Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tu BiShvat - A Short and Sweet Post to Celebrate the New Year for Fruit Trees

Tu BiShvat is coming - the birthday of the trees.  Tu Bishvat is an easy one to miss.  It's a newer holiday than most.  It doesn't come with special prayers or days off school and work, and it only lasts one day.  And as some of my students pointed out, why do the trees have a birthday, anyway?  Were they all born on Tu BiShvat?
But even though its easy to overlook, Tu BiShvat can be a sweet (pun intended) holiday, if you take the time to notice it.  There's fruit and grape juice and a celebration of Israel that has more to do with appreciating the bounty of the land than commemorating a military victory or escape from danger.  There's a moment for appreciating the blessings of creation in the middle of winter when we might be naturally more inclined to hibernate and kvetch about the cold wet weather.  And there's a call to consider our role as human beings in the natural world.  So, here's the Tu BiShvat installment of Yom Tov @ Your House.  Leave a comment with any other great traditions you have or, if you try something new, to let me know how it goes.

What is Tu BiShvat?  And why do the trees need a birthday anyway?

Here's the quick version of the long history of Tu Bishvat:

  • First - The Torah includes various laws about how we should harvest trees and fruit in Israel.  Things like tithing for the poor and for the priestly class that has no land of their own.  Things like bringing a portion of your harvest to Jerusalem to thank God and celebrate with community.  And things like letting the land rest every seven years.  Since these laws operate on a yearly cycle, its important to determine when that cycle begins and ends.  It's like a fiscal year for farmers.
  • We don't know for sure how this worked in the biblical period, but eventually the rabbis came up with more laws to clarify the ones in the Torah, and Tu BiShvat was established as the new year for trees.  It seems like a weird time, in the middle of winter, but in Israel, it's the point when the majority of the rain for the winter has already fallen and the first trees (the almonds) are starting to flower.
  • These laws became mostly irrelevant for a long time while the Jews were in exile and didn't live in Israel.  
  • Tu BiShvat got a new life when a group of Kabbalists, mystical leaning rabbis, in Tzfat in the 16th century created a Tu BiShvat Seder.  They saw three different kinds of fruit as metaphors for worlds of closeness with God.  Over the course of the seder, they imagined a spiritual journey through these worlds, to the final world, a world so spiritual there was no need for actual physical fruit.  We use their seder as a model for Tu BiShvat celebrations today, but outside of their circle, at the time, it didn't really catch on as a part of mainstream Judaism
  • Skip ahead a few hundred years to the modern state of Israel, and here's where Tu BiShvat starts to really take off.  Jews developing the land of Israel had a real stake in growing trees, and fruit.  They were developing a new agricultural society in the old Jewish homeland, and Tu BiShvat really resonated.  It became a time to plant trees, and to celebrate the seven species mentioned in the Torah that grow so well in Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates, as well as some others that have become popular, like the early flowering almond and bokser, carob which grows as a sort of edible pod on trees that grow well in Israel.  New Tu BiShvat seders celebrated the success of making the desert bloom
  • A few decades later, while many Jews were still celebrating Tu BiShvat as a modern Israeli agricultural holiday, the environmentalist movement emerged, bringing interest from a new group of jewish people, and adding yet another layer to this evolving holiday.  Tu Bishvat also became a Jewish earth day - a time to reflect on the wonder of God's created world and our responsibility to preserve it.  
  • Tu BiShvat celebrations today usually focus on one or both of the last two elemets, the state of Israel, and the environment.  

What can I do at home to celebrate with my family?

Have a Family Seder 

You can have a seder for your family.  It can be short and simple, like a special desert with a little food for thought.  All you'll need is some grape juice, both red and white, some fruit or nuts with inedible shells or peels, some with a single hard pit, and some that's good all the way through.  Here's one simple seder from the Grinspoon Foundation.  You can find a few different versions of environmental themed ones at the Canfei Nesharim website.  And this one from Hazon is very nice.

Talk with your kids about an environmental cause you care about

Use this holiday as a reminder to teach your kids about what you believe and what you care about.  Think of ways to start involving them in the causes you support.

Plant Something

It may be too cold to plant a tree here, but it's probably not too cold to start something growing inside.  I must admit, I don't have a great personal record on indoor gardening, but lots of people have better luck than I do.  Here's an article on how to grow parsley in your window.  If you start it now, it could just be ready to put on your seder plate for Passover.

Eat a Different Fruit

Maybe you don't feel like holding a whole seder with your family.  Even adding one fruit, something you wouldn't normally eat this time of year, can be a reminder of the holiday, and a jumping off point for a conversation about the environment, Israel or the changing seasons.  You could choose a fruit that grows in Israel and notice how different things grow there than here.  Or choose something that's out of season and figure out what it might have taken to get it from where it grew to your plate.

Do a Tu BiShvat Craft Project

There are so many great projects you could do wuith trees and flowers.  For a few great ideas check out Creative Jewish Mom.

Happy Tu BiShvat!

Tu BiShvat is this Wednesday night and Thursday.  How will you celebrate this year?