The hidden awakening of Tu b’Shevat


In the dead of winter, the full moon of Shevat rises and whispers the promise of Spring. It is called “Rosh Hashanah of the Tree,” because it marks the very beginning of the fruit growing process. Beneath rough lifeless bark, there is a hidden awakening. The sap rises from the roots and nurtures the growth of baby leaves and flowers. Although Tu b’Shevat comes early this year, it often coincides with the beginning of maple sugaring season in New England. On Tu b’Shevat we chant blessings upon fruits of the tree (borei p’ri ha’etz) and practice eating more mindfully. There are four cups of wine, one for each season of the year (white, pink, red and dark red). During the seder, we also “eat” from the Tree of Life by studying the Torah of trees. The Torah is called a Tree of Life because just as trees sustain us with food, shelter, fire, tools, medicine and oxygen, so too, the Torah sustains us spiritually, connecting us to the Source of Life.

People often ask me, “Rabbi, with all the assimilation and intermarriage, aren’t you worried about the future of the Jewish people?”

“I used to worry about this,” I tell them, “but now I stand by the prophet Isaiah who said, ‘Like the days of a tree shall be the days of my people….’ ” When winter approaches, leaves are shed and sap sinks down into the roots. Many trees appear to be dead for several months, yet we never doubt that the sap will rise again come spring. And so the prophet said, “Like the days of a tree shall be the days of my people.”

On the Shabbat before Tu b’Shevat, we read about our narrow escape from Pharoah’s army after 400 years of exile in Egypt. As we marched through the sea on dry land we were transformed from a scattered band of slaves into a holy and mighty nation. When we reached the other side safely, we all burst into song and dance together as if it were some kind of Jewish musical! Since then, our people have lived through countless cycles of death and rebirth. Through it all, the holiday Tu b’Shevat has been, “like a bonsai tree that helps us see in miniature the broader shape of contemporary Jewish renewal” (Nigel Savage, director of Hazon).

In ancient Israel, Tu b’Shevat marked the beginning of a new tithing year for fruit trees. But when the Holy Temple was destroyed, Tu b’Shevat went underground, like a seed waiting to be germinated. In 1492, hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from Spain. The center of Jewish mysticism was transplanted to the hills of northern Israel. The Spanish Kabbalists developed a Tu b’Shevat seder with prayers and intentions to increase the flow of “sap” in the great cosmic “Tree of Life.” Hundreds of years later it was the early Zionists, who revived Tu b’Shevat as a way to celebrate our renewed connection to the Land of Israel.

The fourth and most recent flowering of Tu b’Shevat came with the emergence of Jewish Environmental Education and the new Jewish Food Movement. Jewish communities around the country are now being transformed and renewed by JOFEE, Jewish Outdoor Food and Environmental Education. If you want to hear more, please join us on Sunday Feb. 7 at 10:30 a.m. at Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich. We will make cheese from scratch with local dairy farmer, Glenn Katz, and have a lecture/discussion on the new Jewish Food Movement with Jewish farm educator Stephen Sherman. You can also go to Hazon is the umbrella organization for Jewish Outdoor Food and Environmental Education initiatives worldwide.

May it be a Shanah Tovah, a good and sweet New Year for the trees and for all of us whose lives depend on them. Tu b’Shevat samech – Happy Tu b’Shevat!

AARON PHILMUS is rabbi of Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich.