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.)