A simple way to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for trees, is to grow a plant or eat some fruit. But those seeking a deeper immersion in the holiday may choose to take part in a Tu B’Shevat seder — not to be confused with the Passover version.
“Tu B’Shevat needed a major ritual, and the seder provides us with that,” said Rabbi Jason Miller, a blogger, entrepreneur and educator. “Based on the seder of Passover, this is an educational forum and symposium in which we can discuss and also recommit ourselves to the environment.”
Kabbalists from the northern Israeli city of Tzfat created the seder ritual to celebrate the idea that even God’s smallest creations — be they tree, pomegranate or date — are all equal within nature’s grand web. The initial ritual was outlined in “Peri Etz Hadar” (Fruit of the Goodly Tree), part of an anthology of Kabbalistic customs called the Heindat Yamun.
While Tu B’Shevat, which falls on Jan. 16, is widely celebrated in the Jewish world as the religion’s counterpart to Arbor Day, fewer Jews traditionally take part in the seder. Many are troubled by the seder’s apparent roots in the texts written by followers of the 17th-century false messiah known as Shabbatai Zvi. But the ritual has grown in popularity in recent years.
Like the Passover seder, the Tu B’Shevat version relies on the recitation of blessings and the drinking of wine, but has a greater emphasis on fruit. Each group of fruit eaten at the Tu B’Shevat seder represents different ways that trees provide for us. Before eating each kind of fruit, a blessing is said and a spiritual question related to that kind of fruit is asked.
To fully appreciate nature’s bounty, Kabbalists matched Israel’s regional fruit to the four physical elements:
• Assiyah, or earth, is symbolized by fruits or nuts with an outer shell and fruit within. This includes walnuts, pomegranates, pistachios and coconuts.
• Yetzirah, or water, is symbolized by fruits with edible outer flesh and inedible cores. This includes cherries, apricots, olives and plums.
• Briyah, or air, is symbolized by fruit that is entirely edible. This includes apples, pears, figs and raisins.
• Atzilut, or fire, is not symbolized by fruit but by things that represent God’s presence all around us. This can include smelling something natural like pine, cedar or spices.
It is no coincidence that the fruits included in the seder don’t fall far from the tree. The constant imagery of trees is intended to invoke our connection to the earth and our Jewish responsibility as its stewards. Looking from the roots at the bottom to the fruits among the leaves acts as a reminder that when everything is connected, each small action by a human reverberates throughout the universe.
“Trees are so important in Jewish thought that the Torah itself is called ‘a tree of life.’ Perhaps this Torah wisdom can help us think more wisely about using these resources carefully and living in a more sustainable way,” Dr. Akiva Wolff and Rabbi Yonatan Neri write in their article, “Trees, Torah, and Caring for the Earth,” part of Jewcology’s Year of Jewish Learning on the Environment.
While the origins of the Tu B’Shevat seder may be hazy, the intention to deepen our connection with nature and assure the preservation of its bounty has led to environmental activism’s increased relevance within the context of celebrating the holiday.
“We are living in God’s creation, which makes us equal to one another and makes us all equal in what we need and what we share equitably,” said Sybil Sanchez, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. “The seder is an important time to ritually recognize our values, but it is also a time to take action.”
For Tu B’Shevat last year, Sanchez’s coalition called for community leaders to sign its “Jewish Environmental and Energy Imperative,” which asked Jews to reduce their energy use by 14 percent by the fall of 2014. More than 50 Jewish leaders signed the pledge.
Incorporating environmental mindfulness can easily become part of Tu B’Shevat, Sanchez said. An easy way to start: Sanchez suggested checking whether your family is using locally sourced fruit and ecologically minded dining ware, installing energy-efficient light bulbs and turning off appliances when not in use.