Thursday on the Hebrew calendar is Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. It’s generally known as “the new year of trees.” As you can read elsewhere in Read the Spirit, it’s a celebration of all things botanical in connection with the land of Israel.
It’s a minor holiday–not a holy day when work is prohibited and special prayers are recited. When I went to Hebrew school as a child, the only thing I can remember about Tu B’Shevat is being given a piece of “bokser”–a dried carob pod–to celebrate the day. The “bokser” (also known as St. John’s bread) was disgusting; it had the texture of shoe leather and tasted like old sweat socks. None of the kids would eat it.
A seder to celebrate
These days, the holiday is being celebrated more and more often with a special Tu B’Shevat seder. Everyone thinks of Passover when they hear the word “seder,” but all that term really means is: a meal incorporating a certain order of foods and wine (the word “seder” means “order”).
At a Tu B’Shevat seder, like at a Passover seder, celebrants drink four cups of wine, but they start with a cup of all white wine (or grape juice), then add a little red to the cup, then a little more so it’s half and half, and finally drink a cup of all red.
The four cups symbolize the four seasons and also four mystical dimensions: emanation, formation and birth, creation and fire (the “divine spark” within every human being).
The foods include the “seven species” mentioned in the Bible. Deuteronomy 8:7-8 says, “For the Lord your God is bringing you to a rich land, a land of streams, of springs and underground waters gushing out in hill and valley, a land of wheat and barley, of vines, fig-trees, and pomegranates, a land of olives, oil and honey.” (Note: That’s the New English Bible translation. You may count eight things there. The translation in Jewish tradition is “olive oil” not “olives”-comma-“oil.”)
Fruits with mystical meanings
In addition, celebrants eat fruits of different types: those with a hard inedible shell, such as nuts; those with a pit in the center, such as dates, apricots or peaches; those that are completely edible, such as berries and grapes; and those that have a tough skin on the outside but are sweet and soft inside, such as bananas, mangoes or pineapple. Like the cups of wine, each has a symbolic or mystical meaning.
Here is a script and explanation for a Tu B’Shevat seder. The Tu B’Shevat seder has its roots in Kabbalah, the mystical branch of Jewish study that developed in S’fat, in northern Israel in the medieval period. Here is a script for a more Kabbalistic version of a Tu B’Shevat seder.
Since the 1970s, some modern Jews have given an ecological twist to the Tu B’Shevat seder, using it as a form to advance the idea of sustainable agriculture. “Trees are so important in Jewish thought that the Torah itself is called ‘a tree of life.’ Perhaps this Torah wisdom can help us think more wisely about using these resources carefully and living in a more sustainable way,” write Dr. Akiva Wolff and Rabbi Yonatan Neri in their article “Trees, Torah, and Caring for the Earth” as part of Jewcology’s “Year of Jewish Learning on the Environment.”
In honor of Tu B’Shevat, I offer a recipe for a delicious spinach salad that uses dates, almonds, wheat (in the form of pita) and olives (in the form of oil), all of which are used to celebrate the holiday. It’s from Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.