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Traditional Jewish Songs about Trees

Traditional Jewish Songs about Trees

Reprinted directly from JewishFolkSongs.org

"Poems are made by fools like me / But only God can make a tree."

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 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).

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.

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 Hebrewand 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.

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]).


Read the full article, an excellent resource, here.
Original article by Bonnie Levron. 

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