Blooming almonds herald Tu B’Shevat

February 3, as night falls, we start the minor Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat. “Tu” is the phonetic pronunciation of the Hebrew characters for the number 15, because this is the 15th of the month of Shevat.

Tu B’Shevat is the New Year of Trees. In Judaism there are several new years. At first this might seem odd, but consider that in our contemporary culture we have the calendar new year, the start of the new school year, and, for many business entities, the start of the fiscal year.

In the Jewish calendar there’s the calendar new year (Rosh Hashanah), there’s the first day of the first month, Nisan, because even though Rosh Hashanah is the start of the new calendar year, it actually falls on the first day of the seventh month. Don’t ask me to explain this.

The first of Elul is the new year for tithing animals. The Bible is full of descriptions of what should be sacrificed: a yearling this, or a two-year-old that. The animal becomes one year old on the first day of of the first month of Elul after its birth.

And then there’s the new year for tithing trees. In Leviticus (19:23-25), the Israelites are told not to eat fruit from a tree during its first three years. The fourth year’s fruit is for God, and after that, in the tree’s fifth year, may people eat from the tree’s bounty.

It could be difficult to keep track of when exactly every tree was planted, so Tu B’Shevat evolved as a way of reckoning a tree’s age. Trees were considered to have aged one year on Tu B’Shevat, even if they were planted just a day or two earlier.

A low-key holiday

There’s not a whole lot of ritual or celebration connected to Tu B’Shevat. Some congregations and individuals make a point of eating the seven species described as abundant in the land of Israel (Deut. 8:8): wheat, barley, grapes (vines), figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (honey).

You can make a nice pilaf using all seven species by cooking bulghur wheat and barley, mixing in chopped figs, dates and pomegranate seeds, and tossing it with a dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar (made from grapes).

The mysticism-minded kabbalists developed a Tu B’Shevat seder, which I described here last year, a celebration that is fairly popular in synagogues and religious schools.

In Israel and other countries with warm climates, children often celebrate by planting trees.

Almonds: the first trees to bloom

The date of the holiday coincides more or less with the blooming of the plentiful almond trees in Israel, the first trees to bloom there. It seems almost unfathomable to us in frozen Michigan, but in Israel, the almond trees usually flower in early- to mid-February. The Hebrew word  for almond, shaked, is related to words meaning “wakeful” or “hastening.”

The Bible has numerous references to almonds:

  • Jacob asked his sons to take almonds and other fruits of the land into Egypt as a gift to Joseph, probably because this tree was not a native of Egypt (Genesis 43:11).
  • Moses was told to make parts of the lamp for the holy ark to resemble almond blossoms, although the Hebrew word there is luz rather than shaked. Luz could mean wild almond, rather than cultivated almond; some English translations use “hazelnut” instead. Lauz is the word for almond in Arabic, a close linguistic relative of Hebrew.
  • Aaron’s rod that sprouts did so with almond blossoms (Numbers 17:8).
  • Jeremiah says (1:11) “I see a rod of an almond tree (shaked)…for I will hasten (shaked) my word to perform it;” the word is used as a symbol of promptitude.

The almond and the almond blossom inspired artists throughout the ages. The distinctive oval of the almond nut forms a halo around religious figures in paintings, stained glass windows, and other art through the Renaissance to signify spiritual energy or to serve as a protective shield. Italian artists called this halo a mandorla, the Italian word for almond.

Ancient musicians adopted the oval shape in a lute-like musical instrument called the mandora or mandola – which evolved in 18th century Italy into the mandolino (mandolin).

A healthy food choice

Almonds are a great choice for people interested in healthy eating. They have fewer calories than other nuts. They’re high in monosaturated fats and loaded with antioxidant Vitamin E, magnesium, potassium and other minerals necessary for a healthy diet. A quarter-cup of raw almonds has only 132 calories and can be a satisfying snack.

Almond milk is a good alternative for people who have a dairy allergy (or who keep kosher and want an alternative to milk to use in recipes for meat meals). Here’s a way to make your own inexpensively.

