You might not realize it, but today is not only Sisterhood Shabbat and Shabbat Shira, but it is also Tu B’Shevat– literally, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat - and it is the new year of the trees. It always seems so incongruous in New England, where spring is still far away, and the trees are often covered with snow. But in Israel, it’s the beginning of spring.
When I was growing up, my dad was the Hebrew school principal at Temple Emanuel in Newton, so most of my childhood memories of Tu B’Shevat revolve around packaging up what seemed like mountains of almonds, figs, dates, and little boxes of raisins into baggies for the Hebrew school kids. This was no small task since, at the time, there were about 600 or 700 kids in the Hebrew school there.
Like most American kids in the 60s and 70s, we ate common fruits like apples and bananas all the time, but Tu B’Shevat was the only time of year we ate dates and figs. They were so chewy and so sweet, with a strange thick texture on your tongue.
Another memory from the Tu B’Shevat is those little blue and white metal JNF boxes. I know they are still around today, and I found out from my research that they have been around for over 100 years. We were encouraged to go around our neighborhood collecting money that would then be used to plant trees in Israel.
My next Tu B’Shevat memory is from my time with the Progressive Chavurah, a religious and social group I belonged to in my 20s and 30s. That was the first time I experienced a Tu B’Shevat seder, the kabbalistic and delicious ceremony that involved eating many different kinds of fruits and drinking many different kinds of wine. If you’ve never experienced a Tu B’Shevat seder, I urge you to do so. There is something so wonderful about eating many many different kinds of fruits during the coldest part of the winter. It warms your soul. Not to mention the wine part.
Another fond memory is when my husband Arnie and I flew to someplace warm on Tu B’Shevat, and we took with us what we called “Tu B’Shevat Mix”, a combination of nuts, dates, raisins, and other dried fruits so we could have our own little Tu B’Shevat celebration on the plane.
In ancient times, Tu B’Shevat was really just a date on the calendar to help Jewish farmers establish exactly when they should bring their produce from recently planted trees to the Temple as first fruit offerings. Once the second temple was destroyed, there were no more fruit offerings, and this holiday could have easily disappeared. However, it was revived in the 16th century by the kabbalists (mystics) of Safed in Israel as a new ritual called the Feast of Fruits. Somewhat similar to a Passover seder – but with less cleaning and rules – participants would read selections from the bible and rabbinic literature, and eat fruits and nuts associated with the land of Israel. According to the Torah, there are 2 grains and 5 fruits associated with Israel, known at the shivat haminim, or seven species: wheat and barley, fruit of the vine (grapes), figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. Almonds were also included as almond trees were the first to blossom in Israel. The first Tu B’Shevat Haggadah was produced in 1753.
Now this custom is experiencing a renewal in the U.S. and elsewhere. In creating a Tu B’Shevat seder, you have lots of license, and you can really do anything you want, but most Tu B’Shevat seders have a basic structure in that they divide fruits into categories, according to their shell or skin – is it edible or not?, and whether they have a pit or core. For example, one category is fruit or nuts with a hard or inedible shell but an edible inner core. A second is a category in which the core is inedible, but the outside is edible. A third is those fruits that are edible throughout.
In addition, there are four cups of wine: all white, white with a bit of red, red with some white, and all red. There are different explanations for this practice, most of which have to do with the transformation of winter into spring and summer, and all of them very tasty.
Thinking about the descriptions of the different fruit categories, what struck me is how these relate to human qualities or characteristics as well.
The first category is fruits or nuts with an inedible outer shell and an edible inner core: examples are pineapple, coconut, orange, banana, walnut, pecan, grapefruit, pomegranate, papaya, brazil nut, pistachio, or almond. Can you think of people who fit this description? Hard on the outside, soft on the inside? Joel Ziff, in his book Mirrors in Time, describes this type of person as someone “who has developed a shell to protect from real and imagined assault.”
The second category is fruit with edible outer flesh and inedible cores: olive, date, cherry, peach, apricot, avocado, or plum. Can you think of people who fit this description? Soft on the outside but tough on the inside. Ziff describes this as a stage in which we expose our vulnerability.
The third category is fruits which are edible throughout. These have no protective shells, and may be eaten entirely and include: strawberry, grape, raisin, fig, raspberry, blueberry, cranberry, carob, apple, pear. Can you think of people who have no protective shell at all, who are soft and yielding both inside and out? Ziff describes this stage as one in which we are fully integrated, we can both contain and express our feelings appropriately.
According to one school of Kabbalah called Lurianic Kabbalah (which is a form of mysticism studied by the students of Isaac Luria), every living thing – people as well as fruits and nuts - hides within them a spark of the Divine Presence. In Jewish mysticism, human actions can release these sparks and help increase G-d's presence in the world. On Tu Bishvat, the kabbalists would eat certain fruits associated with the land of Israel as a symbolic way of releasing these divine sparks.
May our enjoyment of different types of fruits release new life and growth within us at this cold time of year, reminding us that spring will eventually come. And may our actions release divine sparks, increasing G-d’s presence in the world.