An Introduction to the Tu B’Shvat Seder

  • by: David Jay Derovan

Compiled and edited by David Jay Derovan, Jerusalem, 5761

Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for the trees, was designated, following debate in the Talmud, as the time of renewal of budding in the trees. The early winter rains were mostly over, the sap in the trees had risen, and the period of budding was just beginning. The origin of Tu B’Shvat in the Torah was a time for renewal of our commitment to God and to share the yield of the land with the poor. “Every year, you shall set aside a tenth part of the yield, so that you may learn to revere your God forever.” (Devarim 14.22-23) Today we celebrate Tu B’Shvat also for renewal of our commitment to serve and protect the trees, and all of God ‘s creation. This year, Tu B’Shvat is particularly important, for it expresses our intimate and inherent connection with Eretz Yisra’el.

The evolution of this holiday has an interesting history. After the exile of the Jews from Israel, Tu B’Shvat became a day on which to commemorate our connection to Eretz Israel. During much of Jewish history, the only observance of this day was the practice of eating fruit associated with the land of Israel. A tradition based on Devarim 8:8 holds that there are five fruits and two grains associated with it as a “land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and [date] honey.” Almonds were also given a prominent place in Tu B’Shvat meals since the almond trees were believed to be the first of all trees in Israel to blossom.

The medieval mystical Kabbalists carried Tu B’Shvat a step further. For them, trees were a symbol of humans, as it says: “For a human is like a tree of the field” (Devarim 20:19). In line with their general concern with Tikkun Olam – spiritually repairing the world – the Kabbalists regarded eating a variety of fruits on Tu B’Shvat as a way of improving our spiritual selves. They believed that the ritual consumption of the fruits and the nuts, if done with the proper intention (Kavanah), would cause the sparks of holy light hidden in the fruit to be liberated fromt heir shells and rise up the heavenly ladder to return to their divine source, thereby contributing to the renewal of life for the coming year.

The Torah is referred to as a “tree of life to them that hold fast to it.” The Kabbalists pictured their philosophical construct of the Sefirot – the ten mystical emanations of the divinity – in the form of a heavenly tree, or ladder. For the Kabbalists, trees were symbolic also of the tree – the Tree of Life, which carries divine goodness and blessing into the world. To encourage this flow and effect Tikkun Olam, the Kabbalists of Tzefat (16th century) created a Tu B’Shvat Seder loosely modeled after the Pesach Seder.

In the twentieth century, with the growth of Zionism and the founding of the State of Israel, the association of Tu B’Shvat with the land of Israel has gained even more significance. In Israel, thousands of children plant trees. They play a vital role in the ecological healing of the land that was degraded after centuries of Ottoman rule.

As we enjoy this Tu B’Shvat Seder by eating the fruits and reading of their significance, we express our joy and thankfulness for the mystery and grandeur of nature, and renew our commitment to God ‘s land, Eretz Yisra’el. We will crack open some shells of nuts, and like the Kabbalists of the 16th century, release some sparks of holy light.

Here is a list of the food items used in this Seder: Red and white wine or grape juice, Cookies, cake or crackers, Olives, Dates, Grapes or Raisins, Figs, Pomegranates, Etrog or orange, Apple, Walnuts, Almonds, Carobs, Pears and any other fruits of your own choice.

Tu B’Shvat Seder

Introduction

There are four Rosh HaShanahs. The first of Nisan is the Rosh HaShanah for kings and holidays. The first of Elul is the Rosh HaShanah for tithing animals. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon said, “The first of Tishray [is the Rosh HaShanah for tithing animals].” The first of Tishray is the Rosh HaShanah for years, Shemitah, Yovel, for planting and for vegetables. The first of Shvat is the Rosh HaShanah for trees, according to Beit Shamai. Beit Hillel says it is on the fifteenth [of the month]. (Rosh HaShanah chapter 1, Mishnah 1)

