Tu B’Shvat: Birthday of the Trees

I first learned about the Birthday of the Trees in Arthur Waskow’s wonderful book about Jewish holidays, Seasons of Our Joy. Celebrated on the full moon of the Jewish month of Shvat, it marked the year-end date for the fruit crop, the time when the tithe of fruit was calculated and paid. This was considered a pivotal point in the life cycle of the trees, when the sap began to rise again in trees which had been dormant during the winter. In Israel, the almond trees put forth blossoms. In 2017, it falls on February 11.

In the sixteenth century, the mystics of Safed associated the fruit tree with the Sephirot or Kabalistic Tree of Life. Thus, Tu B’Shvat was seen as the day the Tree of Life renews the flow of life to the universe. We can help heal the world, they said, by offering blessings. On Tu B’Shvat we bless the fruit before we eat it, thus the more fruit we eat the more blessings we can offer.

Many different customs developed as Jewish communities around the world created their own versions of Tu B’Shvat. According to Ellen Bernstein, in an article on the history of the holiday, in Bucharia and Kurdistan, it’s called the “day of eating the seven species” (see Deut. 8:8) and a dinner of thirty kinds of fruit is prepared. In India, fifty kinds of fruit are served. In Moroccan villages, the wealthiest villager invites everyone for a feast and sends the guests home with their hats full of fruit.

A Greek legend says that on Tu B’Shvat angels tap the head of each plant on this day and command them to grow. Another Greek legends says that trees embrace on this day and anyone who witnesses this will get their wish fulfilled. Women who want to get pregnant plant raisins and candy near trees on Tu B’Shvat night and pray for fertility. And in some places, young girls, eligible for marriage, are “married” to a tree. If the tree buds soon after, this is seen as a promise of the marriage to come. For families who have lost a loved one during the year, Tu B’Shvat can be celebrated as a holiday of rebirth and remembrance.

In modern Jewish practice, the Birthday of the Trees has been taken more literally and many communities plant trees on this day or send money to support the planting of trees in Israel. At the same time it has taken on a new symbolic significance as “a day of celebration and reaffirmation of the necessity of protecting God’s world.” A number of new Hagaddot have been developed which focus on healing the wounded earth.

One of these is called The Tree’s Birthday and was written by Ellen Bernstein. She uses the following correspondences to explain what is served during each of the courses:

1st course
Represents Assiya, earth, winter, the physical, west
Fruit with a hard outer shell (like coconuts, bananas, walnuts, pineapple, cantaloupe)
Glass of white wine

2nd course
Represents: Yetsira, water, spring, the emotional, south
Fruit with a hard inner core (like peaches, dates, apricots, plums)
Glass of white wine with a few drops of red in it

3rd course
Represents: Briav, air, summer, cerebral, east
Fruit that is soft throughout (strawberries, cranberries, grape, apples, figs, pears)
Glass half red and half white wine

4th course
Represents: Atsilu, fire, autumn, spiritual, north
No fruit at all
Glass of red wine

If you think fruit will not be substantial enough, seeds (like chickpeas and sunflower seeds), nuts and sprouts are also appropriate, along with crackers and cheese (foods of the season).

Bernstein provides readings which she culled from sources as varied as the Bible, the Whole Earth Catalog, e.e. cummings and Rumi to celebrate the elements associated with each season, for instance, the passage where Mole first sees the river from Wind in the Willows for water. Each course begins with a song or dance appropriate for the season. For each course, the plate of fruits are blessed and before drinking the wine, a toast is offered to the season. The traditional blessing is “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the tree” or “the fruit of the vine,” but you can adapt that so it fits your concept of the divine. As Bernstein comments:

“Because there is no specified liturgy for the holiday, Tu B’Sh’vat readily lends itself to creative interpretation.” If you don’t want to do a complicated ritual, you might simply add fruit to your evening meal on the night of the full moon. One of the injunctions for Tu B’Shvat is to eat a new kind of fruit, one you’ve never tried before.

My first Tu B’Shvat seder was one I hosted at my apartment with a group of friends from The Beltane Papers. We didn’t have a copy of Bernstein’s book at the time, so we improvised our own ritual. I asked each of the guests to bring a reading that represented the various elements. At the start of each course, I brought out plates of fruit of the appropriate kind. Each of the guests chose a fruit and blessed it. Instead of using the traditional Jewish blessing, which we didn’t know, we made up our own words of praise, speaking about our relationship with or appreciation for the fruit. After the fruit had been consumed, we poured the ritual glasses of wine and someone offered a toast to the season.

The details are lost in the fog of time but I remember the juiciness: the kitchen counter dripping with fruit juice, the table crowded with plates of fruit, sticky fingers, juice running down the chin. There’s a certain lightheadedness associated with a meal, hours long, consisting only of fruit and wine. Although I was drinking white grape juice and cranberry juice rather than wine, I too felt the lightening as we moved from the heavy element of earth to the most insubstantial element, fire.

We were in the middle of our second course when the full moon appeared in the eastern windows of my apartment, striking us with wonder. It was a magical moment as we sat bathed in her rays, feeling our kinship with others who had sat feasting for centuries under the full moon of early spring.

Tu B’Shvat Links:

This website has a long list of articles; some of the links are broken; scroll down to the bottom for links to recipes:
http://www.jr.co.il/hotsites/j-hdaytu.htm

Let me know if you know of other good resources for Jewish holidays on the web.

Resources:
Bernstein, Ellen, “A History of Tu B’Sh’vat,” “The Tu B’Sh’vat Seder,” in Ecology and the Human Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet, ed. Ellen Bernstein, Jewish Lights 2000
Bernstein, Ellen, The Tree’s Birthday: A Celebration of Nature, 1988. No longer in print.
Elon, Ari, Naomi Hyman and Arthur Waskow, eds., Trees, Earth and Torah, Jewish Publication Society 1999.
Fitzgerald, Waverly, “Tu B’Shvat: Reawakening the Tree of Life,” The Beltane Papers, Issue Four, Samhain 1993
Waskow, Arthur, Seasons of Our Joy, Beacon Press 1982

All the photos were taken by me in my neighborhood in April of 2010 while on a tree walk with Arthur Lee Jacobson.

First published 2/6/2012.

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