(Click pictures for explanations - and also read about the "menorah" as "tree of life")

The tree as metaphor

Humans have been compared to trees from many different points of view. They both draw upon the same elements: earth, water, air and fire (sun); the basic components of the tree – roots, trunk, branches, leaves and fruit – allegorize the complexity of human nature and existence. Many of the tree's attributes may also be interpreted symbolically: the tree is a link between the fruit-bearing female and the phallic male symbols; its seeds denote regeneration, while the sprouting of new growth in the spring is a sign of resurrection. The tree-human metaphor is completely pervasive: we talk about family trees and people with deep roots. Trees have also been used for hundreds of years to diagrammize knowledge.

The "Tree of Life" Holocaust Memorial, Budapest

The many types of trees reflect the variety of human character: willows stand for sorrow, almond trees stand for renewal, oak trees stand for strength. The olive tree symbolizes reproduction while the sycamore tree symbolizes regeneration; the cedar symbolizes power, dignity and glory, in contrast to the hyssop, which stands for humility. In the following Yemenite women's song, the pistachio tree - ya shijara - stands for vulnerability.

The Bible abounds with references to the tree metaphor: "He shall be as a tree planted beside rivulets of water, which brings forth its fruit in its season, and its leaves do not wilt; and whatever he does prosper." (Psalm 1,3). The Jewish people have been compared to the vine: e.g., Psalm 80 and Isaiah's parable, C.5, and to a variety of trees, e.g., Yotam's parable (Judges 9: 7 – 15). The two main characters of the Song of Songs are compared to a rose and an apple: "As a rose among the thorns, so is my beloved among the daughters. As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the sons." 

The prophets often used the contrast between fruitful and barren trees to mirror the difference between good and evil. An example is Jeremiah, 17: 5-8: "So says the Lord: Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his arm, and whose heart turns away from the Lord. He shall be like a lone tree in the plain, and will not see when good comes, and will dwell on parched land in the desert, on salt-sodden soil that is not habitable. Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord; the Lord shall be his trust. For he shall be like a tree planted by the water, and by a rivulet spreads its roots, and will not see when heat comes, and its leaves shall be green, and in the year of drought will not be anxious, neither shall it cease from bearing fruit."

Trees are archetypical images: they are bigger than humans, stronger, more dependable and consistent. C.f., Job 14, 7-10: " For a tree has hope; if it is cut it will again renew itself, and its bough will not cease. If its root ages in the earth, and in the dust its trunk dies, / from the smell of water it will blossom, and it will produce a branch like a sapling. But a man will die and he is weakened; man perishes and where is he?"

The tree metaphor has been continuously developed in Jewish thought. Rabbi Jacob ben Isaac Ashkenazi, 16th century author of the classic Yiddish work of Biblical interpretation Tze'enah u-Re'enah, wrote: "[The Torah compares humans to trees] because, like humans, trees have the power to grow. And as humans have children, so trees bear fruit. And when a human is hurt, cries of pain ar heard throughout the world, so when a tree is chopped down, its cries are heard throughout the world." This is the idea underlying Natan Zach's poem: "Ki ha'adam ets hasadeh" [Man is like the tree of the field]. Reb Dovidl, the 19th century Hassidic rabbi of Tolna, understood this phrase as an image of Teshuvah [repentance]: "If a tree does not receive enough water due to a lack of rain or dew, it will dry up; but once the drought ends and it receives enough water, its moisture will return and it will produce fruit. Similarly, if a man becomes like a dried-up, withered tree, without any 'moisture' of holiness, if he arouses and attaches himself to words of Torah and Tefilla [prayer] from the depths of his heart, his 'moisture' [holiness] will return." (The meaning of the original Biblical phrase [Deutoronomy 20: 19] is actually ambiguous; here is an account of some variant readings).

Have a look at the sculpture exhibition "Nature of Man" by Zadok Ben David for an interesting interpretation of the relationship between trees and human beings.

Songs about trees in Jewish culture

[See list of songs with poets and composers]

Tu Bish'vat  (15th Sh'vat)

Tu Bish'vat songs in Hebrew often feature direct quotations from the Bible, e.g., "Ki tavo'u el ha'arets" [When you come to the land] or "Erets zavat chalav ud'vash" [A land flowing with milk and honey"] (Deuteronomy 26:9), as well as descriptions of trees and their fruit, e.g., "Hash'kedia porachat" [The almond tree is blooming]. Flory Jagoda, who's written many children's songs about the festivals, says that her song "Hamisha asar" [Fifteen] describes the children going from house to house in her native Yugoslavia, carrying a colorful bag in which to collect the 15 kinds of fruit enjoyed at Tu Bish'vat festivities.