The First Glass of Wine

Pour a glass of white wine. Leave it in front of you as we read about Wheat (Cookies, cake or crackers) Olives Dates Grapes or Raisins

Wheat

“A stalk of wheat will one day rise high like a palm, and will reach up to the mountaintops.” (Ketubot 111)

“Cake? Why cake? Wheat is a product of Israel, but what does it have to do with trees? Yet here it is in the first place of the Tu B’Shvat Celebration! There is an opinion in the Gemara that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was a wheat tree. In Gan Eden, wheat grew on trees, ready to eat in the form of rich cakes. When Adam was cursed with eating by the sweat of his brow, wheat became the ultimate hard work food. It must be planted in plowed ground, cared for, harvested, winnowed, ground, sifted, kneaded and baked: a long and difficult process. (It’s even longer and more difficult if you are the grain of wheat.) The process of becoming bread is one hard transformation after another. Wheat is our most basic food, the most universal symbol of eating. Making bread is the epitome of all the work we do to get our food. It is also a demonstration to us of what it means to be refined and transformed over and over until we become what we are meant to become.

Everyone at the table can take some cake or a cracker and say the Beracha of Mezonot:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech Ha’Olam, Boray Minay Mezonot

Since it is appropriate halachically to recite the Beracha for the wine before the Beracha for fruit, everyone present can raise their cup of wine and sip from it after reciting the following Beracha. Please do not drink all of the wine at this time. The cup of wine will be finished at the end of this section of the celebration:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech Ha’Olam, Boray Pri HaGafen

Olives

“To the smell are your fragrant oils pleasant like precious oil poured in your name.”

“These are two oils, the oil for anointing Kohanim, and the oil for anointing kings.”

“Why is Israel compared to an olive? To tell you that just as you cannot see the oil in an olive unless you crush it, soIsrael does not return to He who takes care of them except through difficulties and hardship.”

“The dove returned to him in the evening and there was a freshly plucked olive leaf in its beak.” (Berayshit) Where did the dove get it? Rav Bay said, “the gates of Gan Eden were opened for her and she brought it from there.” (Berayshit Rabbah 33)

Take an olive and make a Beracha over it. Before reciting the Beracha, have in mind that this Beracha is being recited for all the other fruits you will eat at the celebration. If you do not eat olives and will only be eating a different fruit, remember to recite the Beracha before eating that fruit:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech Ha’Olam, Boray Pri Ha’Etz

Dates

“Thy stature is like a palm tree and thy breasts to clusters of grapes. I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof.” (Song of Songs)

A palm tree flowers upward. Its head and heart face upward. So the soul faces upward and her desire is towards her Husband in heaven. (Malbim)

“The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree; he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon. Those that are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age.” (Psalm 92)

Cut the date open and check it for insects before eating it.

Grapes or Raisins

Just as the vine has grapes and raisins, so Israel has masters of Tanach, masters of Mishnah, masters of Talmud, and masters of Aggadah.

Just as the vine is the lowest of all trees, but rules all trees, so Israel seems to be the least of nations, but in the future she will inherit the whole world from one end to the other.

Just as grapes are first pressed under the feet and then served on the King’s table, so too Israel is downtrodden in this world and in the next is taken in by the King.

The First Glass of Wine

Take the cup of white wine and say the following:

In the Shema we read, “You shall gather in your grain, your wine and your oil.” The corn refers to satisfaction, the wine to joy, and theoil to inner shining.

“Wine gladdens the heart of man.” (Mishlay)

“Wine makes life joyful.” (Kohelet)

“There is no joy except for wine.” (Talmud, Pesachim)

On Tu B’Shvat we use wine to praise Eretz Yisra’el. On Purim we use wine to wipe out Amalek. On Pesach we use wine to celebrate our redemption.

Drink the wine.

