Tu b’Shevat

The popularity of Jewish holidays has risen and fallen depending upon the times and places in which we have lived. So too has the way we’ve celebrated our holy occasions. Tu b’Shevat is a good example.

“Tu b’Shevat” literally means “the 15th day of the month of Shevat”; and in the secular calendar it occurs sometime between mid-January and early March. It is the holiday of the trees and though it is not mentioned in the Bible, we know it was celebrated in Rabbinic times some 2000 years ago because the Talmud mentions it. (R.H. 1.1)

How it was celebrated back then remains murky. Apparently, it signified a new year for the bringing of tithes.  Centuries later the observance changed. In Ashkenazic communities, it was customary to eat 15 types of fruits on Tu b’Shevat with special preference given to the fruits of Israel. In the 16th century, in the Sephardic community, under the influence of the Kabbalists of Tzfat, the holiday observance was given specific form.  Nathan of Gaza created a Tu b’Shevat seder modeled after the Passover seder.  There were four cups of wine, special blessings, and everyone took joy in the bounty of the earth.

Today, the observance of Tu b’Shevat has taken off and it’s easy to understand why.  Vegetarianism, environmentalism, an increase in health food consciousness, and, of course, the reestablishment of the State of Israel with its subsequent interest in the land’s flora, have made the holiday observance ripe for renewal.

A Tu b’Shevat seder is filled with eating, drinking, and making merry, much shorter than a Passover seder, more of a delightful tasting party than a serious historical recollection laden with meaning. There is a progression of wine servings that mixes colors from the first cup to the fourth, starting with all white wine and ending with all red (grape juice for the children, of course) representing the change of the seasons. And there are blessings over many types of fruits – fruits with shells (e.g., etrogs, pomegranates, oranges, grapefruits), fruits with pits (e.g., dates, apricots, peaches, plums), and entirely edible fruits (e.g., figs, raisins, strawberries, apples, pears, carob), each type representing a Kabbalistic principle.

Imagine if God had created only one type of fruit. Yet the Creator of the world has given us many varieties. These are blessings without measure.

Above all, Tu b’Shevat is a time to enjoy these blessings!
Rabbi Katz