Nina Simone singing "Erets zavat chalav ud'vash" (which she learnt from Shlomo Carlebach)

A Tu Bish'vat song which is popular among the Sephardic communities of northern Africa is "El debate de las flores" [Dispute of the flowers] (see lyrics), which from the rhetorical point of view, is reminiscent of the trees' dispute in Yotam's parable (above – Judges 9:7-15). The moral, however, is opposite: in the Biblical parable, the bramble tree ends up as ruler, whereas the resolution of flowering bushes' argument is that each has its own special attributes with which to praise God. A poem with a similar theme, "Complas de las Frutas" [Song of the fruit] was written at the beginning of the 19th century by Rabbi Y. L. Kalay of Saloniki; when the written genre migrated to north Africa, it acquired melodies, both borrowed and original, and was sung as a popular song. (Here are two very interesting articles in Hebrew and Ladino – worth asking Google to translate!) Similar in spirit is the following piyut, "Az yeranen", by the Iraqi kabbalist R. Yoseph Chaim, in which the fruit trees praise God.

El debate de las flores

Trees are so memorable that they provide us with a strong sense of identity and location. Bialik's poem "Unter di grininke beymelekh" [Under the green trees] evokes a vivid picture of children playing in the shtetl, and many other songs also use the image of the tree as the centre of Jewish life: e.g., "Unter a kleyn beymele" [Under a little tree]; "Di verbe" [The willow tree]; "Mayn shteytele Belz" [my town Belz]. (Have a look at my webpage entitled Pictures of Jewish life). Trees represent the homeland that we yearn for ("Arvolico" [Little tree]) or the landscape that we are not familiar with ("Di beryozkele" [The birch tree]).

"A beymele" [A little tree] - by Beyle Schaechter-Gottesman

Most songs deal with trees as metaphors, with the tree and its fruit meaning different things to different people. Imagery refers to oracular wisdom ("Di verbe" [The willow tree]), love ("Arvolicas d'almendra" [Almond trees]), happiness ("Voyl is dem beymele" [Happy is the tree]), motherhood ("Mome" [Mother]), despondency ("Oyfn veg shteyt a boym" [On the wayside stands a tree]), vulnerability ("Ala ya shijara" [The pistacchio tree]), endurance ("A hoykher boym" [a tall tree]), immigrating ("Ikh shtey unter a bokserboym" [I stand beneath a carob tree]), national characteristics ("A beymele" [a little tree]), tradition ("Vayl ikh bin a tsvayg" [Because I'm a branch]), growth ("Der nisnboym" [The nut tree]) and aging ("Der kashtnboym" [The chestnut tree]). In the Hassidic macaronic (multi-language) song Di mame hot geheysn [Mother said] - which is sung in conjunction with the Biblical El ginat egoz [to the garden of the nut-tree, "Song of Songs", 6,11-12] - use of Polish lyrics provide an allegorical cloak for the concept that "little Jews" (like "little boys" [chlopczyki, in Polish]) are not able to attain the heights of mystic understanding.

Sometimes an image is so strong that it is referred to iconically in many later songs. Itsik Manger borrowed the image of a bent tree from a pilgrimage context and incorporated it into his famous ballad Oyfn veg [On the way], a song about the suffocating effects of a mother's love. The song has undergone many translations (at least six in Hebrew alone), interpretations and transformations. (For Hebrew speakers, I highly recommend a discussion of the song in three issues of a blog by David Assaf). A recent context may be seen in the third video below, featuring an Austrian shepherd, the son of a Holocaust refugee, singing Oyfn veg while giving a lift to Syrian refugees in Austria. The other two videos are an animated interpretation of the song (note that it is not a lullaby), and a three-language performance - in Yiddish, Hebrew and English.

Many lullabies, too, use the imagery of the tree, especially in conjunction with the branch, nest and bird. One example is "Amol iz geven a mayse" [Once upon a time there was a story], which is featured in the lecture on "Kings and Queens"; another is the children's song "Funem sheynem vortsl aroys" [Out of the lovely root], also known as Got hot bashafn himl mit erd [God created heaven and earth]. Other well-known lullabies featuring trees are "Unter beymer" [Beneath trees], by Oysher and Olshanetsky, "Shteyt in feld a beymele" [A little tree stands in the field] by Y.L. Perets, and the Holocaust lullaby "Dremlen feygl" [Birds are drowsing], by Rudnitska and Yampolsky. Sephardic romansas were often sung as cradle songs: an example is the romansa "Arbolera" [Tree]. 

Songs sung in the Holocaust were often recycled variations of well-known folksongs. An example is the chorus of the Ladino folksong "Arvoles lloran por luvia" [Trees cry for rain], which speaks of dying in a foreign country, and which was sung by the Greek Jews transported to Auschwitz. The song "Unter di poylishe grininke beymelekh" [Under the Polish green trees], by Papiernikov and Alter, which was composed after the war, refers to Bialik's "Unter di grininke beymelekh" (mentioned above).


To conclude:

There's so much more to tell about the "Tree of Life". Here, for example, are two articles to keep on going: The top 10 most amazing trees in Israel and 50+ badass trees that refuse to die no matter what.

"Sunset in Ben Shemen forest" - Bonnie Levron


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