Tu B'Shevat: New Year of the Trees
Perhaps even more than any other Jewish holiday, Tu B'Shevat has evolved over two thousand years of Jewish history. This year, Tu B'Shevat falls on Monday, February 9, 2009. The words Tu B'Shevat literally mean "the fifteenth [day in the month] of Shevat." Originally, in post-biblical times, Tu B'shevat was simply the yearly date for reckoning the age of trees for purposes of taxes and of orlah (the first three years during which a tree's fruit was considered strictly God's property and not to be eaten). Later, the mystics developed a Tu B'shevat Seder (see below) that represented both their connection to the land of Israel and reflected their ideas of God's relationship to the world using the imagery of a cosmic tree.
At the beginning of the Zionist movement, Tu B'Shevat again took on new meaning as planting trees became a symbol for the Jewish re-attachment to the land of Israel. The most recent transformation has re-popularized Tu B'Shevat into a holiday of Jewish environmentalism as a sort of Jewish Earth Day because of its association with trees and, by extension, with nature.
Judaism & Trees
Trees figure prominently in Jewish literature and lorefrom the very first trees planted at creation and the Garden of Eden, to the trees worshipped by King Ahaz in the final chapters of the Bible. In the Bible, the Hebrew word for tree appears over 150 times, and more than 100 different kinds of trees, shrubs and plants are named. The Mishnah (Masechet Zeraim in particular deals with laws of agriculture) adds hundreds of names of plants. Midrashim, too, often use plants in similes and parables. In all, over 500 different plants are mentioned in classical Jewish sources.
Trees and plants were important in the ancient world. Trees furnished wood for construction of buildings, boats, furniture and smaller articles. Many trees provided nutritious and tasty fruit. Grains and vegetables were cultivated and wild plants were gathered. Other plants were used for food, medicinal purposes, herbs and spices, incense important for use in sacrifices, rope and cloth fibers. Sap and oils were extracted from plants and trees.
What are trees?
Trees are the tallest and longest living plants on the earth. It is difficult not to be inspired by an enormous tree, whose roots are in the earth, yet whose branches seem to touch the very sky.Today, since many buildings dwarf trees, and we are jaded, we need to go to the redwood forests to be impressed by these towering giants, in the ancient world, trees would have been the tallest structures, (except for mountains, which also were often a site of sacred power). Trees typically survive for several human generations, and their longevity must have also impressed the ancient Israelites. For these reasons, it is not surprising that trees were powerful symbols for the ancient Israelite, and many significant trees are featured in biblical stories.
Most of us today live much farther removed from the natural world than did our biblical ancestors who lived and worked outdoors for much of their lives. It is only natural that the Bible used images of the great outdoors that surrounded them. Although the Bible is not a botanical textbook, and often mentions plants and trees only incidentally, the Bible is rich in natural imagery, metaphors and parables. Often, our understanding of the biblical text is impoverished because we no longer appreciate their meaning.
The Bible uses images and descriptions of trees but is not meant to be a botanical encyclopedia. The names and descriptions of plant (and animal) life are casual; many common species of plants are not mentioned in the Bible (like the carob), while others appear only once (such as ebony, pistachio, and walnut). Tu B'Shevat is a day in the Jewish calendar which encourages us to take a deeper look at our connection to trees and to the nature of Israel.
The Tu B'Shevat Seder
Here is an outline of the Tu B'Shevat Seder. Many different Seders are available in Jewish bookstores and online. Invite a few friends to share an evening devoted to thinking about the environment, our relationship to the earth, eco-Judaism and some fresh and dried fruit from the land of Israel.
Like at the passover seder, one drinks four cups of wine and reads readings. Because of the focus on trees, one also eats fruit. The order of the seder is based on the four "worlds" described by the kabbalists -- the Jewish mystics. Basically, the order of the seder is:
- Fill glasses with the appropriate (see table below) wine.
- Read or sing.
- Say the blessing over fruit:
Barukh atah Adonai, Elohenu melekh ha'olam, borei pri ha'etz.
Praised are You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign over all, that creates the fruit of the tree.
- Eat the appropriate fruit.
- Maybe read or sing some more.
- Say the blessing over wine:
Barukh atah Adonai, Elohenu melekh ha'olam, borei pri hagafen.
Holy One of Blessing, Your Presence fills creation, creating the fruit of the vine.
- Drink the wine.
- Repeat three more times for each of the Worlds.
The chart below allows you to construct your own seder by giving you the four worlds, the fruit associated with each, the sort of wine associate with each, and four tikkunim -four sorts of world-repair that have been associated with Tu B'Shevat over its history. Thank you to Ari Elon for the idea of the four tikkunim of Tu B'shevat. The table intersecting the tikkunim and the four worlds was created by Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger; you might find other ways of filling it in. You can choose readings and songs based on the world and any of its tikkunim. This table and this webpage are just a hint of the meanings of the holiday.
|FRUIT||Hard outer / soft inner
|Soft outer / hard inner
example: olive, date
|Soft outer / soft inner
example: fig, grape
|Pure spirit: cannot be represented by fruit
|WINE||White||White with red||Red with white||Red|
|"Fruit" of our labour taxed and given freely for preserving society.||Civic participation, forming community||Political economy, law||Justice and peace|
|Conscious eating, performing mitzvot.||Prayer, song||Torah, meaning||Redemption, attachment to God.|
|Planting trees in Israel, general financial and physical support of Israel.||Love of fellow-Jews, visiting Israel||Zionism.||Am Yisrael Chai! (The people of Israel lives!), Aliyah|
|Reduce, re-use, recycle, preservation & restoration.||Walk in the woods, go to the zoo, "cute animal environmentalism"||Environmental science||Internalized interconnection with the web of life and creation|