Illustrations by Nancy Patz
Tu B’Sh’vat The Trees’ Birthday
Tu B’Sh’vat, the New Year of the Trees, is one of the few Jewish holidays that isn’t connected to a historical event. But a holiday can do more than honor the past-it can also celebrate our hopes. Tu B’Sh’vat, celebrates our hope and intention to make the world more green and healthy. As we learn more about how important it is to take care of the natural world so that nature can take care of us, maybe Tu B’Sh’vat, will become as popular as Passover and Hanukkah.
Tu B’Sh’vat, which means the fifteenth of Shevat, falls in the middle of the month of Shevat, under a full moon in midwinter. The ancient farmers believed that on that day the sap begins to rise in the fruit trees in Israel and the land starts to awaken from winter. In the Gregorian calendar, the holiday falls between the end of January and the middle of February.
This is a holiday to be celebrated not at home or in the synagogue, but outdoors, where trees live. It’s a time to eat fruit, plant new trees and to notice how much trees, giant, quiet and still, bring beauty, nourishment, and shelter to our lives.
In Israel Tu B’Sh’vat, has special meaning. When Jews returned to Israel to resettle the land one hundred years ago, the country was mostly swamp and desert, with very few trees. The Jewish National Fund began to build forests in Israel by encouraging Jews from all over the world to “plant” trees; really, Jews contributed a small sum of money to have a tree planted in their name in Israel.
By planting a tree in Israel, Jews living far away could feel that they were part of the land. Millions of saplings were planted, and now there are over 165 million trees in Israel. Sometimes, when people who planted trees visit Israel for the first time, they want to find their tree!
Some Jewish families follow the ancient custom of planting a cedar tree when a boy is born and a cypress when a girl is born. The trees are planted on Tu B’Sh’vat. When children grow up and get married, the branches from their trees are cut to make a marriage canopy.
Five hundred years ago in Israel, the Cabalists, a group of people who searched for holiness in everything, created a seder, a dinner with special foods and a ceremony, for Tu B’Sh’vat, to celebrate the connection of all living things to the earth. As in the Passover seder, the number four is important, because it represents the four seasons, the four elements that the world is made of, and the four corners of the earth. With blessings, special fruit, and wine, the seder is divided into four parts.
The seder is celebrated at nightfall with lots of candles, flowers, and fragrant greens. Because life begins in the darkness of the womb, the first part of the seder begins with readings about earth and winter. In this section, we eat fruit that is hard on the outside and soft on the inside, such as a pomegranate, walnut, or coconut. We drink white wine because white is the color of snow winter.
The second section celebrates water and the awakening of spring. The food for this part is soft outside and hard inside, such as a cherry, an olive, or an avocado. A little red wine is mixed with the white for the second blessing over the wine.
The third section concentrates on air and summer. The fruit eaten is soft throughout, such as berries, figs, and grapes. Now the wine is more red than white, because red is both hot and strong. The earth is awakening.
The fourth and final part celebrates fire and autumn. Now the earth is fully awake. We drink pure red wine, which represents the spark inside each of us that connects us to God.
Some people try to eat at least fifteen different kinds of fruit to celebrate Tu B’Sh’vat. Certain fruits have special meanings related to events or sayings in the Bible. The apple represents God because of the apple tree in the Garden of Eden. Nuts represent the Jewish people, because they can be hard, medium, or soft, like the three different characteristics of people. Figs represent peace, and the carob, which tastes a little bit like chocolate, represents humility because it is the food of the poor.