A number of years ago I experienced my first Tu Bishvat Seder. It was led by Claire Sherman at the Berkeley JCC. I loved it. It inspired me to return to my women’s group and start doing seders with them. Below is a seder we created. Copy, borrow, change. Have your own fun and focus. The translations are not always literal.
You’ll need red and white wine or grape juices, lots of fruit and nuts. A barley soup and a loaf of bread make for a good meal.
Why do we observe Tu B’Shevat?
When the Temple stood the tithing system included a 1/10th tax on fruit. The tithe could be given only on the fruit that had actually ripened that year. In order to organize the tithe there had to be an agreed date of the end of one fruiting year and the beginning of the next. Hillel chose to the 15th of Shevat, the date of an existing midwinter full-moon festival, at time when the sap is low and the trees are dormant.
Tu B’Shevat gained significance when a community of mystics in the town of Safed in the 16th century developed new practices for the holiday. The mystics became interested because one of the Kabbalists’ images of the S’phirot or emanations of God is a Tree. They envisioned God as a Tree of Life whose roots were in the heavens and whose branches extended toward earth, bringing life and blessing. The tree is a visual representation of the flow of Divine energy into the world.
“The S’phirot represent the dynamic aspects of God through which the creation of the world continually takes place – aspects that begin in the unimaginable, undiscussable Eyn Sof -the Endless One- and become progressively more in touch with the created world and with human understanding.” (Seasons of Our Joy) God is the Tree of S’phirot, and it is the ultimate flow of universal life that gives life to the whole palpable universe.
The New Year of the Trees is a holy time, an opportunity to partake of the fruit of the trees and a time to thank God for the wonder of renewed life for the universe. The mystics taught that “saying blessings over the fruits would help to release the holy sparks of life-flow in them. Moreover, actually chewing the fruit would have an even more profound effect–since we have 32 teeth, and the word Elohim, God, appears 32 times in the story of creation. Instead of hoarding the holy sparks on earth, the person who joins in the Seder would be returning them to the Creator, to the Tree of Life–to keep the life-flow going.” (Seasons of Our Joy)
We shall go out in joy and be lead forth in peace.
The mountains and the hills will break forth before us.
There will be shouts of joy and all the trees
of the field will clap, will clap their hands,
The trees of the field will clap their hands as we go out in joy.
For the Holy One brings you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from hills and valleys; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.
On Tu B’Shevat we endeavor to eat of each of the seven species.
It is said, if the Messiah comes while you are planting a tree, you should first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the Messiah.
Baruch ata, Adonai Eloheinu, melech ha olam, oseh ma-asei vereishit.
Blessed art thou Creator of the universe who continually does the work of creation.
Praise God, O my Soul; My God, You are very great;
You are clothed in glory and majesty, wrapped in a robe of light.
You spread the heavens like a tent cloth.
You set the rafters of Your lofts in the waters.
You make the clouds of Your chariot move on the wings of the wind.
The trees of the Holy One drink their fill, the cedars of Lebanon, God’s own planting,
Where birds make their nests; the stork has her home in the junipers.
Eli, Eli by Hannah Senesh
She-lo y’gamer l’olam
Rish-rush shel ha-mayim
Eli, my God
I pray that these things never end
The sand and the sea
The rush of the waters
The crash of the heavens
The prayer of the heart.
According to Kabbalah there are four worlds or levels of creation. The fourth and highest level, atzilut, “emanation,” is spiritual and beyond concrete representation. The third is beriah, “creation,” (creation by God only) and is symbolized by ten fruits that have neither pits on the inside or shells on the outside — that is they are totally edible: grapes, figs, apples, carobs, pears, etrogim, lemons, quinces, raspberries, and blueberries. (Seeds are considered edible in this system.) The second level is yetzirah, “formation,” (creation by human beings) and is represented by fruit that has pits inside, but the outside can be eaten. Its ten fruits are olives, dates, cherries, jujubes, persimmons, apricots, peaches, loquats, plums, and hackberries. The bottom level is assiyah, “action,” our world of physical reality. This level is represented by fruit with an outer protective shell and a soft, edible inside. The ten fruits and nuts are pomegranates, walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, coconuts, Brazil nuts, pistachios, and pecans. The symbolism, in brief, is as follows: those parts that can be eaten represent holiness; the inedible parts, that is, the pits, represent the impure; and the shells serve as protection for the fragile holiness inside.
