Tu B’Shevat: A Holiday for All Seasons

By Debbie Jaffe

Happy Tu Bishvat!

Tu B’shevat literally means the 15th of the month of Shevat. It is my favorite holiday. In 3rd grade, there were trees on my special birthday cupcakes because this birthday of the trees coincided with my actual birthday. And I always loved the dried fruit the teachers gave out each year at my Jewish day school. Every year, I would donate $18 for someone to plant a tree on my behalf in Israel. When I was in Israel during my junior year of college, I finally got to do the planting myself for someone else who had donated.

While at first Tu B’Shevat can seem simple on its surface – the “Jewish Earth Day” or “Jewish Arbor Day”-  the holiday, like most Jewish holidays, has many levels to it:

Before the Great Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the 15th of Shevat was set aside as the time for determining the tithe of the fruit trees – the 10% donated to the Temple for its maintenance and the sustenance of the Levites (the priests). Once the Temple was gone, Tu B’shevat lost its foundational purpose.

In the Middle Ages, the Kabbalists brought the holiday back as a day for people to connect with nature by eating fruits and by celebrating with a seder, a special meal with an order of rituals like the one for Passover. I have been to several Tu B’Shevat seders where we dranks lots of wine, ate lots of fruit, told personal stories of our own connection with trees and shared ideas for how to protect the environment.

In the seder, the Kabbalists symbolically connected each season and each type of fruit with the different “worlds” that make up our existence.

WINTER: The first world, where we live, is Asiyah, a world of Action. We drink white wine – like the bare branches or the white snow – and eat fruit with a hard, inedible shell or peel.

SPRING: The second world above the first is Yetziyah, the world of Formation. We drink white wine with a splash of red – pink, like the buds on the trees. We eat fruits that are edible on the outside, but have a hard, inedible pit.

SUMMER: Beyond the world of Formation is the third world, Briyut – Creation. We drink wine that is half white and half red. We eat fruits that are edible inside and out.

FALL: The fourth world is Atzilut, the world of Emanation – a world only of spirit. We drink red wine, but we don’t eat any fruit. There is nothing physical to represent this world. We eat only foods that don’t resemble their ingredients (like crackers or beer), or we can smell but not eat fruit, or we don’t engage with food at all. 

While eating delicious fruit and drinking wine is delightful, in this time of severe devastation from climate change, the connection of Tu B’shevat with the environment is more important than ever. As we take this day to be especially thankful for the trees that the earth gives us, it’s a good time to reset our commitment to building a more sustainable future.

Here are some simple ways to help the environment, small actions that can really add up:

  • Turn off the water when we brush our teeth and do dishes
  • Separate garbage, recycling and compost
  • Turn lights off when we leave a room
  • Take short showers
  • Use the second side of papers and memos
  • Stay on marked trails when we hike
  • Keep our home thermostat at 68 degrees
  • Buy local
  • Eat less red meat
  • Travel by bicycle and public transportation when possible
  • Plant trees
  • Volunteer for environmental organizations
  • Eat organic food
  • Grow our own fruits and vegetables
  • Buy paper products made from 100% post-consumer waste

….and so much more.

We can’t do everything, but each season, we have the opportunity to do our part.

Happy Birthday to the Trees!

Debbie Jaffe is the east coast director of Hebrew Helpers and loves to hug trees.

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