Tu B’Shvat

Tu B’Shvat is the Jewish New Year of the Trees. Observances include planting of trees, purchasing trees to be planted in Israel, and a mystical Tu B’Shvat ritual meal that includes different colored wine (from white to red) and different kinds of fruits and nuts.

Tu B’Shvat: Significance and Hope in Today’s Times

The site of brutal attacks on October 7, 2023, the “Gaza Envelope” is also known as Israel’s fruitbasket. The following articles will give you insight into the importance of the region and the impact of the attacks, and will also show how people’s acts of chesed (kindness) and volunteerism can cause hope to blossom even in the midst of great challenges.

Learn About Tu B’Shvat

Origins of Tu B'Shvat

Tu B’Shvat literally means the 15th day of the month of Shevat. As with most Jewish holidays that follow the lunar calendar, the placement of this day in the exact middle of the Hebrew month aligns the celebration with the full moon – the better to gather long into the evening! Tu B’Shvat was first referred to in the Mishnah, the first compilation of early rabbinic teachings, as one of the four New Years on the Jewish calendar, known as the “New Year for the Trees.” In biblical times, special laws were formulated to ensure that the produce of trees would not be picked until the trees were mature enough (3 years old). The ancient rabbis established the 15th of Shevat as the official “birthday” of the trees in order to calculate the age of trees to determine when they could be harvested.

Over time, as Jews were separated from their land in Diaspora, Tu B’Shvat and other agriculturally based commemorations evolved into a more spiritual framework. For example, the famous Kabbalists of the 16th century designed a Tu B’Shvat Seder modeled on the Passover meal, using different species and styles of fruits to symbolize different spiritual lessons. Rabbi Chaim Vital, a leading Kabbalist, taught that eating these fruits with deep intentionality could rectify the mistake made by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, who famously ate that first fruit with selfish motives, creating a split between humanity and the rest of the natural world that we are still grappling with. The Tu B’Shvat Seder has become a popular and engaging activity that blends delicious tastings with spiritual reflection and conversation. The seder is split into four sections, each reflecting the seasons and symbolizing different aspects of the trees and our own lives.

In Israel and contemporary North American communities, Tu B’Shvat as also become a rallying point for environmental commitment in the Jewish world. Trees have always played a special place in the Jewish imagination. Both the Torah itself and the human being are discussed with the metaphor of a tree in Jewish teachings. And lately, with our climate crisis unavoidably and appropriately prominent in society’s eyes, we have returned to a more literal connection with this birthday of the Trees.

Why is the Torah compared to a fruit tree? Figs on a tree do not ripen all at once, but a little each day. Therefore, the longer one searches in the tree, the more figs he finds. So too with Torah: The more one studies, the more knowledge and wisdom one finds. (Talmud – Eruvin 54a)

How We Celebrate: Edible Symbolism

Seven Species
The Torah (Jewish bible) loves to celebrate the Seven Species that have grown in the Land of Israel.

Wheat represents chesed, kindness, because it is so nourishing and accessible.

Barley is the embodiment of gevura, restraint, due to its thick hull.

Grapes signify tiferet, beauty, due to their color and manner of growing.

Figs represent netzach, endurance, for their lengthy ripening stages.

Pomegranates symbolize hod, majesty or glory, for their crown shape.

Olive oil represents yesod, foundation, for the staple role that the ingredient plays in many foods.

Dates denote malchut, kingdom, thanks to their digestive benefits.

Four Seasons/Cups of Juice
At the Tu B’Shevat seder, it is traditional to drink four cups of wine, similar to the Passover seder. What is your favorite season and why?

First Cup: Winter — pure white
Second Cup: Spring — pale pink (white with a drop of red wine)
Third Cup: Summer — darker pink (with more red added)
Fourth Cup: Autumn — almost totally red (with only a drop of white)

Kabbalistic Fruit
Tasting these fruits serve as a lesson to move through the mystical understanding of different levels or realities of the created world.

Fruits with inedible shells or peels such as nuts, pomegranate, oranges, and avocados symbolize the realm of action (asiyah), a world which is enveloped by materialism, just as the sweet fruit is enveloped in its peel/shell.

Fruits with inedible pits such as dates, olives, peaches, plums, and cherries symbolize the realm of formation (yetzirah). The inedible part has now moved from the outside to the inside of the fruit. Although we don’t eat the pits of fruits, they are the building blocks of new plants. Similarly, many great people have turned their faults into assets.

Fruits that are completely edible are the realm of creation (briyah), the highest level in the created world. Things are coming close to their full potential; even the seeds are now edible. They not only have future potential, but are also delicious and ready to eat right now.

Finally, fruits with no fruits but the best fragrance are comparable to the realm of pure spirit (atzilut). The Torah teaches God breathed into man’s nostrils the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). Since there is no perceptible physical matter, the sense of smell is the most spiritual and elevated of the five senses.

Try This at Home

Because Tu B’Shvat isn’t a ritual-heavy holiday, we have an opportunity to explore in extra-creative ways! Here are some “seeds” for you to plant at home:

  • Plant parsley seeds – they will sprout just in time to go on your Seder plate!
  • Take a tree-walk. Choose a few trees that speak to you, and photograph them.
  • Participate in a tree planting. There are opportunities in San Mateo County, as well as national projects here and in Israel.
  • Partner with your city to beautify your community by picking up trash. Many cities will provide you with a “picker upper” stick and appropriate bags.
  • Learn about our local recycling efforts by watching a virtual tour, offered monthly. Visit here to participate!

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