Bringing nature home

Tu Bishvat brings nature to the heart of our homes – to the dining table, where we spend our time eating, reflecting, catching up and arguing with our nearest and dearest.

Tu Bishvat in Chana’s Art Room (photo credit: CHANA’S ART ROOM)
Tu Bishvat in Chana’s Art Room
(photo credit: CHANA’S ART ROOM)
On Sunday, many Israeli homes will enjoy a Tu Bishvat Seder, an event that has become increasingly more popular and eco-relevant.
Tu Bishvat brings nature to the heart of our homes – to the dining table, where we spend our time eating, reflecting, catching up and arguing with our nearest and dearest.
The holiday, on 15 Shvat, is usually in January. There is no mention of the occasion in the Torah, but the Mishna records the opinion that this holiday is the New Year for trees. The rabbis of the Talmud said that priests in olden days recognized the holiday and carried harvest produce to the Temple in Jerusalem, until the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE.
In the 16th century, the Kabbalists of Safed were the first to create the format for a Tu Bishvat Seder. This involved the sharing and tasting of a wide variety of fruits that are now ripe on Israeli trees. To this day, we continue to enjoy this holiday that encourages a buffet of fruits, grains and nuts, decorated with foliage, plants, flowers and blossoms, all of which are native to the Land of Israel. Since 2014, the Knesset has joined in the fun, holding a Seder of its own for government ministers and lawmakers.
Hemdat Yamim, or Pri Etz Hadar, is the 50-page kabbalist pamphlet that describes the details of a spiritually meaningful Seder. It was created by a group of enthusiastic but anonymous students of Rabbi Yitzhak Luria after his death in 1572. The rabbi was probably the greatest kabbalist of Safed before his untimely death at age 38. The legacy of his teachings includes the structure of today’s Tu Bishvat Seder. The book includes the broadest instruction for the perfect celebration of the holiday: “To eat many different fruits on this day and to recite various passages and praises while doing so... is a wonderful spiritual anchoring.”
It is unlikely that you could find this pamphlet, but even if you were successful, you’d be disappointed to find that there is no specificity to the Tu Bishvat Seder.
As with the best of Jewish holidays, Tu Bishvat encourages creativity, appreciation and flexibility. We are encouraged to use any selection of fruits and flowers.
The kabbalists of ancient Safed suggested that no fewer than 30 fruits be included in the celebration! How they were able to source and finance so many items for their simple wooden dining tables is another mystery.
Today, you can simplify your celebration by including the essential Seven Species of fruit and grain that are endemic to Israel.
Firstly, you have to choose your fig. Although figs are not a significant commercial crop, the variety in Israel is exceedingly good. The hot, dry weather in the Jordan Valley means the figs ripen early, and there is a variety to choose from, including the Khurtmani or Brunswick, considered by some to be the best fig grown in Israel. You’ll also like the tasty Khdari, or the Mission, Bidan or Black Italian. Figs must be picked as soon as they ripen, just as our inclination for kindness should be acted upon as soon as we think of a way to manifest the best of ourselves.
Next, look for one of the nine native varieties of dates. Dates possess proven medicinal properties. The most healthful are probably the yellow Barhi, Deri, Medjool and Halawi. “Dates are often a metaphor for the righteous (Psalms 92:13, Song of Songs 7:9), as the date tree is both lofty and fruit-bearing. Furthermore, as the date tree is impervious to the changing winds, so too are the Jewish people,” explain the teachers of the Ascent Institute in Safed.
Your tabletop is already oozing with vitamins and minerals, but there’s another gift for your Tu Bishvat celebrants. This dark red beauty has the greatest health benefits of all: the magnificent pomegranate. There is probably no health benefit which has not at some time been attributed to this luscious fruit. Meanwhile, it is said that every pomegranate contains 613 seeds – one seed for every Jewish law. No Tu Bishvat celebration can go more smoothly than when the kids are (Photos: Chana’s Art Room) RELIGION | IN JERUSALEM 13 offered a prize for counting the seeds in a succulent red pomegranate; it will take forever.
Don’t forget to add grapes or raisins and nuts to your shopping list, especially nuts with shells such as walnuts, pistachios and almonds. Nuts with two shells have a soft and a hard covering, just as we have a physical and a spiritual structure. If your table is becoming overloaded, these can all be blended with your grain, another essential item.
For the grain, it’s best to choose wheat or barley. In all honesty, how often do we purchase high-fiber, heart-friendly barley? The scrumptious dishes that can be baked are guaranteed to make your holiday a memorable occasion. Try a chicken and barley soup, a mushroom and barley risotto or a fruit and nut loaf.
Could you still possibly need more fiber and vitamin C? Regardless, the Seder must include fruits with edible seeds, like blueberries, and others with inedible pits, such as plums, peaches and carob. Likutei Maharich notes, “After Succot, we fry the etrog that we used for the Four Species, and on Tu Bishvat we eat it.”
Kudos to those families who had the foresight to include fried etrog at their Seder.
What to drink? There should be a choice of red and white wine or grape juice, although you might find rabbinical approval for a fruity rosé wine instead. Four glasses should be consumed, but make sure the glasses are not too large. This is no drunken event; the holiday is intended to raise your soul with consciousness.
Don’t forget to make the correct blessings over each of the foods. This is, after all, the point of the exercise and will put you in touch with the holiday. Certainly this will rectify any spiritual trespasses, which is timely at the start of the secular calendar year. Also, your doctor will be very happy because the abundance of vitamins and minerals will stand you in good stead for the winter.
Finally, have your guests put some shekels in a charity box earmarked for your favorite cause.
The Seder is not the only exciting aspect of the holiday.
Some years after the death of Rabbi Luria, another teacher changed the way we celebrate Tu Bishvat. Man has always been compared to a tree, Ki ha’adam etz hasadeh. With this understanding, in 1892 Ze’ev Yavetz, a teacher from the first Zichron Ya’acov school, took his students on an outing. Amidst breathtaking sea views and abundant wildlife, they planted trees along the rocky ground that led up to their new community.
In keeping with the holiday’s focus on renewal and nature, the tree planting was a big success and was deemed totally appropriate.
This is why, in 1908, the Teachers’ Union decided to formalize the custom, and Tu Bishvat was recognized as a tree-planting festival as well. The earthy tradition of tree planting has survived the passage of time, and this year’s Tu Bishvat, following the year of shmita, will see an extraordinarily large number of trees being planted throughout Israel and the Jewish world. Some people also plant flowers.
When you to plant a sapling, you are making a meaningful statement about the love of nature, respect for the delicate environment, and a continuation of the development of the forests and woodlands that are part of the Israeli countryside. That is why, over the years, many people have a greater familiarity with this part of the celebration and do not participate in the Seder custom. And that’s a shame.
Creative people are always ahead of the game. Today, modern tools have rendered us more dexterous than the students of the Tu Bishvat holidays of the 1500s.
This year, after digging a 15-cm. wide hole for your little tree, try your culinary skills with Tu Bishvat Sugarplum Truffles, dried fruit Brie bites, fruit-filled sangria or organic dark chocolate trail mix bites.
Best of all, you can lose yourself in the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms when you make a clove pomander, which permeates the air even after your Seder guests have staggered home, exhausted from the tree planting and well fed on the delights of your Tu Bishvat table.