Trees and Fruit for Tu Bi'Shvat

by Susie Chalom

Last Thursday was Tu Bi’Shvat. The students and their families of our 2-4th graders celebrated the holiday at our Mifgash this past Sunday. We conducted a Tu Bi’Shvat seder. I am indebted to one of my favorite teachers, Noam Zion, for the history and teachings on Tu Bi’Shvat found here.

“Tu” is a pronunciation of the Hebrew letters (9, 6) which make up the number 15, and it falls in the Hebrew month of “Shvat,” approximately parallel to end of January/February. The 15th of Shvat was originally just a date for the end of the tax year for fruit trees and it was called “new (tax) year for the trees”. Whatever fruits blossomed before Tu Bi’Shvat belonged to the previous tax season for purposes of tithing. However, by borrowing from the Passover Seder model, the mystics of Safed created a ceremony for drinking wine and eating fruits on the 15th of Shvat to celebrate their connection to trees. The Kabbalists felt the hidden presence of God in nature and saw in trees a symbolic representation of the structure of the human, the divine and the cosmos. The precise order of eating the fruits and nuts during the Seder was a mystical act designed to release the Divine sparks within each fruit and to bring about a Tikkun – a repairing of the broken world of exile in which we live.

During our Seder, we drank 4 cups of wine (grape juice), each cup getting gradually darker from white wine to light pink to dark pink and finally to red -symbolizing the four seasons starting with Fall (white) to Summer (red). We also ate fruits and nuts in a certain order: 1st cup -fruits/nuts with an inedible outside and edible inside like almonds, pistachios and pomegranates. We discussed how sometimes, we unfairly judge people by their outside appearance and we should remember that we all carry the divine spark inside us.

2nd cup – fruits with pits at their center like mangos, cherries, olives, avocados. The seeds that are at the center of these fruits symbolize the hidden “seed” within each one of us that can lead us to our potential as we grow and get wiser. We reflected on how sometimes something we do that starts as a small idea grows into something big and important .

3rd cup -fruits that are completely edible like grapes, raisins, strawberries. These fruits remind us of the fullness of the world, where nothing is wasted and everything nourishes everything else. We discussed all the benefits we derive from trees and talked about ways we can take care of trees and the world so that nature and all within it bloom and thrive.

The 4th and final cup was the most mystical – that which cannot be seen. We talked about how some things are not visible even though we know they exist – the love of a parent, air, our breath that keeps us alive. To symbolize the “unseen” aspect, we smelled scents from nature- cinnamon, and other spices. We discussed how we can help to make the world a kinder nicer place by remembering the invisible spark of God inside us and being kind.

Historically, in the middle ages, besides the Kabbalists, this holiday was only celebrated by mainstream Ashkenazi Jews by eating dried fruits, since nothing else was available in winter in Eastern Europe. This changed in the 1880s when the Jews first began to return to Eretz Yisrael to rebuild a political homeland, and they sought to transform themselves from shopkeepers into farmers. They found a land once described as “a land of milk and honey” depopulated and severely ecologically damaged. They needed to buy the land from absentee landlords, to drain malaria-filled swamps and begin to plant forests to restrain erosion. It was at this point that the pioneers decided to revive that holiday and, on Tu Bi’shvat of the year 1884, the pioneers of the agricultural settlement, Yesud HaMaalah in the Galilee, initiated the custom of planting trees by planting 1,500 trees – including 700 etrog trees. In 1908 the city dwellers joined this custom. The new Hebrew Teachers Union, innovative Jewish educators involved in reviving the Hebrew language and making the Jewish people more self-reliant, decided to educate the school children by creating an activist Tu Bi’Shvat. They transformed it from the medieval Tu Bi’Shvat, which was a day celebrated by eating dried fruits, into an annual tree planting festival.

To this day on Tu Bi’Shvat Israeli children by the thousands receive their semester report cards and then go out to plant trees – usually evergreens, which unlike fruit trees need less rain to take root. I have wonderful memories of going on a field trip every Tu Bi’Shvat -getting a small tree sapling and planting it in a new forest near our town.

Since the establishment of the blue box of the Jewish National Fund, קרן קיימת לישראל (which means literally the “permanent legacy of the people of Israel”), Jewish children all over the world have been collecting money and sending it for land reclamation and tree planting at this season. Quoted on the blue box is the verse גאולה תתנו לארץ- “You shall redeem the land” and that is how the Zionist movement gave that commandment practical significance. That is how they sought both to heal or repair (Tikkun) both the character of the Jew cut off from the land and the land ruined by human neglect, abuse and war.

Today, our own Daled-Hey Torah class with Rabbi Yosi, planted two trees in Israel through the JNF, in honor of the holiday. Yasher Kochechem!!

This Tu Bi’Shvat in Israel, many trees were planted in memory of the victims of Oct 7th all around Israel. Let us end with a prayer:

May we behold Your world and bless it in words and actions as You did when at the end of the six days of Creation, “God saw all that had been made and pronounced it very good” (Genesis 1:31)