For centuries, on the 15th of Shevat, Jews around the world have celebrated one of the four new years in the Jewish calendar, Tu B’Shevat. Referred to as Israeli Arbor Day, modern- day observers commemorate by planting trees, feasting on fruits and grains and promoting ecological awareness.
“For me, Tu B’Shevat is a celebration of the miracle of life, of how our world works,” said Rabbi Sonya Starr of Columbia Jewish Congregation.
Starr said Tu B’Shevat has never lacked importance during her life. “I never had a year when I thought protecting our environment is really not that important this year,” she said, adding that she used to host Tu B’Shevat seders at her home before joining Columbia Jewish Congregation.
“There always seem to be environmental things going on that really emphasize to us what it says in Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:20, ‘Pay heed that you do not corrupt and destroy My universe.’”
While many use the holiday to embrace a connection to the Earth, Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah said he doesn’t have a strong ecological connection to Tu B’Shevat. Instead, he views it through a spiritual lense as an opportunity to rear personal growth.
“Tu B’Shevat is a reminder that spring is coming,” he said. “You’re getting ready to realize some of the potential you’ve been building up over the wintertime.”
Shapiro recognizes that for many, winter can be a tough time of year to get through. The mitzvah of Tu B’Shevat is to realize “[that it’s OK] not to worry when it feels like an endless winter.” Shapiro added that it’s not until close to Purim that he feels the relief from the long winter. For him, Tu B’Shevat is just the starting gate to Passover.
No matter how different the celebrations of Rabbis Starr and Shapiro might seem, its not unlikely that over the course of a lifetime one might celebrate Tu B’Shevat in any number of ways. Such is the case for Rabbi Linda Joseph of Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills.
“Some will emphasize one aspect more than the others,” said Joseph. “At our congregation, many find the mystical connection compelling. Some find it’s a connection to Israel. Some, a connection to nature.”
The cuisine at Tu B’Shevat seders sounds like a vegan’s dream come true: almonds, pomegranites, dates, olives and more. But according to Joseph, the array of fruits, grains and vegetables are representative of the four kabbalistic worlds: adam kadmon (primordial man), azeluth (emanation), beri’ah (creation) and yetzirah (formation).
“As a vegetarian I love the emphasis on fresh produce,” she said, adding that Har Sinai will be celebrating Tu B’Shevat with pot-luck foods and fruit-based desserts following its Friday night service on Feb. 2.
On Saturday, Jan. 20, the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Owings Mills celebrated its second annual Tu B’Shevat seder. The seder was led by executive director Jakir Manela, assistant director Sara Shalva, creative director and Jewish educator Rabbi Tsaehyah Lichtenstein and Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Each presenter taught about the four worlds, and Pearlstone’s kitchen served a meal based on the seven species grown in Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives (oil) and dates (honey).
“Growing up, Tu B’Shevat was not a holiday I was aware of or celebrated,” admitted Sonja Sugarman, Pearlstone’s assistant program director. But since taking on her position at Pearlstone, Sugarman has gained a new appreciation for the holiday. “At Pearlstone, we definitely have a much greater awareness to the environmental piece of [Tu B’Shevat] and the cyclical nature of everything.” Moving past the shortest day of the year, she said, brings forward the optimism that comes with a brand new cycle.
On Jan. 28, the Pearlstone Center will continue its celebration of Tu B’Shevat by hosting a Family Farm Festival, which includes tree tappings, nature art, fire making and campfire snacks.