There is barely any change to see; there is barely any change to hear. But the turn of the year has come. The still and quiet months are over; the seed is quickening, life is reasserting itself. In this hushed moment we celebrate the new year of the trees, and the reawakening of the Tree of Life. [Waskow]
Tu BShavt is celebrated on the fifteenth (full moon) of the Jewish month of Shvat. This date was fixed as the year-end date for the fruit crop, so the tithe on fruit could be calculated and paid. At first there was some disagreement as to whether to celebrate this festival on the new moon or the full moon. Waskow suggests that the full moon was chosen to coincide with a pre-existing festival, perhaps something like the ancient Armenian spring festival in honor of Mihr (see CandlemasFeb 2).
In the sixteenth century, the mystics of Safed associated the tree of the fruit-year with the Sphirot or Kabalistic Tree of Life. Thus, Tu BShvat is the day the Tree of Life renews the flow of life to the universe. We can help this process, they said, by eating fruit in a holy way. Waskow describes two slightly different versions of the Tu BShvat seder developed by the Kabalists of Safed. Both are meals of three or four courses, primarily of different types of fruit, chosen to represent the aspects of the process of creation and accompanied by four glasses of wine, mixed in different proportions, representing the seasons.
In modern Jewish practice, the Birthday of the Trees has been taken more literally and many communities plant trees on this day or send money to support the planting of trees in Palestine At the same time it has taken on a new symbolic significance as a day of celebration and reaffirmation of the necessity of protecting Gods world. A number of new Hagaddot have been developed which focus on healing the wounded earth.
One of these is called The Trees Birthday and was written by Ellen Bernstein. She uses the following correspondences to explain what is served during each of the courses:
1st course: Assiya, earth, winter, the physical, west
Fruit with a hard outer shell (like coconuts, bananas, watermelon, pineapple, cantaloupe)
Glass of white wine
2nd course: Yetsira, water, spring, the emotional, south
Fruit with a hard inner core (like peaches, dates, apricots, plums)
Glass of white wine with a few drops of red in it
3rd course: Briav, air, summer, cerebral, east
Fruit that is soft throughout (strawberries, cranberries, grape, apples, pears)
Glass half red and half white wine
4th course: Atsilu, fire, autumn, spiritual, north
No fruit at all
Glass of red wine
If you think fruit will not be substantial enough, seeds (like chickpeas and sunflower seeds) and sprouts are also appropriate, along with crackers and cheese (foods of the season).
Bernstein provides readings which she culled from sources as varied as the Bible, the Whole Earth Catalog, e.e. cummings and Rumi to celebrate the elements associated with each season, for instance, the passage where Mole first sees the river from Wind in the Willows for water. You can choose your own readings, or ask guests to bring passages that represent the elements. Each course begins with a song or dance appropriate for the season. For each course, the plate of fruits are blessed and before drinking the wine, a toast is offered to the season. The traditional blessing is Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the tree or the fruit of the vine, but you can also make up your own blessings.
In her preface, Bernstein explains how she developed her own personal relationship with the Jewish holidays. Out backpacking in the Grand Canyon with ten other geology students one year at Pesach, she missed the traditional celebration and suggested they make their own seder. They discussed the symbols of the holiday and each person went out into the desert to collect whatever was at hand to symbolize the items on the traditional seder plate: bones, herbs, trilobites. Bernstein realized that holy days were gifts to us to help us enjoy life more fully. With more study, she made a connection between the Jewish tradition and the ecological movement. Thus she encourages readers to personalize theTu BShvat seder by selecting readings that focus on your own bioregion and reflect your concerns.
Bernstein, Ellen, The Trees Birthday: A Celebration of Nature, 1988. (out of print)
Bernstein, Ellen, editor, Ecology and the Jewish Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet, Jewish Lights 2000
Elon, Ari, Naomi Hyman and Arthur Waskow, Trees, Earth and Torah, Jewish Publication Society 1999
Waskow, Arthur, Seasons of Our Joy, Beacon Press 1982