Of course today’s recipe isn’t exactly a paragron of good nutrition – but it’s very delicious.

My original recipe came from a co-worker of Dutch heritage who made these every Christmas. His recipe called for sprinkling the sliced almonds on top of the dough before baking. The problem was most of them fell off when I cut the cake into bars. Using the white chocolate glaze adds yet more sugar and fat, but it will keep the almonds in place!

You can buy almond paste in specialty grocery stores.

(The photo with the recipe is courtesy of Betty Crocker Recipes, via Flickr Creative Commons.)


Barbecued chicken wings for Lag B’Omer

In Israel, Sunday is a regular workday. The “weekend” is the Sabbath; it starts at noon or mid-afternoon on Friday and lasts through Saturday. If you live in Israel and follow the traditions for the Sabbath and holy days, your weekend is spent preparing for the Sabbath or observing the Sabbath, which means no driving, cooking, or using money (and that includes credit cards).

So in Israel, minor holidays like Lag B’Omer – which this year falls on Sunday, May 18  –  are important. They’re a day off, but they carry none of the restrictions prohibiting work, travel or other everyday activities. Lag B’Omer is a weird holiday because no one really knows where it came from or what it means. The first mention of it is in a 13th century text, where a scholar mentions that on this day a plague that killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva – one of the great sages in Jewish history – stopped. Another tradition says that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a great sage of the second century, revealed the secrets of the Kabbalah, Jewish mystical teaching, just before he died on Lag B’Omer.

The name refers to the date of the holiday. An “omer” is a sheaf of barley. In Leviticus (23:15-16), the Israelites are told to make an offering of an omer on the second day of Passover and then to count 50 days until Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. The period is known as the Omer. On the second night of Passover, we begin “counting the Omer.” Every day at evening services, we say “Today is Day Six (or whatever) in the Omer.” In the ancient Hebrew system, letters were used for numbers; the letter signifying 30 sounds like “L” and the letter for 3 sounds like “G,”  and together they sound like “lag”.” So the 33rd day of the Omer became known as Lag B’Omer.

A break in a period of semi-mourning

Other than counting, not much happens during the period of the Omer, except it’s traditionally a period of semi-mourning. No weddings or other joyous events are scheduled during this time, and many men don’t shave or cut their hair. Lag B’Omer marks a break in that depressing stretch of time.

In the Middle Ages Lag B’Omer became a holiday for rabbinic students, when they engaged in outdoor sports. Today it’s a great day for holding picnics, barbecues and sporting events. And because it’s the only day during the 50-day Omer period when weddings are permitted, it’s considered an auspicious day to start a marriage; in Israel, hundreds of weddings take place. On Lag B’Omer, people light bonfires in fields and open spaces to remember Rabbi Shimon and the light he brought to the world. Hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Jews gather at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon on Mount Meron in northern Israel for an enormous bonfire.

The other big Lag B’Omer custom is for children to play with bows and arrows (often rubber-tipped), though again no one knows why. Maybe the bow represents a rainbow, God’s sign that he would never again destroy the world with a flood. Jewish lore says the rainbow was not seen during Rabbi Shimon’s lifetime, because his merit was great enough to protect the world. After his death, we again needed the rainbow. An alternative explanation for the bows and arrows is that anti-Roman rebels led by Simon Bar Kochba achieved a minor victory on Lag B’Omer, before being utterly crushed by the Romans. Some say those 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva actually fell fighting the Romans.

Gadna, the Israel Defense Forces’ youth brigade, was founded on Lag B’Omer in 1941 and has a bow and arrow as its emblem.

I thought a barbecue recipe would be appropriate this week, in honor of Lag B’Omer and also because it’s finally getting warm enough in Michigan and other northern climes that we can hope we might once again be able to enjoy outdoor activities.

This recipe for Asian-style barbecued chicken wings is quite easy and makes a nice break from the traditional tomato-based barbecue sauces.