Does one say an actual prayer over a virtual tree? In the tradition of thorough Talmudic-style scholarship, the question was recently posed to the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger — and the answer was a resounding “yes.”
With that answer, Rabbi Metzger resolved a halakhic question that has apparently been bothering at least a few Israelis: Is the special prayer, usually recited when planting a “real” tree, said when “planting” one on the “virtual social forest” of the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet)?
In Jewish law, blessings and prayers usually accompany many religious acts — and for many religious Israelis, planting trees in Israel is a religious act. Tu Bishvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat (commemorated on January 25 this year), has long been Israel’s “arbor day,” with kids and adults going out to plant trees and “make the desert bloom.” But for religious Jews, there has always been the added element of tree planting as a way to “redeem the land,” to put the mark of Jewish settlement on large stretches of barren hills.
It was such an important religious duty that the Chief Sephardi Rabbi who served in 1948 when the state was established, Meir Hai Uziel, composed a special prayer to be said when planting trees in the Land of Israel. The prayer includes an appeal to God for the necessary rain and dew to enable the tree to prosper; a request that the blessing cause the tree to root deeply in the land; and to “strengthen the hands of our brothers who work the holy land,” planting fruits, vegetables, and trees that beautify the land. The prayer has been recited for decades by schoolchildren from religious institutions who plant trees on Tu Bishvat, and the Education Ministry has built an entire curriculum around it.
Last year, the JNF, which is in charge of maintaining and expanding many of Israel’s forests, hit upon a new way to raise consciousness (and money for tree planting): For years, the JNF has been offering Internet options for individuals from Israel and around the world to order a tree that would be planted, for example, in the name of a loved one.
In 2012, the JNF opened an “online social forest,” providing yet another “product” for potential tree donors. In the social forest, tree purchasers can attach names and photos to “their” trees, connect their tree to their Facebook page, and choose the forest where they would like their tree to be planted. If they donate NIS 36 (a little less than $10), the JNF will plant an actual tree in the forest they’ve chosen.
Since the virtual forest is a stand-in for an actual on-the-ground forest, said Rabbi Metzger, it’s worthy to recite the special tree-planter’s prayer — even if the individual saying the prayer is not doing the planting (generally, prayers and blessings are not recited unless the associated action is to be undertaken immediately).
“As a matter of principle, it would be best for an individual to be involved in planting trees himself,” Rabbi Metzger wrote in his halakhic decision. “But those who are unable to, should at least take part in tree plantings over the Internet; this, too, will ensure that he has a part in the building and development of the Land of Israel, which will be done by the agents appointed to do so.
“Thus, one who plants a tree via the Internet is permitted, and actually must, recite the special ‘tree-planter’s prayer,’ as he will thus be showing his faith in God and in the future existence of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel,” Rabbi Metzger added.