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Tu B'Shevat: A Basic Introduction

Tu B'Shevat: A Basic Introduction

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Named for the 15th day of the month of Shevat, this festival is known as the New Year of the Trees or the Tree's Birthday. Although it's hard to believe when you live in New England. this time of year is beginning of spring in the Middle East. The first almond blossoms have opened and the sap in the trees is beginning to rise. Therefore, it's traditional to eat fruits from Israel on Tu B'Shevat: figs, dates, grapes, olives, pomegranates. It's also traditional to eat fruits you haven't tasted in a long time (or ever), and to say the Shehechiyanu (a prayer for experiencing something new.) While the holiday has changed over the centuries, today in the U.S., it is seen as a time to celebrate nature and affirm our relationship to the Earth.

Activities
Take a walk with friends or family. Plant a tree or some seeds. Make a family donation to your favorite environmental cause. Another beautiful action that is becoming more and more common is to have a Tu B'Shevat seder.
In the 16th century, Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics, created this seder with songs, readings, wine and fruits. Like the Passover seder, this one uses experiential learning, four cups of wine, and special foods. Each cup of wine represents different aspects of the fruit tree and fo ourselves. As the seder progresses, we change the color of the wine in the cups (like the changing of the seasons) - from the whiteness of winter to the fullness of spring. The color gets more and more red and we look forward to the fully red wine of the Passover seder.
Of course, there are many interpretations and ways to find meaning in a Tu B'Shevat seder. The cups can represent the tree's growth from seed to sapling, to continued growth, and to bearing fruit. Or they can symbolize the kinds of relationships we can have with Nature and with each other, even with Gold. There are four directions, the four seasons, and the four elements - all are possible interpretations.
The traditional Tu B'Shevat seder also includes a special order for eating different kinds of fruits, each kind representing our own spiritual growth. Before eating each kind of fruit, one thing some people do is to ask themselves or each other a spiritual question related to that kind of fruit. The seder here follows that model.
However you celebrate Tu B'Shevat, this holiday is an opportunity to savor and appreciate the bounty of this world, and to give thanks for all the ways that trees provide us with food, shelter, beauty, air and valuable life lessons.

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Adapted from the following resources:

Trees, Creation, and Creativity: A Hillel Tu BiSh’vat Seder (Publication by the Hillel Foundation); The Trees Are Davening: A Tu BiSh’vat Haggadah Celebrating Our Kinship with the Trees and the Earth - Dr. Barak Gale and Dr. Ami Goodman (Publication by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life); Seder Tu Bishvat: The Festival of Trees – Adam Fisher (Publication by Central Conference of American Rabbis – 1989); Kesher: Berkely’s Reform Chavurah – Tu B’Shevat Seder.

Many thanks to Rabbi David Seidenberg (www.neohasid.org) for his help and input.