The Second Glass of Wine

Pour the second cup of wine: three quarters white wine and one quarter red wine. Before drinking the second cup, we will read about Figs Pomegranates Etrog or Orange Apple

Figs

“Rami the son ofYechezkel visited Bnei Brak and he saw goats grazing under a fig tree. Honey dripped from the fig tree and milk from the goats and both intermingled. He said, “Behold! A land flowing with milk and honey.” (Ketubot III)

“A person had a row of fig trees. He came and found a fence of honey around them…” (Jerusalem Talmud, Pe ‘ah 7)

“Why is Torah compared to a fig? Every fruit has something inedible in it: dates have pits, grapes have seeds, pomegranates have skin, but every part of the fig is good to eat.” (Yalkut Shimoni, Joshua 1)

“Take the fig tree. As long as you search, you can find figs. So also with words of Torah. As long as a person meditates on them, he will find meaning in them.” (Eruvin 54)

“Why is Torah compared to a fig tree? Because most trees, like olives, grapes and dates, have their fruit picked at one time. But the fig tree is picked gradually. So it is with Torah. One learns a little today…and most of it later. It is not learned in only one year, or even in many years.” (Midrash Rabbah)

Cut the fig open and check it for insects before eating it.

Pomegranate

“Like a half pomegranate is your cheek behind your veil.” (Song of Songs)

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, “Don’t read Rakataych (your cheek), but Raykataych (your empty ones), because even the empty ones of Israel are as full of Mitzvot as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.” (Eruvin 19)

“The pomegranate is filled with 613 seeds, which represent the 613 Mitzvot. So the essential soul is filled up with the lights of spiritual understanding.” (Malbim)

Take some pomegranate and eat it.

Etrog

“And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the beautiful tree (Hadar), branches of palm trees and the boughs of thick-leafed trees and willows of the brook and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” The “Etz Hadar – beautiful tree” is the Etrog tree.

According to one interpretation the Lulav or palm branch is the spine, the myrtle represents the eyes, the willow represents the lips, and the Etrog represents the heart of a person.

According to another Midrash, the palm branch bears sweet fruit but has no fragrance: it is like Jews with learning but no acts of kindness. The myrtle has a sweet smell, but no fruit, so it representsJews with acts of kindness but no learning. The willow has no fragrance and no fruit, so it represents Jews with neither learning nor good deeds. The Etrog tree has fragrance and taste, so it represents people with both learning and acts of kindness. Whatdoes God do with them? He binds them all together so these may atone for those.

There is a tradition on Tu B’Shvat to pray that God will provide us with a beautiful, kosher Etrog for the fulfillment of the Mitzvah of the Arba‘ah Minim. The Etrog that we obtain is dependent on the merit of each person.

Eat a piece of Etrog.

Apple

“As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” (Song of Songs)

Rav Chiya cited the verse: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons.” (Song of Songs 2:3) “Why,” he said, “does the Community Israel praise God by comparing Him to an apple tree? Because it combines all goodness. Just as it is healing for all, so is God healing for all. Just as it combines two colors, so, too, God combines two attributes. Just as the apple has a more delicate scent than other trees, so it is written concerning God, ‘His scent is like Lebanon’ (Hoshe’a 14:7). Just as the apple has a sweet taste, so of God it is written, ‘His mouth is most sweet’ (Song of Songs 5:16).”

God gave some of His life and influence to the forces of nature. Therefore, the directing influence of God is hidden and enveloped in those natural forces. He appears among them as an apple tree among the trees of the forest. Their trunks are large and they have many long branches, which cover up the apple tree, whose trunk is relatively short. So also, the earth and the planets influence us in a way that is easily perceived, while the influence of God is hidden from the eye.

Behold, the scent of my son is the scent of the field. The Midrash says when Yitzchak blessed Ya’akov, he smelled the scent of apple orchards.

Take a piece of apple and eat it.

The Second Glass of Wine

“Wine is compared to wisdom and deep understanding.” (Pirkay Avot 4:26-27)

Rabbi Yosi, the son of Judah said, “He who learns from the young, to what is he like? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from his vat. And he who learns from the old to what is he like? To one who eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine.”

