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Thursday, January 17, 2013 | return to: arts


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Tolkien B’Shevat: Can Middle-earth folk save our planet?

by edmon j. rodman, jta

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What lore does Bilbo Baggins have to share with us about Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees?

While viewing “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and hearing the Middle-earth characters talking about threats to the forests, more than a seed or two of connection between the increasingly popular Jewish holiday dedicated to trees and the fruit of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work popped out at me.

Bilbo Baggins senses trouble in the forests.   photo/courtesy of warner bros.
Bilbo Baggins senses trouble in the forests. photo/courtesy of warner bros.
With my 3-D glasses I watched as Bilbo, Thorin, Gandalf and Elrond — the representatives of Tolkien’s Middle-earth races — mostly live hand in hand with the natural world. Concerning Jewish attitudes toward trees and environmentalism, I wondered which group we should strive to emulate.

Would it be the hobbits, the dwarves, the elves, the wizards? Or do we secretly identify with the goblinlike orcs, who tear through the environment wherever they go?

Leaving the theater, I mulled which Middle-earth group would be best to have over for a seder on Tu B’Shevat, which begins the evening of Jan. 25 and ends the next night. Not that I was planning a role-playing party — that could wait till Purim — but who would best get into the seder’s singing and drinking and connections to nature?

Who loves to feast and toast more than the dwarves? The seder’s four cups of wine — meant to show the progression of the season through different colored wines — certainly would be much to their pleasure. And with their singing and dancing in the film, one could almost hear the dwarves harmonizing and stomping to a rendition of “Uvshatem mayim,” a song we sang last year at our seder.

Exiled from their mountain home, Tolkien himself likened the dwarves to Jews. According to a transcription of a 1971 BBC interview with the English author, “The dwarves of course are quite obviously, couldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic,” he said. They even have beards like the rabbis of yore.

The dwarves might be fine for a festive seder of wine and song, but which group seemed the best protectors of the forest?

As shown in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Lothlorien is the forest refuge that protects the sylvan elves and allows them to flourish. Known as “tree folk,” the elves are most protective of huge, golden mallorn trees, and are willing to fight for them.

Seeing that a portion of the Tu B’Shevat seder representing Briyah, or Creation, calls for one to commune with nature, the elves with their woodsy ruach, or spirit, seem Middle-earth’s group most suited to answer the call.

Yet the hobbits appear to be the best overall model for living in harmony with the earth. Gardeners and farmers, with the earth between their toes, Bilbo and the rest of the inhabitants of the Shire seem the most at home in nature. Who but a hobbit chowing down on four meals a day could more appreciate the fruits of the earth represented by Tu B’Shevat?

What do the wizards have to tell us about Tu B’Shevat?

On our Earth, the Torah places man as the steward of nature. On Middle-earth, that role falls to Gandalf and the wizards in his order. Watching over the land, they are the “Fixers,” the gray geschreiers and exhorters to action.

The wizard, Radagast the Brown, is the best poster boy for Tu B’Shevat. He is the first to report that evil is falling upon the forest. His furry-looking hat even resembles a shtreimel.

On today’s Earth, sensing the coming of our own environmental evils, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life has pledged “To carry to our homes, communities, congregations and workplaces the urgent message that air, land, water and living creatures are endangered.”

Though COEJL isn’t working with swords, shields or  wizards, perhaps the part of us that identifies with “The Hobbit’s” coalition of nature-loving Middle-earth inhabitants can see the adventure and mitzvah of saving our Earth, as well.


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