Tu B’Shevat

Categories: Reflections and opinions

Blogger Sarah Newman explores the traditions and food enjoyed during Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish new year for trees

Words: Sarah Newman

Tu B’Shevat is the Jewish New Year for Trees (called Rosh Hashanah L’ilanot in Hebrew). The holiday is actually one of four new years celebrated in Judaism. ‘Tu’ is the number 15 in Hebrew and Shevat is the Hebrew month. This year it will begin at sundown on Tuesday 30th January and end after sunset on 31st January.

Though not mentioned in the Bible, Tu B’Shevat addressed societal agrarian issues. Its purpose is derived from Leviticus 19:23-25: “When you come to the land and you plant any tree, you shall treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years it will be forbidden and not eaten. In the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified to praise the L-RD. In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit.”

Knowing the age of trees was required for tithing (maserot), ensuring the eating of fruits only took place in their fourth year (revai) and calculating the sabbatical (shmita) year, which is when land lies fallow. Today, Tu B’Shevat is a minor holiday that doesn’t entail detailed religious rituals or special services at synagogue. It’s a Jewish Earth Day and it is customary to plant trees and eat lots of fruits.

All Jewish celebrations include meals with unique dishes which are reflective of the holiday. It is increasingly common for people to host a Tu B’Shevat seder (order) meal. Such a meal was originally created by 16th century kabbalists (Jewish mystics) who celebrated Tu B’Shevat with a seder comprised of fruits and wines, and the colour and shape of each offered mystical inspirations and teachings.  

Seven species of Israel
At a Tu B’Shevat seder, one enjoys as many fruits as possible, in a specified order. It is common to include the seven species of Israel (shivat haminim) that are described in the Bible: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and date honey. People are also encouraged to eat as many seasonal ‘new fruits’ as possible. Specific blessings for wine and fruit are said, as well as one for new fruits of the season.

The fruit and wine are representative of different levels of the mystical world of kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), in the following order: first world (assiyah, which means action), a full cup of white wine and inedible exterior, edible interior fruits (e.g. walnuts, pomegranates, coconuts, oranges); second world (yetzirah, which means formation), one cup of wine that is ½ white and ½ red and edible exterior, inedible interior fruits (e.g. dates, olives, cherries, peaches); third world (b’riyah, which means thought), one cup of wine that is ¼ white and ¾ red and entirely edible fruits (e.g. strawberries, grapes, figs); and fourth world (atzilut, which means spirit), one full cup of red wine and no fruit.

The different combinations of wine and types of fruit have many spiritual and mystical connotations, including changing seasons, our connections to the earth, and our relationship to God. The fruits can be enjoyed fresh or dried. It’s beautiful to look at a Tu B’Shevat table, filled with a vast array of colours, shapes and types of fruit.

As a foodie and sustainable agriculture activist, I relish this holiday. Each year with friends, I organise a Tu B’Shevat seder at home. Each person brings different fruits and a favourite fruit-centric main dish to share with others. We sit in a circle and take turns reading about the different fruits and glasses of wine, passing them around in the order prescribed to drink and nibble on.

Modern-day challenges
There are countless teachings and readings for the holiday, both old and new from rabbis, educators and organisations, offering mystical, spiritual and activist teachings. Such resources are helpful to guide our meal and conversation about the spiritual representations of the fruits, as well as modern-day challenges.

The teachings of the holiday can inspire you to reflect and act upon our connection to how and where our food is grown and our responsibility as stewards of the earth throughout the year. Such issues include how to address hunger in communities via tithing, challenges to fruit farmers (e.g. how those in California struggle due to severe drought), and ways that Jewish communities can support and engage in more sustainable agriculture.

We also have more light-hearted conversations about our favorite fruits and the farmers from whom we purchased them. For kids (and adults), there are lots of fun Tu B’shevat activities, including singing songs, tree plantings, playing games and creating art projects.

After the fruits and wine, the meal continues with main dishes that are filled with an abundance of fruits, such as my groats and fruit salad—you can read the recipe here.