R. Meir said, “Look not at the flask, but at what it contains; there may be a new flask full of old wine and an old flask that has not even new wine in it.”

“He brought me into the House of Wine and his banner over me was love.”

“Wine is the prophetic spirit. As wine is hidden in the grapes and is poured out into a goblet to rejoice the heart, so the soul rejoices when the spirit of God is poured into it.” (Malbim)

Drink the second cup of wine.

The Third Glass of Wine

Pour three quarters of red wine and one quarter of white wine.

Before drinking we will read about Walnuts Almonds Carobs Pears

Walnuts

Take a nut with a shell and say: “I went down to the garden of nuts to see the fruits of the valley.” (Song of Songs 6:11)

Rav Berachya said: “Just as a walnut has four sections and the container in the middle, so Israel looked in the wilderness: there were four camps with the Ohel Mo’ed in the middle.”

“The beauty of the princess is contained within.” So also, the secret fruits of the nuts are contained and hidden by the shells. That which is precious is always hidden away. That is why the Torah has a cover, and then is hidden in the Ark, and even the Ark has a cover. The Torah itself is also a container hiding an even more precious beauty within it.

Eat some walnut.

Almonds

“The next day, when Moses came to the Testimony Tent, Aaron’s staff, representing the house of Levi, had blossomed. It had given forth leaves, and was [now] producing blossoms and almonds were ripening on it.” (Bamidbar 17:23)

The almond tree is quickest to sprout (the first tree to blossom in spring). (Rashi)

The staffs produced almonds that have a double meaning of diligence and haste. So Aaron was quick to run into the midst of the people to stop the plague. Also, when Moshe was meeting HaShem at the burning bush, God said, “Behold, he comes to meet you, He sees you and rejoices in his heart.” Behold has a meaning of eagerness. Everything a person does eagerly, he certainly enjoys doing. So Aaron went joyfully to meet his younger brother Moshe and didn’t feel jealous of Moshe’s position of leadership. Because of Aaron’s eagerness, he was given the leadership of priesthood. (Kli Yakar)

Almonds then, represent eagerness and diligence.

Take an almond and eat it.

Carob

Once Choni, the circle-maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked, “How many years will it take before this tree will bear fruit?” The man answered, “Seventy years.” Honi asked him, “Are you so healthy that you will live seventy years to eat its fruit?” The man replied, “I found the world full of carob trees when I came into it. As my father planted for me, so I will plant for my children.” (Ta’anit 23a)

For thirteen years Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Eliezer hid from the Romans in a cave. They studied the secrets of Torah day and night by a light that appeared from heaven and they put together the holy Zohar. To sustain them, the Holy One created a spring of water and a carob tree beside the cave.

Cut the carob open lengthwise and widthwise and check it for insects before eating it.

Pears

The tradition in the Tu B’Shvat Celebration is to read sections of the Mishnah, which touch on fruit and trees through the last part of the Celebration.

“How do we bless fruit? On the fruit of the trees, we say, Boray Pri Ha’Etz, except for wine. On wine, we say, Boray Pri HaGafen. On fruit of the ground, we say, Boray Pri Ha’Adamah, except for bread. On bread, we say, HaMotzi Lechem Min Ha’Aretz. On vegetables, we say, Boray Pri Ha’Adamah. Rabbi Yehuda says, Boray Minay Desha’im.” (Mishnah, Berachot 6:1)

Take a piece of pear and eat it.

The Third Glass of Wine

Take the cup of mostly red wine and say:

We begin with a glass of white wine and add more and more red wine. The white, bare winter is gradually giving way to the pink blossoms and red poppies of spring. The bare hidden potential in the trees and in us gradually shows more and more of its rich (red) fruit.

