Friday, April 24, 2015

The Tree That Cannot Remain

Judaism has many laws pertaining to the treatment of trees, particularly fruit trees. One law specifically prohibits the destruction of fruit trees. There is, however, one type of tree that it is a mitzvah to destroy - the Asherah.

An Asherah tree is loosely defined as a tree used for idolatrous practices. The tree’s possible fate depends on how it was used: “There are three kinds of Asherah - A tree that was originally planted for idolatry, behold this is prohibited. If he lopped and trimmed [a tree] for idolatry and it sprouted afresh, he [must] remove the new growth. If he only set [an idol] under it and took it away, behold the tree is permitted” (Talmud Avodah Zarah 48a). The Asherah was not always a tree, but was sometimes a wooden pole posted next to an altar. 

Idolatry is extremely difficult for people today to understand, and it leads one to wonder what was unique about the Asherah that it was specifically prohibited. Nature has always been a lure for humankind’s desire to serve something greater. Idolatry began when people thought the sun, moon and stars were God’s assistants and made requests of them. In time, they began worshiping aspects of nature directly, and then, in time, statues to represent nature. 

Trees are particularly powerful representations of nature. As poetically expressed in Shel Silverstein’s famous book The Giving Tree, trees provide humankind with food, shelter and even, as noted in Genesis, clothing (think “fig leaves”). Additionally, fruit trees blossoming in the spring are powerful representations of renewal, life and fertility. 

Food, shelter, clothing, beauty, spring, fertility, and everything else that a tree represents, however, all come from God. Because trees are everywhere, and so easily overwhelm the imagination, the Asherah trees were considered particularly insidious, and must be destroyed.

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