There is an amazing infographic floating around the Internet, created by jewish-kulindadromeus on Tumblr, which categorizes a number of Jewish holidays into four common categories: They Tried to Kill Us! We’re Alive! Let’s Eat! And….. Trees. This category confused and stunned people, but the truth is, trees are foundational to Judaism.
The New Year for the Trees, Tu Bishvat, is one of four new years celebrated within Judaism. The holiday itself honors the commitment between Judaism and the land around us as well as our obligations to care for nature as it cares for us.
There are strict laws regarding farming within Judaism, and when the Temple stood, farmers were not to eat the fruit of their trees for the first three years of their growth. Tu Bishvat celebrated the first time in which a person could eat from their treats and reap the rewards of their efforts–while still respecting the plants from which they are harvesting their fruits.
Not only was this in accordance with our tax laws, but it allowed the natural seasons of the trees to exist. There is some speculation that Tu Bishvat falls at the time of the first blooming of almond trees in Eretz Yisrael.
“The tree of the fields is man’s life." Deuteronomy 20:19
Tu Bishvat is one of four new years mentioned in the Mishnah, with the celebration of it being revived by Kabbalists in the 16th century with the creation of the Tu Bishvat Seder.
In the modern-day, Tu Bishvat has become "Jewish Earth Day" and is celebrated as an ecological awareness day. Planting trees, collecting trash and litter, signing petitions to save endangered lands and species, etc. This aspect of celebration is largely secular and is generally celebrated by observant and non-observant Jews alike.
Though there are many rather pedestrian reasons to celebrate, there are also spiritual reasons to do so.
Trees in Judaism
The importance of trees in Judaism cannot be overstated. In the physical realm, Judaism has long relied on trees. They appear time and time again within our sacred texts and mythology, but they play an even bigger role on a spiritual level. Firmly rooted in the earth but reaching towards the sky, trees are often seen as representative of the human spirit.
In Kabbalah, we see the Sefirot arranged in a tree, which we have dubbed the Tree of Life. The Torah has been given this name as "to all who hold fast to it and that it represents eternal life planted in our midst." This is in conjunction with the rods that hold the Torah being called "atzei hayyim" (trees of life) that are topped with pomegranates (1). It is believed that these are modeled after two pillars that stood in the Temple, which were carved from wood and topped with carvings of pomegranates.
It is traditional to plant trees at the birth of Jewish children. These trees can then be harvested to serve as the poles to uphold the Chuppah at that child's wedding.
Cedar trees are of special significance within Judaism--both used in construction as well as cleansing rituals. Other significant trees are that of pine, almond, fig, olive, and date, to name just a few.
Plant a Tree
Tu Bishvat has become "Jewish Earth Day” in many Jewish spaces, and people will often plant a tree in honor of the holiday. Whether you choose to propagate from a seed or buy a seedling to plant, planting a tree is a classic, joyous way to mark the new tree year. As you plant your tree, take some time to breathe in the moment. Trees play a huge part in our lives, honoring and thanking them is important.
If you want to go a traditional route, consider planting one of the sacred species I've mentioned above. As an added step, try finding the species of trees native to your area and planting them specifically.
During celebrations, it is customary to eat a number of fruits and nuts. As Tu Bishvat is on the 15th day of the month of Shvat, it is common practice in some Jewish communities to consume fifteen kinds of fruits. However, this varies by community, with others specifying a requirement to eat fifteen fruits outside of the seven sacred species which may also be consumed. However, as you build your Tu Bishvat rituals, it is up to you to choose what you include. For example, I am allergic to wheat and barley, so my ritual includes eating fifteen fruits, but not those specific sacred species.
List of foods include:
Pomegranates, walnuts, almonds, coconuts, pecans, olives, dates, apricots, peaches, plums, figs, carob, grapes, barley, wheat, apples, etrogim (citron), lemons, pears, raspberries, blueberries, quince, cherries, jujubes, persimmon, loquats, hackberries, pine nuts, chestnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, pistachios, and pecans.
Tu Bishvat Seder
In the 1600s, Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria created a Tu Bishvat seder by giving each natural resource a meaning. There are many Haggadot that can be found to guide you through your Seder.
