Tu b’Shevat is more than fruits and nuts

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Tu b’Shevat, which begins on the evening of Sunday, Jan. 20, is a small gem of a Jewish holiday, coming as it does in midwinter, when there is not much else to celebrate. Many know it simply as “Jewish Arbor Day,” and as a day for celebrating the natural world by eating fruits and nuts in a Tu b’Shevat seder. However, its origins and spiritual significance are more obscure. 

Tu b’Shevat’s origins are in the Talmud. Originally, it served as the new year’s day for trees, the day on which we add another year to the age of fruit-bearing trees to fulfill mitzvot concerning the ritual offering of fruit. With the destruction of the Temple and the end of the sacrificial rites, this holiday might ​have lost all of its significance, but instead it took on different and deeper meanings in medieval Jewish mysticism.  

Under the influence of 16th-century Kabbalah, Tu b’Shevat became a day that marked the renewal of divine energies through the metaphoric tree that links heaven and earth. The holiday came to be celebrated with a ritual meal modeled after the Passover seder. The earliest seder for Tu b’Shevat is “P’ri Eitz Hadar,” a 17th-century mystical text. All contemporary seders for the holiday have their roots in this anonymous work. 

P’ri Eitz Hadar” divides all fruits and nuts into three categories: those without hard seeds or shells, those with hard seeds and those with outer shells. The fruits of the first category are associated with the “World of Creation,” a realm that is so close to the divine source of reality that it requires no protection from the corruptive forces of the material world. These fruits and nuts are called “completely good.” 

The second category is associated with the “World of Formation,” an intermediate realm between the divine world and the world of material reality. The hard seeds in these fruits are a token of the internal hardness required to survive in such a reality.  

The last category is the “World of Making.”  “P’ri Eitz Hadar” explains that we eat the inside and throw away the outside of these fruits and nuts because their outer shells are the barrier between the profound mystical pleasures of the divine world and the dangers inherent in our worldly reality, which is filled with harmful urges and destructive temptations.

P’ri Eitz Hadar” says, “There is nothing below that does not correspond to something above.” The trees of this world and their fruit are more than they appear. They are the mirror image of the supernal tree that links the material world and the divine. The purpose of the seder, from the perspective of the Kabbalists, is for us to eat the fruits and nuts with the intention of reuniting them with their root in each realm. On this special day of the year, our ritual eating of fruits causes divine energy to flow through the tree, like sap rising in a sugar maple.

This is what Jewish mysticism refers to as a tikkun. It is not just “repairing the world” in the secular sense. Today, “tikkun olam” is used as a Jewish catch phrase for anything that helps clean the environment or improve public policies. While these are worthy goals, the tikkun of Tu b’Shevat is something different. We are meant to be actors in the cosmic drama of linking heaven and earth. We are meant to see our lives — complete with the personal shortcomings of our hard inner pits and our tough outer shells — as part of the drama that brings God’s presence (shechinah) into the world.

Tu b’Shevat is a day for each of us to know and feel ourselves to be a deeply meaningful and necessary part of the cosmos. Our intentions and actions help to gladden God’s presence and bring divine light and energy into the world. What an awesome thing to achieve by eating some apples, dates, figs and almonds! 

On this Tu b’Shevat, I wish for you the blessing found in “P’ri Eitz Hadar”:

“May it be Your will Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, that through the sacred power of our eating fruit, which we are now eating and blessing, while reflecting on the secret of their supernal roots upon which they depend, that divine flowing energy, favor, blessing, and bounty be bestowed upon them. May the angels appointed over them also be filled by the powerful divine flowing energy of their glory, may it return and cause them to grow a second time, from the beginning of the year and until its end, for bounty and blessing, for good life and peace.” (Translation by Miles Krassen.)

Chag ha’ilanot sameach! Happy Festival of Trees!

RABBI JEFFREY GOLDWASSER is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, in Cranston. He is the author of the blog rebjeff.com, from which this d’var Torah is adapted.