THE FIRST CUP: WHITE WINE
Our first cup of wine is white, symbolizing the Winter. We are still in the dormant months, awaiting spring and rebirth. Now the sap is low in the trees. Trees are pruned now because their life source is hidden deep within; their cuts will not bleed. As trees now lie dormant, some people are dormant. Though they are physically alive, they do not draw nourishment from the Divine, nor do they share the divine sparks.
Brucha at Shechina, hay ha-olamim, boreit pri hagafen.
Blessed are you, Holy One, Source of all life, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Recite the Shehehiyanu
ASSIYAH – the first level of fruit
The lowest level of physical creation is Assiyah, (action, physical reality). For Assiyah we eat nuts and fruits with a tough skin or shell to remind us of the protection the earth gives. A shell can also isolate or separate us from others. We acknowledge that we need protection in life, both physical and emotional. We struggle to remove the walls that separate us from receiving what we want and need. We bless our internal defense systems and seek a strength that allows vulnerability.
The ten fruits of assiyah are: pomegranates, walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, coconuts, Brazil nuts, pistachios, and pecans.
I said to the almond tree: Sister, speak to me of God. And the almond tree blossomed. (N. Kazantzakis)
The word for almond in Hebrew comes from the root word to “watch” or “wake.” The almond tree is among the first to awaken out of the winter sleep.
Baruch ata Adonai Elohaynu melech ha-olam boray pri ha-etz.
Blessed are you, Shechina, Source of life, Creator of the fruit of the tree.
(Almonds are eaten)
Rabbi Tarfon likened the people of Israel to a pile of walnuts. If one walnut is removed, each and every walnut in the pile will be shaken. When a single Jew is in trouble every other Jew is shaken and affected.
(Avot de Rabbe Natan 18)
(Walnuts are eaten)
I went down to the nut garden,
to see the young plants
growing by the stream,
to see if the vine has blossomed,
if the pomegranate has bloomed.
(Song of Songs 6:11)
On seeing trees blooming for the first time in the year:
Brucha at Yah, ruach ha-olam, shelo cheser b’olama davar, uvara vo briyot tovot v’ilanot tovim l’hanot bahem b’nai u’vanot adam.
Blessed art thou, Queen of the Universe, who has withheld nothing from this world and has created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees in it, so that we may delight in them.
Hinei Ma Tov (from Psalm 133)
Hinei ma tov u’ma nayim
Shevet nashim gam yachad
How good, how pleasant it is
To sit here, women together.
THE SECOND CUP: PINK WINE
Our second cup of wine is white, but tinged with red. It symbolizes the beginnings of springtime and the earth’s reawakening. The trees nestled on the breast of earth begin to draw nourishment through their roots. Their branches bear the tight buds like promises. Some people have a sense of discomfort, an awareness the life is not fulfilling, but they have trouble receiving or giving comfort. Yet there is hope because there is some awareness.
Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, borei pri hagafen.
Blessed are you, Holy One, Source of all life, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
YETZIRAH – the second level of fruit
The second level is Yetzirah (formation). The Kabbalists viewed this as a more sturdy form of creation; it is represented by fruits with pits. Is this inner seed a sheltered potential for procreation or a hard, resistant heart? The ten fruits are olives, dates, cherries, jujubes, persimmons, apricots, peaches, loquats, plums, and hackberries.
Our boughs shall spread out far,
Our beauty shall be like the olive tree’s,
Our fragrance like that of Lebanon.
(interpreted from Hosea 14:7)
Brucha at Yah, makor ha-olam, boreit pri ha-etz.
Blessed are you, Holy One, Source of Life, Creator of the fruit of the tree.
(olives are eaten)
Deborah used to sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would come to her for decisions.
The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree; They will grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
Planted in the House of God, they flourish in the courts of our Creator.
(dates are eaten)
It is said that in King Solomon’s palace there was a room painted with murals showing apricot trees in full bloom. Their fruit was so golden and lifelike that guests could smell their sweet aroma as soon as they entered. Known as “golden apples,” apricots were first brought to the Middle East from Armenia at the time of Noah.
(from The Jewish Holiday Kitchen) (apricots are eaten)
THE THIRD CUP: LIGHT RED WINE
We lift our cups a third time with rose colored wine representing spring with its promise of bounty. Lilies, roses, poppies, strawberries, melons, color and life surge from the earth. The leaves are opening now; trees are covered with sprays of bright green. Spring fever, that wild, exhilarating sense of joy flows through us.
Brucha at Yah, hay ha-olamim, boreit pri hagafen.
Blessed are you Shechina, Source of all life, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
BERIAH – the third level of fruit
The third level, “creation,” is symbolized by ten fruits that are totally edible: grapes, figs, apples, carobs, pears, etrogim, lemons, quinces, raspberries, and blueberries.
As human beings, struggling to survive whole in a world which often seems antagonistic to our integrity, we can develop hard shells to protect our inner core. Although we survive as individuals within our shells, we remain partly hidden and cut off from each other, and touching one another takes the patient effort of separating the protective layer from the inner core while keeping the core intact. We can also be more like the fruit of the second world, available up to a point, but withholding our innermost part, perhaps needing a secret toughness to keep from collapsing under the pressure.
But in our most precious relationships, we are most like the fruit which can be taken whole, available to each other in every aspect and facet of our personalities, and strong in a way which does not cut any part of us off from each other. When we look at each other it is with complete openness and with complete acceptance.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more.
But they shall sit every woman under her vine and under her fig-tree;
And none shall make them afraid.
Why were the words of the Torah compared to the fig tree? The fruit of the fig tree does not ripen all at once. The more one searches, the more figs one finds in it. So it is with the words of the Torah. The more one studies them, the more relish one finds in them.
Brucha at Shechina, makor ha-olam, boreit pri ha-etz.
Blessed are You, Shechina, Source of Life, Creator of the fruit of the tree.
(figs are eaten)
One day Choni, the righteous man, saw an old man planting a carob tree. He asked him, “how long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” the old man replied. “But you are so old you will never taste the fruit,” said Choni. “You are right, but I have eaten the fruit of trees that were planted by my grandfather and I plant this tree for my grandchildren.”
Choni sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept, a rocky formation enclosed him and hidden from sight, he continued to sleep for 70 years. When he awoke, he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and he asked him, “Are you the man who planted the tree?” The man replied, “No, I am his grandson.”
(carob is eaten)
Like a lily among the thorns,
So is my love among the maidens.
Like an apple tree among trees of the forest,
So is my beloved among the youths.
(apple is eaten)
Brucha at Shechina, makor ha-olam, asker kiddishatnu b’mitzoteha v’tzivatnu at n’tilat yadayim.
Blessed are You, the Divine Presence, Source of creation, whose sacred energy flows through our hands and connects us, one with another.
Baruch ata, Adonai, Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz.
Blessed are You, the Divine Presence, Source of all life, who brings forth bread from the earth.
THE MEAL IS SERVED
ATZILUT – the fourth level of creation
The highest Kabbalistic category of creation is spiritual and cannot be represented by physical food. Atzilut deals with the Holy One’s love, mercy, wisdom and other essential and omnipresent realities which we perceive with our heart rather than with the five senses. We bring this realm into the world when we express the qualities of love and compassion to each other.
A symbol for this spiritual level is flowers and spices.
Brucha at Yah, hay ha-olamim, ha-notenet rei-ah tov ba-perot.
We praise You, the Divine Presence, who gives a pleasant fragrance to fruits.
THE FOURTH CUP – DEEP RED WINE
We fill our cups a fourth and final time with blood red wine. This vital color represents the fullness of summer when blossoms have born fruit. The trees’ branches are hidden in masses of leaves, leaves in every shade of green. The older the tree, the more it is valued. It provides more fruit, more shade. It stands strong and gnarled on the breast of the earth, roots deep in the foundations of the soil, branches offering broad shelter. So too can old women and men offer a calm perspective, wise guidance and loving compassion.
As a white candle
in a holy place,
So is the beauty
Of an aged face.
(The Old Woman by Joseph Campbell)
Brucha at Yah, hay ha-olamim, boreit pri hagafen.
Blessed are You, Holy One, Source of all life, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Oseh shalom bimromav
Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu
V’al kol Yisrael
v’al kol Yisrael.
May the One who makes peace in the heavens
Grant peace to us
And to all the people Israel
And let us say, Amen.
Lo alecha ha-m’lacha ligmor v’lo ata ven chorin l’habatel mimena.
It is not your duty to complete the work, neither are you free to desist from it.