The Meaning of Tu B’Shevat
The 15th day of the Jewish month of Shevat is the official “birthday” for trees in Israel. Calculating the years of a tree is necessary for several mitzvot of the Torah: maaserot—tithing [of each year’s fruit]; orlah—forbidden fruit of a tree’s first three years; reva’i—[redemption of] the fruit of a tree’s fourth year; and shemittah—the Sabbatical year. Tu B’Shevat is considered the beginning of the year for trees because it is the midpoint of winter: the strength of the cold becomes less, the majority of the year’s rains (in Israel) have fallen, and the sap of the trees starts to rise. As a result, fruit begins to form. (Fruit that was already ripe is known to have been nurtured by the previous year’s rain.)
The Tu B’Shevat Celebration
The Code of Jewish Law states that on Tu B’Shevat fasting and eulogies are forbidden, and all penitential prayers are omitted. One of the most important authorities, the Magen Avraham, adds (131:16): “It is the custom to eat many different kinds of fruit.” The almond tree is always the first to bloom . . .
The Kabbalistic celebration of Tu B’Shevat that originated in Safed involves eating particular fruits in a specific order [or seder, in Hebrew] and reading mystical passages appropriate to each of them. It was first recorded in Pri Etz Hadar, a 50-page pamphlet arranged by an anonymous student of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Ari (1534–1572), the greatest Kabbalist of Safed. Set out below are the first 12 fruits recommended for the Seder, corresponding to the 12 possible permutations of G‑d’s four-letter name, along with related verses and themes to focus on while eating, which we have substituted for the lengthy Zohar passages of the original.
1) Gather a bunch of Jews. Each one should help with the preparations, including researching something to say.
2) Buy as many different fruits as you can (see “30 Fruits,” below). Make an extra effort to obtain the 12 listed below in “The First Twelve.”
3) Also buy at least two bottles of sealed kosher wine: one white, one red (see below, “Four Cups”).
4) Bake (or purchase) cake or cookies, or anything tasty that is made primarily from wheat flour.
5) Set the table festively—tablecloth, candles, flowers, etc.
6) Be sure each participant knows which blessings to say before and after each food. The proper blessings are very important, and are printed in every Jewish prayerbook. (See “Blessings,” below.)
7) Begin by serving the cake and saying the blessing for it.
8) On this occasion, the blessing over fruit should be said over one of those for which the Land of Israel is specially praised (numbers 2–6 in “The First Twelve”), either the one for which you have a strong preference or the one nearest the top of the list.
9) The first cup of wine should be poured at the beginning (see “Four Cups”). You may recite the blessing and drink it between the cake and the fruit, or after reaching grapes (#4 on the list).
10) Have a good time, but don’t be too light-headed. This is a unique opportunity to effect awesome spiritual rectifications (see “Tikkunim” and “Blessings”).
The First 12 Fruits of the Seder
1. Wheat is the basis for our sustenance (see Psalms 81:17, 104:15, 147:14), but only after we labor to grow, harvest and prepare it. (Barley, although not included in the order of the meal, is one of the seven fruits for which Israel is praised. Often used for feeding animals. Its designation for the Omer offering inspires our efforts to harness our animalistic tendencies.)
2. Olives yield the best of their oil only when the fruit is crushed. Olive oil floats on top of all liquids. (See also Jeremiah 11:16.)
3. Dates are often a metaphor for the righteous (Psalms 92:13, Song of Songs 7:9), as the date tree is both lofty and fruit-bearing. Also, as the date tree is impervious to the changing winds, so too are the Jewish people.
4. Grapes can be turned into very different sorts of food (raisins) and drink (wine); so too, each Jew has the potential to be successful in some aspect of Torah and mitzvah observance, and to be special in his or her own way. (See also Psalms 20:4; Hosea 9:10.)
5. Figs must be picked as soon as they ripen, for they quickly go bad. Similarly, we must be quick to do mitzvot at hand before the opportunity “spoils.” (See also Song of Songs 2:10.)
6. Pomegranates, it is said, have exactly 613 pips, equal to the number of mitzvot in the Torah. Try counting! In any case, “Even the least of Jews are as full of merit as a pomegranate is [full of pips]” (see Song of Songs 4:4, 6:7).
7. Etrogim [Hebrew for “citrons”] are considered to be an extremely beautiful fruit, and are of great importance at Sukkot time (see Lev. 23:40 and commentaries). The etrog remains on the tree throughout the entire year, benefiting from all four seasons and unifying them.
