Time for Another New Year: Tu B'Shevat

This post is dedicated in merit that Hershel ben Etya Sarah have a yeshuah.

By: Samantha Hulkower

We already know about the month of Shevat. Most people are looking forward to Adar, and Purim, as the next holiday on the calendar - but wait! The 15th of Shevat ('Tu' because the alphanumeric representation of the date is טו) is a special day in its own right. According to the Talmud, this is the day when it is considered that after being dormant all winter, the sap in the trees begins to rise, and the tree begins the process of awakening. I'm not an arborist, but I do know that around this time of year, the winter starts to get a little less oppressive. The days are getting longer again, and we're getting closer to seeing tufts of green shooting out of the earth. This is reason enough to celebrate for me!

Unlike other holidays, where we celebrate by eating a festive meal, on Tu B'shevat our table is more reminiscent of Pesach than Rosh Hashanah, in that there is a custom to have a Seder. The reason for this is deep - the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashana says that Tu B'Shvat is New Year for the TREE (singular). This reference to a singular tree alludes to The Tree -- the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The Kabbalists of 17th century Tzefat, most likely the Ari, developed the model of tikkun olam that we embrace today — to heal the damage Adam and Eve created by eating the Eitz HaDaas - the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The Ari said that we should have that intention in mind while we eat over the seder, which is loosely modeled after the Passover seder.

In more recent times, the day has been grabbed by environmentalists as an opportunity to reflect upon our interaction with the Earth. It is our “Green” holiday – our reminder that we are the custodian and responsible guardian of God’s gifts of nature that have been granted to us. There is a famous anecdote told about Rabbi Aryeh Levine, who was once walking with Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel. In the midst of a heated discussion over a complicated piece of the Talmud discussion, Reb Aryeh absentmindedly picked a leaf off of a nearby branch of a tree. Rav Kook turned to him and said sadly: “Did it really disturb you that this leaf would be able to live months longer?” Reverence for life, all forms of it, is a cornerstone of Jewish attitude and thought. 

Another reason why the Tu B'Shevat seder has become so popular, is the custom to drink four cups of wine, similar to the Passover seder. Each cup represents a different time of year and we eat a different type of fruit with it. Here are some ideas to bring with you to your own seder (or just to enjoy over many glasses of wine). This type of thing isn't for people who are very Litvish, but it can be fun. In a similar vain, over the course of the Seder we eat three types of fruits to correspond with three types of people.
  • Some people are like fruits that are edible inside and inedible on the outside; they are difficult to get to know, but you are rewarded when you peel away the top layer.  
  • Other people are like fruits that are edible on the outside but have an inedible pit; you meet them quickly but you will never know them completely.   
  • Then there are those fruits that are edible inside and out, like the people with whom you form quick and lasting friendship.   
We do not discard fruits because of an inedible peel or pit. Likewise, the Jewish people is made up of all types, and each has a unique contribution to make to the community. And that I think is something worth raising a glass to.

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