Tu B’Shvat, Jewish Arbor Day, is a patch of green in the chilly winter ennui. This year, the holiday falls on Feb. 3, and is a celebration of the gifts of trees — and if you consider Kabbalistic interpretations, ever-renewing life.
One of the four renewal or “new years” of the Jewish tradition, Tu B’Shvat (literally “the 15th day of the month of Shvat”) marks the date from which biblical agricultural tithing, both for the priestly classes as well as to the needy, was traditionally tallied. Giving is still integral to the holiday and in 20th-century America that took on new meaning. Families added money to their pushke, the pale blue metal charity box, earmarked for planting trees in Israel.
But the holiday’s roots run deeper than collecting money to plant trees. For centuries, Tu B’Shvat’s renewal is personal as well as environmental: The fruits are symbolic for reaching higher levels on the tree of knowledge.
The traditional food is fruit
When I taught Hebrew school, I told my youngest charges that the holiday is the birthday for trees and taught them “Oh, Beautiful” instead of liturgical songs. I brought in dried fruits, the most traditional Ashkenazi treat.
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A few tentatively tasted the dried tart apricots, peaches, and apples. They couldn’t have been less happy looking at a prune, no matter how many times I explained that it was a just plum. My own children were a bit more open to the fruits, but then again, they’ve always eaten from my kitchen.
Later, after a tour in culinary school, I taught adults and teens, and I upped the ante, handing out chocolate-dipped glaceed fruits, fruit gel treats — and baby babka bites studded with modern dried fruits like strawberries and tart cherries, and bursting with cardamom, cinnamon and anise.
It was an unmitigated success, and I now make baby babka bites for the holiday every year.
Deeper meanings of fruits
Many Jewish holidays foods have distinct symbolic value. The Kabbalists imbued fruit with deeper meanings on Tu B’shvat that remain today.
The expulsions of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the end of the 15th century disbursed a large, vibrant, intellectual community. This was long before the orthodox, conservative or reform movements and even Hassidism with its mystical elements, had taken root. The expelled Iberian Jews carried their Middle Age mysticism with them as they settled around the globe, but particularly in Sefad (Tsaft) in Ottoman Palestine/Israel, which became the seat of the movement.
That mysticism, or Kabbalistic thought, is the study of the infinite and the finite (or mortal). It delves beyond apparent meanings, past simple allegories and rules and searches for secret hidden connections, and is often diagrammed as the tree of knowledge, with branches to climb to reach spiritual higher orders.
The tree and its fruits are the overarching metaphor used to elucidate the nexus of the spiritual and physical worlds. It is not surprising then that the 16th century’s leading Kabbalistic sage, teacher and mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria, sought greater meaning than simply enjoying fruits for Tu B’Shvat. To celebrate the holiday, a Seder service was created that focuses on renewal and personal growth, and assigned symbolic value to fruits.
Tu B’shvat Seders and other modern celebrations
Today, it is common to see Kabbala-inspired Tu B’Shvat seders held as a women’s Seder, often vegan or vegetarian – where notions of fertility, renewal and life cycles are discussed in depth. For those who do not participate in a formal seder, this holiday is an opportunity to focus on the environmental component of the day and renew their pledge for composting and planting. Jewish Food scholar Joan Nathan takes the opportunity to teach children about sustainability and food traditions on Tu B’Shvat.
Judaism, in practice and theology, has always been affected by the world around it. What I do has evolved too. Although highly specific cooked food traditions for Tu B’Shvat are rare — there is no matzo ball or cheese blintzes — fruit is always on the table, Seder or not.
I do what I do every day on Tu B’shvat — I cook, write and teach. But I also donate to shelters and food banks as my green-tinged celebration. The benefit of the celebrations is spiritual nourishment. That is the gift I receive. And I give back, just like the song I taught, from “tree to shining tree.”
Main photo: Baby babka bites are a new twist on fruit-filled babka — perfect for brunch, breakfast or lunch. Credit: @TheWeiserKitchen