8. Apples take 50 days to ripen. So too, the Jews ripened—and still ripen—during the 50 days from Pesach to Shavuot. And just as the apple tree produces fruit before leaves, so too do Jews perform mitzvot without the prerequisite of total understanding—“We will do, and [then] we will hear” (Exodus 24:7). See also Song of Songs 2:3.
9. Walnuts are divided into four sections, corresponding to the four letters of G‑d’s name [Havayah] and the four legs of G‑d’s chariot (see Ezekiel ch. 1). As walnuts have two shells which have to be removed, one hard, one soft, we too have to undergo both physical and spiritual circumcision (see Deut. 30:6).
10. Almonds signify enthusiasm in serving G‑d, for the almond tree is always the first to bloom. This is why Aaron’s rod sprouted specifically almond blossoms (Num. 17:23). [See also Jer. 1:11–12—be sure to catch the pun in the original Hebrew.]
11. Carobs take longer to grow than any other fruit (there is a nice story about this in the Talmud, Taanit 23a). They remind us of the necessity to invest many years in Torah study in order to attain worthwhile, clear understanding.
12. Pears of different strains still maintain a close affinity (see Mishnah, Kilayim 1:4).
Fruits grow because G‑d wills so; not to recognize this by (saying the proper) blessing is to put the entire Creation in jeopardy. (Pri Etz Hadar) Moreover, the blessings before eating help us to focus our minds on the vital energy and potential for elevation of the food, not just its taste. To eat without first pronouncing the appropriate blessing constitutes theft: not only is it taking without proper acknowledgement, it is depriving the world of the divine beneficence that could have been channeled into it by means of the blessing. To eat many different fruits on this day . . . is a wonderful spiritual anchoring . . .
Eating a fruit for the first time in its season is considered one of the appropriate occasions for the special blessing of joy, Shehecheyanu: “Blessed are You . . . who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.” Everyone should make an effort to have available a fruit over which to recite this blessing on Tu B’Shevat. (By the way, if both the Shehecheyanu and the blessing for the fruit, “borei pri ha’etz,” are being made over the same piece of fruit, most authorities state that the Shehecheyanu should be said first.)
Tikkunim (Spiritual Rectifications)
In Kabbalah, the flow of G‑d’s beneficence is called the “Tree of Life”: the roots, above in G‑d’s essence; the fruit, here below. By eating fruit on this day we rectify and increase this flow. (Pri Etz Hadar) The Ari teaches that while eating fruit on Tu B’Shevat, one should reflect on the sin of Adam and Eve (that they ate forbidden fruit), and intend to rectify it.
Rabbi Meir says: “The fruit of (the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) was a grape . . .”; Rabbi Nechemiah says: “It was a fig . . .”; Rabbi Yehudah says: “It was wheat . . .” (Talmud, Berachot 40a) [see there for their reasons. Notice that no one says “apple”!]
Rabbi Chaim Vital (the main disciple of the Ari) explained that there are 30 fruits which parallel the ten sefirot as they are manifest in each of the three lower [of the four] spiritual worlds, Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah. Beriah is far removed from the realm of impurity, and is represented by those fruits which are wholly edible: fruits with soft cores (such as apples and pears) and with cookable skins (like lemons and oranges) are considered totally edible, even if those parts are undesirable. Yetzirah is a lesser level of purity, and is represented by those fruits of which all is eaten except for a pit on the inside. Asiyah can be described as being the realm that we experience, in which evil exerts a powerful attraction; it is represented by those fruits which are enclosed in a totally inedible, protective shell.
Four Cups of Wine (Or At Least a Few Sips)
The spirit of the occasion requires drinking white wine at the beginning of the Seder and red wine at the end. Some are accustomed to drink four cups, parallel to Passover night. The first is all white, the second mostly white, the third half-and-half, and the fourth mostly red. Why? See the discussion of the Four Worlds in “30 Fruits,” above.
“A land of wheat and barley, and (grape)vines, and figs, and pomegranates; a land of oil-olives and (date-)honey” (Deut. 8:8)
Charoset (for the Passover Seder) should be made from those fruits to which Israel is compared in Song of Songs . . . (Tosafot, Pesachim 116a)
Rabbi Elazar would eat less and save money, in order to be able to eat all the new fruits on Tu B’Shevat.
We have a tradition from R. Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (the author of Bnei Yissaschar) to pray on Tu B’Shevat that G‑d should make available for us a kosher and especially beautiful etrog in time for Sukkot.
After Sukkot we fry the etrog that we used for the Four Species, and on Tu B’Shevat we eat it. (Likutei Maharich)
To eat many different fruits on this day and to recite various passages and praises while doing so . . . is a wonderful spiritual anchoring. (Pri Etz Hadar)