The Seder is split into four sections, honoring four Kabbalistic ideas that connect Jews with the land: Assiya (Actualization), Yetzira (Formation), Beriah (Creation), Atzilut (Nobility).
“The world of Atzilut is purely spiritual and cannot be symbolized in any concrete way…Beriah is symbolized by ten fruits that have neither pits on the inside nor shells on the outside-that is, they are totally edible: grapes, figs, apples, etrogim (citrons), lemons, pears, raspberries, blueberries, carobs, and quinces. (Seeds are considered edible in this system.) [Yeztirah] has pits inside, but the outside can be eaten. Its ten fruits are olives, dates, cherries, jujubes, persimmons, apricots, peaches, loquats, plums, and hackberries. [Assiya] has an outside shell that must be discarded, and an inside that can be eaten. Its 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” (3).
In conjunction with each value, the Seder centers on four glasses of wine: white, white, and red (added to remaining white from first glass), mostly red (continue adding to your glass), almost entirely red, with only a few drops of the mixed wines*.
Then come four fruits, each in accordance with the four Kabbalist ideals. There is also the ritual aspect of handwashing, which many do with perfumed floral water like rose water.
Like a Passover Seder, some people choose to include four questions that specifically honor Tu Bishvat.
* For those not drinking, white and red grape juice is entirely acceptable--remember, your health (both mental and physical) takes precedence over consuming alcohol.
There is a Hasidic custom of praying for the perfect etrog for Sukkot the next year. Some people also eat etrog jam made from etrog of the previous Sukkot. others still will drink the liquor made from those etrogim.
Tzedakah (commonly translated to mutual aid or charity) is a deeply important part of Jewish spirituality. On Tu Bishvat, it is customary in some comunities to donate $.91 cents as it is believe that tzedakah can avert a harmful decree, and those specific numbers add up to the gematria (numerology) for trees (3).
How you honor nature is entirely up to you. Whether you choose to go sit in a park and draw, meditate, sing, dance, hike; How you choose to connect with the world around you is entirely in your hands. Here are a few ways that you can take the day to connect other than planting a tree, within accordance with your local COVID restrictions, of course!
Paint or draw in nature
Visit your local park
Go to a botanical garden
Visit a plant nursery
Hug a tree (seriously)
Donate to tree planting organizations
Cleanse your space using cedar, a sacred Jewish tree
As mentioned in my blog post on divination, the importance of discerning an answer lies within assigning value to the omens presented. There are many forms of divination that can be performed with trees. Some include inspecting the bark and interpreting the images and shapes found upon the tree. Another method is through the burning of sacred trees-as listed above-and interpreting the symbols in the smoke or in the pattern left by the soot. One can also choose a tree and inspect its natural state. How is it growing? Is the bark healthy? Does it have animals living in it? Are the branches strong? Does the crown intermingle with neighboring trees?
One of the aspects of trees that Jews so frequently honor is their steadfastness in their growth. Trees mature slowly, spreading their branches towards the heavens and their roots towards the center of the earth.
For a simple, grounded meditation, find a tree that calls to you. If you're unable to physically be with a tree, you can envision yourself standing, sitting, or lying with the tree.
If you are called to do so, you can burn cedar or pine cleanse your space before beginning.
Envision roots extending from your own body into the earth, mimicking the tree before you. Take the time to think of your own life. Where have you grown? What is the soil that you are planted in? What strong roots do you have? What roots of yourself anchor you to this plane? Think of the trunk of the tree-your present. What are the things that you are grateful for in your presence? What are you ready to grow past? Look towards the branches, what are you striving for? Think both spiritually and practically. Are you striving for good grades and a way of connecting with your ancestors? Do you wish to become a good baker and want to feel connected to your inner self?
There is no rush here. Trees feel no hurry to grow. Take your time to breathe with the trees. Feel the experience. If you feel called, say a bracha (blessing) in the moment.
And finally, don't forget to say a happy new year to each and every tree you see!
The Encylopedia of Jewish Symbols
The Jewish Holidays: a Guide and Commentary, Michael Strassfeld