Tu BiShvat: Try a Jewish fruit salad?

A fruit market in Barcelona, Spain, shared via Wikimedia Commons by Mike McBey.

BEGINNING on the EVENING of SUNDAY, JANUARY 16: For Tu BiShvat this year, you might try a special kind of Jewish fruit salad. Gather diverse kinds (totaling 15 items) of fruit and display them in three groups.

  1. Fruit with a tough skin but edible inside such as pomegranates, coconuts, pineapples.
  2. Fruit with a soft, edible skin and inedible inner pit/stone: olives, cherries, plums.
  3. Fruit which can be easily eaten in their entirety: figs, grapes, berries.

Why 15? Keep reading!

What have you assembled? The centerpiece of a Tu BiShvat Seder. Many are familiar with the term “Seder” as it pertains to the holiday of Passover.  The word “Seder” refers to an ordered meal. A Tu BiShvat Seder, based on a practice begun by Jewish mystics in the 16th century, has become a welcome addition to Jewish practice for many families or communities. This Seder focuses on fruit, trees and environmental awareness.

At the Seder, include readings and poetry about trees and nature. Talk about how people’s personalities reflect the traits of the fruit groupings:

  1. People hard to get to know, but warm and wonderful when you get past their tough exterior,
  2. People easy to have superficial conversations with, but difficult to pierce their outer layer,
  3. People who share themselves easily and fully, and are transparent in interactions.

Consider: Some people present themselves as one type most of the time. Others move between these types. Invite people  at your Seder to think or talk about themselves or others through this lens. Make and enjoy a fruit salad with selections from each fruit group.

Display four cups of wine or grape juice consisting of four shades of purple/white. One cup contains only white wine/grape juice. This one represents winter. The next one holds 3/4 white wine/juice and ¼ red wine/grape juice. This blush color represents spring. The third cup is entirely red/purple. The deep, rich color represents summer.  The last cup holds ¾ red/purple wine/juice and ¼ white. This represents fall. Look at the subtle progression of color and how it represents one season blending into the next. This is true of the seasons of our lives as well.

Consider: what season of life are you in now? Perhaps your age represents one season but your attitude and openness represents another season. These questions can also form part of the discussion at your Tu B’Shevat Seder.

Along with organizing the food and drink components, you can invite a speaker or discuss among yourselves an article or organize an activity related to composting, solar energy, noise pollution or climate change. Use the Seder as an opportunity to learn about environmental issues in your community. Arrange a tree planting, beach clean-up, or garden tending event on the weekend before or after Tu BiShvat. These activities expand the holiday to broader concerns.

What Is Tu BiShvat?

Spellings vary in English from the Hebrew. Wikipedia editors have standardized their spelling as Tu BiShvat, even though they spell the month referenced: Shevat.

Tu BiShvat is the Jewish New Year of Trees.  In Hebrew, each letter has a numerical value. When linked, the letters “tet” and “vav”  are pronounced “Tu.” Their numerical value is 15. (Ahh, now you understand the importance of that number!) Therefore Tu B’Shevat refers to the 15th day of the Hebrew month, Shevat. This year, the month is concurrent with parts of January and February.

In Israel, the brief winter months are marked by heavy rains and surging creeks. By late January or early February, most of the rain has ceased and the earliest hints of spring can be discerned. Although several weeks of cooler, shorter days remain, buds appear on some trees. The sap begins to rise in almond trees. The sap can’t be seen, but it is a necessary precursor to the trees’ blossoming.

There are those who would suggest that the time to celebrate the spring or acknowledge our dependence on nature is when everything is in full bloom and the temperatures are mild. But a different perspective is offered by celebrating the rising of the sap and trusting that what needs to grow will grow at the appropriate time.

On Tu BiShvat we honor growth that begins silently, below the surface. Like life beginning in the womb,  and the birth of ideas and realizations originating in the unconscious, much that is creative begins in the  dark. What precedes growth and revelation isn’t seen but it is necessary for fruition to take place.  The darkness of the womb, of the night, of winter, of silence: the darkness and the waiting are powerful and undervalued.

Tu BiShvat provides a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the natural world.  In Judaism we have blessings for smelling fragrant trees, herbs, spices and fruit.  We praise God for seeing wonders of nature, such as oceans, lightning, shooting starts, deserts, mountains, rainbows, and  sunrise. We benefit from reminders that the preservation of the natural world is incumbent upon us.  Tu BiShvat provides a reminder of how dependent and enlivened we are by the physical world.

But Tu BiShvat also offers reflection in spiritual terms. Growth takes time and is rarely linear. What can’t be seen can be vital to full flourishing. Dormancy is not death.

Referencing what it truly means to grow and deepen, Henri Nouwen wrote: “We are called to be fruitful–not successful, not productive and accomplished. Success comes from strength, stress, and human effort. Fruitfulness comes from vulnerability and the admission of our own weakness.”

May our appreciation of nature and human nature be constant, and may it begin now. May we honor the unseen along with the seen, and may we cherish each stage of life for its unique gifts.

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Care to read more? 

Early in 2022, we will publish Torah Tutor by Rabbi Lenore Bohm, who began her career among the first wave of women ever ordained as rabbis. Drawing on a lifetime of teaching the Torah to groups of adults, Bohm divides her book into the 54 portions read each year from the Torah, which are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

This is a perfect book for individual reading or small group discussion.

Rabbi Jack Riemer—author of Finding God in Unexpected Places—was one of the early reviewers of Bohm’s manuscript. He adds a glowing endorsements:

Rabbi Bohm’s book is indeed a treasure—both for those who think that they know the Torah already and for those who have never studied at a grownup level before. It will open your mind to some of the questions that the Torah asks of us as well as to some of the questions that we should ask when we confront the Bible. I promise you that this is a book that you will find well worth reading—and that you will want to reread many times.