Fruit of life

Celebrating the New Year for Trees

Children mark ‘the reawakening of the vitality of the land from its winter slumber’ on a recent Tu Bishvat (photo credit: JOE MALCOLM)
Children mark ‘the reawakening of the vitality of the land from its winter slumber’ on a recent Tu Bishvat
(photo credit: JOE MALCOLM)
As Jews, we don’t have to make resolutions once a year on December 31, as according to the Kabbala we have four distinct dates for new years, each with its own significance and ways of celebrating: Rosh Hashana, Passover, Shavuot and Tu Bishvat.
The main themes of Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees, are the reawakening of the vitality of the land from its winter slumber, thanking God for the fruit of the trees, and making blessings on the seven species of the Land of Israel, as well as any fruits that one has not yet eaten this season, enabling the recital of the sheheheyanu blessing.
“We enter into a spiritual state of delight via physical pleasure through the abundance of fruits,” Rebbetzin Yehudis Golshevsky says.
There was a famous debate between the rabbinic houses of Hillel and Shammai over when the new year for trees should be celebrated. Shammai believed that it should be on the first of Shvat, and Hillel on the 15th. The reasons why the halacha goes according to Hillel tell us a lot about the meaning behind Tu Bishvat itself. There is a teaching that explains that the tree of knowledge and the tree of life were actually fused together as one in the Garden of Eden. The tree of knowledge comprised the lower half and the tree of life the upper. This unified tree is at the heart of Tu Bishvat observance and is represented in the language of the Mishna itself, using the word ilan for tree. Ilan has the numerical equivalent of 91, which kabbalists note is also the sum of the two names of God (the four letter, unpronounceable name and Adonai, the name we say when we encounter those letters in prayer and study). These names represent the transcendent and immanent aspects of God respectively. The two names are also associated with the tree of life and tree of knowledge, which in turn represent the written and oral Torah.
“The tree of life corresponds to the written Torah, whose associations are always good,” Rebbetzin Sarah Yehudit Schneider explained in a recent shiur.
“The written Torah does not permit tinkering, one can only hear and obey. To eat from the tree of life is to partake of the world in a way that serves God through self-nullification. At any moment, one is willing to sacrifice one’s ego on the altar of divine service.
“The tree of knowledge has more complicated associations and corresponds to the oral Torah in its broadest sense. It includes all the wisdom and insights pressed from the hearts of Jews striving for integrity on whatever level of halachic observance they currently practice. A person who discovers a new insight – whether from a jail cell or a beit midrash – generates a new piece of the oral tradition. This tree is called knowledge of good and evil because it includes wisdom acquired through wrong choices.
“The written Torah and tree of life are associated with the sun, for it is the radiant source of light in the universe. The oral Torah and tree of knowledge are associated with the moon, for we reflect the sunlight back into the world through the lens of our personality and the fruits that we produce.”
Essentially, the debate between Hillel and Shammai centered around which cosmic tree should drive the intention of the holiday. When Shammai concluded that the new year be celebrated on the first of Shvat, he believed that the tree of life and thus the written Torah and the sun should drive the holiday. On the first of the month, the sun overpowers the moon, which is barely visible. But on the 15th, the two lights are equal; hinting at the redemptive equality of the two names and aspects of God.
“The tree of knowledge of good and evil becomes again the tree of knowledge of good alone, for evil will have ceased,” Schneider teaches.
“That vision of perfect union should be the starting point from Hillel’s perspective. The halacha follows Hillel and we celebrate the day by enjoying the full-grown masterpieces of the trees’ previous cycle. We eat fruits of all sorts and admire each one’s unique shape, color, taste and style; each one’s oral Torah, so to speak, its unique way of combining nutrients and sunlight to produce viable fruit.”
Historically, 15 Shvat was not a holiday, but a legal date to regulate tithing and other agricultural obligations from the Torah. Tu Bishvat marked the new year for tithing fruit, which was brought to the Temple and eaten by the priests, their households and the poor. After the Temple was destroyed, the practice of bringing tithings of fruit to Jerusalem became obsolete. Eventually, Tu Bishvat was revived as a day for celebrating the trees, their fruit, and thanking God.
By the late 16th century, the custom had arisen among the kabbalists in Safed of eating fruits on that day. By the end of the 17th century, the kabbalists had created a seder, similar to that of the Passover seder. Choicest of Days, a kabbalistic book on the holidays, describes the seder as a feast of 30 fruits and four cups of wine. During the seder, Torah verses, rabbinic literature, and excerpts from the Zohar pertaining to the themes of the day are recited. The kabbalists taught that the seder is an auspicious time to make a tikkun to repair all of one’s eating and the sin of Adam and Eve. There is a harking to the redemption and a return to the garden of Eden. The chapter from Choicest of Days containing the Tu Bishvat seder was later published separately as Fruit from a Fine Tree. Some hassidim still use it today to conduct their seder.
Although there is no set order for the Tu Bishvat seder, and opinions differ widely on ways to conduct it, the common denominator is blessing and eating the seven species of the land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives dipped in olive oil, and dates or date honey. There is also a custom to eat etrogim, apples, walnuts, carobs and almonds, so as to bless every kind of fruit tree.