“Rise thee up my belovedmy fair one and come along. For lo, the winter is passed the rain is over and gone its way. The flowers are seen in the land; the time of the birds to sing is come and the voice of the turtledove is heard in my land. The fig tree perfumes its green figs and the vines with young grapes give forth a pleasant smell.”

Drink the wine.

The Fourth Glass of Wine

Pour a glass of red wine and wait as four more fruits are discussed.

Take a fruit that hasn’t beenblessed yet and say the following Mishnah in English or in Hebrew:

“If one has several varieties [of fruit] before him, Rabbi Yehuda says that if there is among them something of the seven kinds for which Eretz Yisra’el is noted, he makes the blessing over that, but the Sages say that he may make the blessing over any kind that he pleases.” (Berachot 6:4)

Eat the fruit.

Take a fruit that hasn’t been eaten yet and read the next section, which is from Reb Nachman’s story, The Seven Beggars:

The wise men once had gathered- Each one was an expert in another shade. Shade is very important- Each living being needs a shade to rest in Each shade is different- One shade makes one living being rest And the very same shade, Causes another being unrest. So it is with birds, too- Each one likes another branch to rest on- These wise men thought, Is there anywhere a tree giving such shade? That all kinds of beings would find rest init- All kinds of birds perch in its branches, and all is at peace? They calculated that somewhere there must be such a tree. They wanted to go to the tree, since near it there is wonderful delight that is beyond all imagination. All birds and animals are there, and none harms the other. They all live in harmony and frolic together, so it must be an extraordinary delight to be near that tree.

Eat the fruit.

Take a fruit that hasn’t been eaten yet and read the following:

They then probed to discover which direction they must travel to reach the tree. A dispute arose regarding this, and none of them could come to a conclusion. Some said that they should head east while others said that it was to the west. One determined that the tree must be in one place, while another said that it was elsewhere. Thus, they could not decide which way to go to come to the tree. Then a wise man came and said to them, “Why are you trying to discover in which direction the tree lies? Instead try to find out who will be able to approach the tree. Not everyone can come near it. In order to do son, one must have all the qualities of the tree. The tree has three roots. The first root is faith, the second reverence, andthe third humility. The trunk of the tree is truth, and it is from there that its branches come forth. It is impossible to go to the tree unless one has these qualities.”

Eat the fruit.

Take a fruit that hasn’t been eaten yet and read the following:

The group was not quite ready to go. There were some members who had not yet attained to the virtues of the tree, but they did love one another and prized each other’s company: So, They all stayed on until they had all reached the high life of virtue that was required of them by the tree.
It was not easy to reach so high: They worked hard and the others were very patient. And when they all were ready, they came swiftly to an agreement about the direction in which to move toward the tree.

Eat the fruit.

The Fourth Glass of Wine

“…And they shall beat their swords into ploughs and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, not shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree: and none shall make them afraid. For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it. For let all people walk everyone in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever. (Micha)

Master of the Universe, Grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass – among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong. May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field – all grasses, trees, and plants – awake at my coming, to send the powers oftheir life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing things, which are made as one by their transcendent Source. May I then pour out the words of my heart before your Presence like water, O Lord, and lift up my hands to You in worship, on my behalf, and that of my children! Reb Nachman of Bratslav

In Conclusion

May it be Your will, O God of our mothers and fathers, that through our eating of the fruits, which we have blessed, that the trees will be filled with the glory of their ability to renew themselves, to blossom and grow, from the beginning of the year to its end. May our lives, as well, be renewed and filled with goodness, blessings, and peace.

LeShanah Tovah U’Mevorechet May the year be fruitful and blessed!

LeShanah HaBa’ah BiYerushala’yim HaBenu’yah Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem!

May our souls be rekindled as we open our hearts to the world and take good care of God’s world.

“When you look out at the world around you, you are looking at God; and He is looking back at you.” (Reb Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro)

Drink the wine.

End Note: Please do not forget to recite the appropriate Berachot Acharonot.

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