A Seder In February?

Tu B'Sh'vat and the mystics

Tu B’Sh’vat (15th Sh’vat) is best known today as a celebration of the importance of trees in Israel, but it actually hails from ancient times. The Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 1:1) offers two choices for the date of the ‘new year for the tree’; Jewish law follows the School of Hillel, who opt for the 15th of Sh’vat.

This ‘new year’ is relevant only to the laws of tithes pertinent to fruit trees that grow in Israel. Since each year’s produce must be tithed separately, the ‘year beginning’ is important, as it divides one crop from the next. For most fruit-bearing trees, the moment when the buds appear determines the year in which they are tithed – so those that bud before Tu B’Sh’vat are tithed in one year and those that bud after Tu B’Sh’vat in the next. Although a good part of the winter is still to come, Tu B’Sh’vat is chosen as the cut-off date as most of the winter rains have passed and, as Rashi puts it, the sap starts to rise in the trees at this time of year. Although these laws were hardly observed for many centuries, the return to the Land means that they are widely applicable in modern Israel.

Other than agricultural laws, there are few formal practices associated with Tu B’Sh’vat. However, in recent centuries, a number of forms of celebration have emerged. Some sources mention that one should mark the day by eating fruit, thereby acknowledging the importance of trees in the Torah Weltanschauung. In some circles this is accompanied by psalms and songs of praise; in some Chassidic courts, Yom Tov clothes are worn and the Rebbe holds a ‘tisch’ – a festive table gathering with songs, food and words of Torah. Many people attempt to eat fruits from Israel, or at least the varieties (such as dates and pomegranates) for which the Torah praises the Land. The esoteric thinkers understand that the Divine blessing flows first to the Land of Israel and only then to other places in the world. So while in Europe, Tu B’Sh’vat is in the middle of the winter, the start of the spring season in Israel (as evident by the wakening of the trees from dormancy) is critical to the wellbeing of all humanity. The great Chassidic thinker Rabbi Zvi Elimelech records a tradition of praying on Tu B’Sh’vat for a beautiful etrog for the coming Sukkot. Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Ari) understood that when one eats fruit on Tu B’Sh’vat, one should intend to rectify the error of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, who sinned by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even the precise number of fruits eaten is deemed significant; examples are 12 and 15.

In 16th century Sefat, the circle of kabbalists surrounding the Ari developed these ideas into a ‘Tu B’Sh’vat Seder’, not dissimilar from the more-familiar Pesach version. One enjoys certain types of fruits in the context of readings that express the philosophical and mystical aspects of the day. Apart from the fruits for which Israel is famed, fruits and nuts of various types are eaten, accompanied, à la Seder, by four cups of wine. The first cup is white wine, the second white with a little red, the third half white, half red, the fourth red with only a little white. As white wine indicates the latent and red wine the actual, the progression through the cups represents Man’s increasing capacity to maximise his potential as he grows spiritually, as well as our capacity to appreciate God’s design and greatness in the world. Fruits with inedible shells (such as nuts) are eaten first, then those with inedible stones (such as peaches), then those that are entirely edible (such as blueberries). This sequence too refers to development from potential to actualisation. The edible part of nut is completely encased by an inedible shell, representing the start of spiritual growth, in which potential is still deeply concealed by negativity. Peaches are mainly edible but partly only potential (the inedible stone). Blueberries are entirely edible, representing the world of complete actualisation.

A major goal of any Tu B’Sh’vat celebration is for the participants to gain a heightened appreciation of God’s bounty and the centrality of the Land of Israel in Jewish life.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.