There is a deeper kabbalistic meaning to tasting the seven species on Tu Bishvat. Wheat corresponds to hessed, or a flow of love, as in the idea of breaking bread and coming together in community. Barley corresponds to gevura, or restraint. It is enclosed in a shell, which remains intact throughout farming. Barley also reduces cholesterol and takes a long time to digest, so it may promote weight loss. Grapes correspond to tiferet, or beauty. Grapes are high in vitamins A, B, and C and are crushed to be elevated even higher into wine. Figs correspond to netzach, or endurance, because they have a long ripening period that spans more than three months. Pomegranates are hod, or majesty. They are very good for the immune system. Olives are yesod, or foundation, as olive oil is the foundation for most Mediterranean dishes. Olives’ medicinal qualities are also extensive, containing strong antibacterial properties, in addition to cancer-fighting and liver-cleansing antioxidants. Dates are malchut, or kingship. Malchut is the receiver, allowing manifestation below, similar to what dates do with the digestive system.
“In the mystical sources, the connection between tree and man is very profound,” Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz divulges.
“The way the Torah relates to trees is that they represent a paradise consciousness. Adam and Eve were bidden to enjoy and be in the presence of the trees of the garden of Eden. If they hadn’t partaken of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they would have been able to partake of the tree of life and live forever. The kabbalists teach us that the tree of life is the universal template that connects the infinite with the finite world; the world of God with world of man.”
Thus on Tu Bishvat we celebrate the tree, as it reminds us of our own roots and our connection to that which is infinite. We are invited to taste the paradise of the garden of Eden, and to hope that whatever seeds we plant will bear fruit for the coming year.
Brighten up your Shabbat table: Tu Bishvat recipe ideas
Grapefruit-mint salad
For the salad:
2 grapefruits, sectioned
1 Tbsp. mint, chiffonade or chopped
3 cups greens
For the dressing:
Juice of 1 lemon, plus zest
2 Tbsp. champagne vinegar
4 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. honey
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients together.
Green salad with grapes and carmelized pecans
For the pecans:
225 gr. pecan halves
1 Tbsp. natural cane sugar
1 Tbsp. honey (I used some great, raw and unfiltered local honey)
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
Pinch of cardamom (optional, but recommended)
For the salad:
4 handfuls of mixed greens
10 muscadine grapes, quartered and seeded
2 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
For the dressing:
¼ cup olive oil
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 small shallot, minced
Pinch coarse salt
Freshly ground pepper
Mix all ingredients together.
Jeweled rice with dried fruit
3 cups basmati rice (560 gr.)
4 liters water
3 Tbsp. salt
½ cup dried apricots (100 gr.), quartered
½ cup golden raisins (90 gr.)
½ cup dried cranberries (60 gr.)
½ cup unsalted butter
½ tsp. ground cardamom
½ tsp. black pepper
½ cup coarsely chopped shelled unsalted pistachios
Bring water and salt to a boil in a six-liter heavy pot, then add rice and boil, uncovered, stirring occasionally, five minutes from time water returns to boil. Drain rice in sieve.
Toss together dried fruit in a bowl. Melt six tablespoons butter with cardamom and pepper in cleaned and dried pot, stirring to combine, then alternately layer rice and dried fruit over it, beginning and ending with rice and mounding loosely. Make five or six holes in rice to bottom of pot with round handle of a wooden spoon, then cover pot with a kitchen towel and a heavy lid. Fold edges of towel up over lid (to keep towel from burning) and cook rice over moderately low heat, undisturbed, until tender and a crust forms on bottom, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from heat and let rice stand, tightly covered and undisturbed, at least 30 minutes.
Heat remaining two tablespoons butter in a small skillet over moderate heat and cook pistachios, stirring, until lightly browned, two to three minutes.
Spoon loose rice onto a platter, then break crust into 2.5-cm. pieces and scatter over rice. Sprinkle with pistachios. food/views/Jeweled-Rice-with-Dried- Fruit-230991
Pear and Chocolate Cake
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
3 eggs, room-temperature
½ cup unsalted butter
¾ cup sugar
3 pears, peeled, in a small dice (I used anjou, but would recommend a softer variety, like a bosc or any other of your favorites)
¾ cup bittersweet chocolate chunks
Preheat oven to 180º. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together, set aside. Using a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, whip the eggs on high speed until pale and very thick.
While the eggs are being whipped, brown the butter. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan (because it will foam a lot) and cook it until the butter browns and smells nutty (about six to eight minutes). It helps to frequently scrape the solids off the bottom of the pan in the last couple of minutes to ensure even browning. Remove from the flame but keep in a warm spot. Add the sugar to the eggs and whip a few minutes more.
Just as the egg-sugar mixture is starting to lose volume, turn the mixture down to stir, and add the flour mixture and brown butter. Add one third of the flour mixture, then half of the butter, a third of the flour, the remaining butter, and the rest of the flour. Whisk until just barely combined – no more than a minute from when the flour is first added – and then use a spatula to gently fold the batter until the ingredients are combined. Pour into prepared pan.
Sprinkle the pear and chocolate chunks over the top, and bake until the cake is golden brown and springs back to the touch, about 40 to 50 minutes.
For a comprehensive list of Tu Bishvat recipes like these: