The Tree of Life in Genesis

The Tree of Life (Etz Hachayim) first appears in the Bible in the story of Adam and Eve when they were in the Garden of Eden. They had just eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which brought mortality to the world and caused them to become ashamed of their nakedness. Then:

The L‑rd G‑d said, “Behold man has become like one of us, having the ability of knowing good and evil, and now, lest he stretch forth his hand and take also from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever.” … He drove the man out, and He stationed from the east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the blade of the revolving sword, to guard the way to the Tree of Life.1

From here it appears that the Tree of life would have provided Adam and Eve with the everlasting life that they had lost by eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

Torah: The Tree of Life

In the book of Mishlei (Proverbs), we read a long poem devoted to the greatness of the wisdom of Torah, including the line, “It is a tree of life (etz chayim) for those who grasp it, and those who support2 it are fortunate.”3

There are those who “grasp” the Torah and there are those who “support” Torah, both of whom are connected to the Tree of Life. The sages explain that there are the Torah scholars, who grasp the Divine wisdom they learn on a daily basis, and then there are the benefactors, who support the scholars and enable them to study. Through this symbiotic relationship, they ensure that Torah study endures, and they are both rewarded for their contribution.4

Etz Chayim Songs

In many congregations, this verse in Mishlei is included in the verses chanted as the Torah is being returned to the ark following the public reading. On Shabbat morning, these verses are sometimes sung as the Torah is ceremoniously marched from the bimah (reading platform) to the ark. This has given rise to many cherished songs that begin with the words etz chayim hee, etc.

Torah Dowels: The Trees of Life

The Torah scroll is rolled around two wooden dowels.
The Torah scroll is rolled around two wooden dowels.

In Hebrew, the word etz can refer to either a “tree” or “wood.” Thus, the wooden dowels around which a Torah scroll is wrapped are often called atzei chayim, “woods of life.”

The Mystical Tree of Life

There are several important volumes in the Jewish canon called Etz Chayim. One is a foundational work on the Lurianic school of Kabbalah, written by Rabbi Chayim Vital, the chief expositor of the teachings of the Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria.

Another is Kuntres Etz Hachayim (Booklet of the Tree of Life), written by Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber, the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch. The slim book, which was published in 1904, provides the yeshivah student with a chassidic perspective toward Torah study, both the Talmud and the mystical teachings of Kabbalah and Chassidism.