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A Minor Holiday Takes Root

February 9, 2006 By:
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When it comes to Jewish holidays, there's much more than meets the eye: There's more to Chanukah than eight days of presents, more to Passover than abstaining from bread, and more to Tu B'Shevat than simply planting a tree.

"The planting of the tree is a later development," said Rabbi Sandy Roth, Reconstructionist leader of New Hope's Kehilat HaNahar, The Little Shul by the River. "It's an outgrowth of the original acknowledgement of what's happening in nature - the sap rises from the tree, the tree becomes alive again, and we celebrate its New Year."

In fact, according to the Jewish National Fund, a more-than-century-old organization dedicated to improving Israel's land and environment, planting trees has become so associated with the holiday that planting some 30,000 trees has become the norm.

The holiday - this year falling on Monday, Feb. 13 - is a postbiblical observance first mentioned in the Mishnah as one of four new years in the Hebrew calendar: Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the first day of the first month; Rosh Chodesh Elul, the dividing date for determining which crops are subject to tithing; Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, which subsequently became Rosh Hashanah, and was designated as the day on which God judged human beings; and Tu B'Shevat.

Before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, 10 percent of all produce was set aside for the support of the priestly class and the poor. Tu B'Shevat - which translates into "the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat" - marks the beginning of a new fiscal year for tithing.

"It's kind of similar to the American calendar," explained Rabbi Ira Grussgott, leader of Congregation Kesher Israel, a traditional synagogue in Society Hill. "We have our school year beginning in September, our calendar year beginning Jan. 1, and our fiscal year - as some accountants would argue - starting April 15."

A minor holiday, on which working and cooking are allowed - and during which no special Torah portion is read, and no specific prayers are recited - Tu B'Shevat is traditionally celebrated by eating foods, particularly the seven types of grain and produce found in Israel, and mentioned in the Torah. These are wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

But for some, observance of the holiday stops there.

"In Jewish law, [the holiday] has meaning because you can't eat fruits for the first three years of a tree's life … . But to most of us, it doesn't have much meaning because we aren't farmers," stated Rabbi Aaron Felder of Orthodox Congregation B'Nai Israel-Ohev Zedek in Philadelphia. "To [observant] people, it's just a day that we don't say tachanun," or penitential prayers, normally part of daily davening.

Some rabbis, though, in addition to planting trees and eating fruits, encourage their congregants to connect to the holiday on a deeper level.

Roth, for instance, bases the inner meaning behind Tu B'Shevat on four spheres - physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual - that Kabbalists say exist in all experiences. For Tu B'Shevat, the physical, emotional and intellectual realms have a type of fruit associated with them. These are used to symbolize various human characteristics and different types of people.

For instance, the fruit associated with the physical realm is one with an unedible peel or shell, like an orange, a banana or certain nuts. Roth explained that like these types of fruits, some people have hard exteriors that they use to protect their inner emotions.

"The challenge this holiday season" for these people "is to take risks and reveal themselves to be able to grow and expand," she said. "We're talking about reflection, reaching inward."

Roth went on to explain the fruits of the other realms: For the emotional world, the symbol is a fruit with a pit, like a peach or a plum, representing a vulnerable individual, one with a soft outside and a hard inside; and a fruit that can be eaten whole, like a seedless grape or berry, is the symbol for the intellectual sphere, representing the notion that people should be open to one another and to creation.

The spiritual world does not have a symbolic fruit because, according to Roth, spirituality is intangible.

On the Friday after the holiday, Roth planned to hold a special seder - first created by Kabbalists in Tzfat centuries ago - that Jews have recently reinstituted as a custom. The seder's order is based on these four levels of meaning, and, like the Passover seder, even involves four cups of wine.

'Get Involved in the Details'

But Grussgott had a different notion about the meaning behind the holiday.

He's not keen on the idea of a Tu B'Shevat seder, he said. He believed other ways to be mindful of the holiday exist, without borrowing upon the theme of another.

Grussgott went on to explain the interconnection among God, nature and human beings that must be recognized on the holiday.

"It's not just go with the flow and sit under a tree, and think sweet thoughts. Sometimes, we have to get involved in the details," he said. "By observing the details of Tu B'Shevat, we can tap into specific ways the history of our people connect to the land of Israel, in particular, and nature, in general, and our covenant with God and the world."

These details or rituals, Grussgott noted, could be eating a new fruit on the holiday, specifically one of the seven mentioned in the Torah. He said that trying produce from Israel is also symbolic.

Though buying Israeli produce doesn't technically follow the requirements, the rabbi explained that doing so allows Jews to connect to the holiday in a special way. "It's about nature, God and Israel - and putting all of those things in a balance, which creates the spirit of the day."

Rabbi Eric Lazar of King of Prussia's Reform Temple Brith Achim loves the idea of using the holiday to try new fruits.

"As far as I know, there is no real halachah about how Tu B'Shevat should be observed regarding the eating of food products," he said. "But trying new fruit? What a great idea!

"Even on top of recognizing how numerous the gifts of the Earth and God are, it opens up our own experiences for new things."

Lazar said that while it's nice to utilize the holiday to be reflective about the Earth's abundance, truly being thankful also means making sure that the environment is protected.

"Sitting back and being reflective without being sure it continues to provide us with things is counter-intuitive," he proclaimed. "We must be thankful by continuing to increase the number of trees."

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