D'var Torah
By David Seltzer, Esquire.
When Mark Twain visited Palestine in 1867 he described it as "...desolated and unlovely. It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land." Several decades later Clarence Darrow wrote, "Palestine is a land of sand and stones. The stones are there to keep the sand from blowing away." In 1898, when Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany visited Palestine, he had a conversation with Theodore Herzl who asked him, "Has the land of our dreams found grace in your eyes, Your Majesty?" To this the Kaiser replied, "It is impossible to dream here, the heat is unbearable. The land must be shaded. It must be covered with woods." His words were prophetic.

The importance of trees cannot be over-estimated in the life of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. In Leviticus Chapter 23, verse 19, we are commanded, that when we come into the land we shall plant all manner of trees. When the State of Israel was established, David Ben Gurion - Israel's first Prime Minister - began a national campaign to plant trees. This led to the creation of the Jewish National Fund, whose raison d'etre has been to plant trees. Trees provide oxygen to breathe. They shade us from heat. They bear fruit to eat. They defend the land from erosion. In the arid climate of the Middle East these truths, though commonly known, are all the more essential to sustaining life.

Metaphoric reference to trees is ubiquitous in our tradition. Indeed, in our liturgy, trees are a metaphor for life itself. At the conclusion of the Torah Service, when the Torah is returned to the Ark, we say, "Aytz Chaim Hee L'machazeekeem Bah." (It is a tree of life to them that hold fast to it). The handles by which the Torah is raised are, themselves, called Atzei Chaim, trees of life.

In a country where most of the trees have been planted by hand, it is that much more devastating when a forest fire occurs. On December 2, 2010 as we know, a deadly forest fire was started on Mt. Carmel in Israel, just southeast of Haifa. Tens of thousands of people had to be evacuated including several villages in the vicinity. Forty-four lives were lost.

Next week we will celebrate the holiday of Tu B'Shvat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat). Tu B'Shvat is referred to as the birthday or anniversary of the trees. It is the technical beginning of the spring season in Israel, and while it is not a holiday of great religious significance, it is one of great significance for the long term survival of the land of Israel.

Several weeks ago, I had an important conversation about tort law with a Jewish law student in his first year. He was quick to regurgitate what he had been taught regarding the origin of tort law in the U.S., to wit: that all was derived from British Common Law. Not exactly. I told him not to sell his People short.

I pulled the Pennsylvania "Dog Bit Statute" and discussed with him the essential "condition precedent" to owner liability in most cases, that is, that a dog must have demonstrated a prior vicious propensity. I then opened the Talmud to Nizikin (damages), and directed his attention to the passages known by the title, "Baba Kamma." Herein we find a discussion of "owner liability" for civil damages caused by that owner's goring ox. Because it is not the nature of an ox to gore, only half damages are payable to the victim. Full damages are payable to the victim only if the ox has previously gored. Full liability may also be imposed upon the owner if the animal involved is wild by its nature.

The roots of the Jewish people run deep. The branches of Jewish jurisprudence reach far and wide, though our contributions remain inadequately acknowledged. Just as the tree, we have contributed meaningfully to the quality of human civilization ever since our arrival on the scene almost four thousands years ago.

As we celebrate the holiday of Tu B'Shvat, let us be reminded that we have been the beneficiaries of all that our ancestors have planted, and that it remains our responsibility to 'pay it forward' for the benefits of the generations to come. Happy Tu B'Shvat.


AUTHOR BIO: David Seltzer, Esquire is a member of the Brandeis Law Society Executive Committee. He may be reached at (215) 886-6700 or

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