Winter is a funny time to celebrate Tu B’shevat, the Jewish Arbor Day. Bare branches still silhouette the sky; white obscures green, and the earth seems to shiver instead of blossom.
In Israel, of course, the rainy season has passed and the first buds begin to appear around Tu B’shevat, the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which falls on January 22 this year. In the United States, much more is left to our imagination.
One of the best ways to make the holiday feel as real as possible is to hold a Tu B’shevat seder, a ceremony celebrating the fruits of Israel, adapted from the Passover seder. The Tu B’shevat seder, once a kabalistic ritual, combines both the tangible and mystical as it honors the most wondrous of birthdays-the earth’s.
In contrast to the preparations for the Passover seder - a joyous but arduous process - the Tu B’shevat seder can be readied with relative ease, and is an engaging event for children. Four cups of wine or grape juice represent the changes in the seasons-dark red, light red, pink and white. Fruits and nuts mentioned in the Bible make a tasty and colorful array, ranging from those with coverings on the outside, like oranges; those with pits, like peaches and olives; and those that can be eaten both inside and outside, like figs and raisins.
Like the symbols on the Passover table, the fruits and grains of Tu B’shevat are ripe with values. Here are some suggestions for a simple seder, based on the seven species of the land of Israel mentioned in the Bible. Each food is associated with a value, a text that reflects that value, and one or two kinds of action based on the value. Some of the quotes are from A Garden of Choice Fruit: 200 Classic Jewish Quotes on Human Beings and the Environment, by Rabbi David E. Stein (Shomrei Adamah).
1. Hittah: Wheat (Crackers)
Value: Survival. Wheat represents a staple of life. It is basic to breads, crackers and many other nourishing foods. Many of us take the food on our table for granted, while others who are less fortunate are not even guaranteed simple survival.
Text to recite: Im ein kemah, ein Torah. Literally, this verse means, “Without wheat flour, there is no Torah.” If you can’t nourish your body, you can’t nourish your soul; if you can’t feed yourself, you can’t find time to study.
Action: Estimate the cost of a week’s worth of food and give 10 percent to Mazon-A Jewish Response to Hunger, a national organization that gives money to local groups that feed the hungry. (310) 470-7769. A Turkish custom related by Rabbi Hayyim Palache, who lived in Izmir in the 1800s, was to give 91 coins as tzedakah or charity on Tu B’shevat, 91 being the gematria, or numerical equivalent, of the Hebrew word ilan (tree). Give $91 to COEJL, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, 443 Park Ave. S., New York, NY 10016-7322. (212) 684-6950.
2. Se’orah: Barley (Any cereal with barley)
Value: Appreciation. Barley is also a staple food, but its worth is often unrecognized or undervalued. The omer offered between Passover and Shavuot was a measure of barley, according to rabbinic tradition. While we remember the omer to this day by counting 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, we’ve forgotten the barley.
Text to recite: “If a person consecrates any land to God, its value will be assessed in these terms: fifty shekels of silver to a measure of barley seed.” (Lev. 27:16)
Action: Take a moonlight walk around the block. Pay special attention to the way the snow glistens, the trees whisper, the clouds scuttle across the sky, the squirrels scamper across the grass. Collect anything you can find in a small basket-pine cones, seedlings, pebbles, twigs-and use it as a table decoration. Give a plant to someone who is not appreciated enough-a parent, teacher, friend, sibling, co-worker, spouse, even your gardener!
3. Gefen: Grapevine (Grapes)
Value: Community. Like grapes that grow in clusters on a vine, we, too, forge and live in communities essential to our well-being.
Text to recite: “The world is a tree and human beings are its fruit” (Rabbi Solomon Ibn Gabirol, 11th century Spain).
Action: Participate in a town beautification project or create one of your own. Buy trees or plants, invite neighbors and create a ceremony. Recite the blessing, traditionally used on seeing trees in blossom: “Praised are You, Adonai, Ruler of the Universe, who has fashioned a world without deficiency, and has placed within it wonderful creatures and beautiful trees for the delight of human beings.”
Besides sending money for planting trees in Israel, buy Israeli products like Carmel tomatoes, Jaffa oranges, jams, chocolates and wines.
Create a genizah-a room, closet or box in which to store sacred texts that refer to God. It is a custom not to discard sacred Hebrew texts-symbols of Jewish continuity-but to store and later bury them in a genizah to accord them the same dignity as human beings. Give old Hebrew texts to your synagogue’s genizah, or bury them in your own yard so they go back to the earth.
4. Te’enah: Fig
Value: Torah. The midrash (moral tale) teaches that the Torah is like a fig. Every fruit has some inedible part, but all parts of the fig are good to eat.
Text to recite: Following the paths of Torah will hopefully lead to an era of peace, a time when “every person will call to his neighbor from under his vine and fig tree.” (Zechariah, 3:10).
Action: Study or read together the biblical story of creation. Study and discuss the following midrash (moral tale) about Adam and Eve: “The Holy One took the first human, and passing before all the trees of the Garden of Eden, said: ëSee My works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I created, I created for you. Consider that, and do not corrupt or desolate my world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to set it right after you.” (Kohelet Rabbah)
5. Rimon: Pomegranate
Value: Mitzvot. If you count the seeds of the pomegranate, you will find 613, more or less?the number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah.
Text: “May we be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of seeds.” This verse, recited during the traditional Sephardic seder on Rosh Hashanah, reflects the classic connection between the pomegranate and mitzvot (commandments).
Action: Choose one mitzvah (commandment) to follow for a week. One of the most appropriate for Tu B’shevat is bal tashhit, do not waste. Take small portions of food. Conserve resources: Don’t waste water, paper, electricity, or even money. Recycle.
6. Zeit Shemen: Olives
Value: Hope. From the time of Noah and the flood, the olive branch has been a sign of hope for an enduring future.
Text: “God fed Israel honey from the crag and [olive] oil from the flinty rock.” (Deut. 32:13). Olive trees grow anywhere-even under the most adverse conditions. As olive trees stand firm in all kinds of terrain, so Israel will endure and remain strong no matter what the circumstance. Sing the classic Tu B’shevat song, Atzei zeitim omdim. (The olive trees are standing).
Action: If there is someone you’ve hurt, near or far, extend the olive branch. Send a jar of olives, a container of olive oil, or any food made with olives, along with a note of explanation.
7. D’vash: Honey
Value: Concern for Living Things (Tz’aar Ba’alei Hayyim). While originally d’vash referred to the honey-like date syrup, today honey comes from the hard work of bees, the most humble of creatures.
Text: Once, when Rav Abraham Kook was walking in the fields, lost deep in thought, the young student with him inadvertently plucked a leaf off a branch. Rav Kook was visibly shaken by this act, and turning to his companion he said gently, “Believe me when I tell you I never simply pluck a leaf or a blade of grass or any living thing, unless I have to.” He explained further, “Every part of the vegetable world is singing a song and breathing forth a secret of the divine mystery of the Creation.” For the first time the young student understood what it means to show compassion to all creatures. (Wisdom of the Mystics)
Action: If you have a pet, feed it before you eat. Make sure its water dish is filled and clean. Volunteer at a local animal shelter. Try not to buy products that are animal-tested or that exploit endangered species.
To conclude the seder, recite the following verse: L’Adonai ha-aretz u-m’lo’ah. (Psalms 24:1). The earth and all its fullness belong to God. We are the caretakers of the earth, and it is up to us to protect and preserve its beauty. Happy Tu B’shevat!
This story reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.