JewishBoston.com: Tu BiShvat 101: The Changing Meaning of Trees

Originally published on JewishBoston.com.

Jewish holidays have a funny way of changing over time. New eras bring new significance to ancient holidays. Perhaps there’s no holidays that exemplifies this more than Tu BiShvat.

Tu BiShvat (which literally means the 15th of the Hebrew Month of Shvat) is also known as Rosh Hashanah L’Ilanot, or the New Year of the Trees. The holiday was originally something of a bureaucratic anniversary; the Bible prohibits using the fruit of young trees and the prescribes donations of fruit from mature trees. Tu BiShvat marks the date from which the age of trees are calculated for these purposes.

created at: 2011-01-13Of course, when the Jews were exiled from Israel, the rules about waiting for trees to mature became less relevant to a landless people. And with no Temple in Jerusalem, the rules about donating fruit fell by the wayside as well. So, to abuse an agricultural metaphor, the holiday lay fallow until medieval mystics refashioned the holiday as a Kabbalistic tour de force. Adapting the Passover seder to their needs, the Kabbalists of Tzfat gave the holiday a signature ritual, destined to confound Hebrew School students for generations to come. You can read a translation of their original text, known as Pri Eitz Hadar, online courtesy of the Open Siddur Project.

created at: 2011-01-13Fast forward a few hundred years to the 1800s and the advent of Zionism. As Jews around the world dreamed of returning to their homeland, the holiday celebrating its produce took on new significance. For many American Jews, the holiday will forever be linked with receiving the “little blue box” at Hebrew School to collect donations for the Jewish National Fund‘s efforts to plant trees in Israel. JNF celebrates this legacy still with its Tu BiShvat Across America campaign, complete with activities for kids, sermons from a variety of Rabbis, and haggadot for holding your own Israel-centered Tu BiShvat seder.

More recently, the holiday has become a rallying moment for environmentalists who extend its message beyond Israel to remind us of the importance of trees around the world. Hazon’s Tu BiShvat website emphasizes this take on the holiday, offering resources for celebrating the holiday through an environmental lens today.

Jewschool.com: Tu BiShvat Higia, Chag Hailanot!

Originally posted on Jewschool.com.

Early this week on Twitter, David A. M. Wilensky asked why people get so excited about Tu BiShvat. Two rather mundane but honest answers are that for those who are into Kabbalah (and I am decidedly not one of those), it’s a moment in the spotlight for their favorite elements of Judaism, and for those who are Jewish educators (and I am decidedly one of those), it’s a holiday that fills the dead time between Hanukkah and Purim.

Personally, I could take or leave the holiday. I like fruit as much as the next guy. Strike that. I like fruit more than the next guy (as anyone familiar with my biography and tendency towards bad puns can attest). But my disinterest in Kabbalah and unease with the ways the holiday has been claimed by everyone from Zionists to Ecologists make it hard for me to get a firm grounding on what the holiday might mean to me.

However, we all know I like food. And when Tu BiShvat falls on Shabbat, as it does this year, I love the chance to build a Shabbat menu around fruit. Back in 5763 (aka 2003), when I was in my first year as a full-time Jewish educator, Tu BiShvat also fell on Shabbat. The shul where I worked had a very successful monthly community Shabbat dinner event. I asked if I could take the lead for the month when the dinner would coincide with the so-called birthday of the trees.

I was met with some skepticism. “Our congregation loves the dinners as they are. We don’t want any programming,” I was told. “Don’t worry,” I assured them. “I’m talking about menu and decorations. You won’t even know that you’re taking part in a Tu BiShvat seder.”

Kids' PlacematHaving made the bold claim, and not entirely sure how I was going to back it up, I got to work with my partner-in-crime, Robin Kahn, then the synagogue’s family educator. We bought up every mylar tree that iParty had for sale. We made up vertical seder plates with four levels, representing the four Kabbalistic spheres the seder traditionally mentions. One set of plates was filled with the expected fruits (the top level being left empty, natch). The other filled with dips like hummus and olive tapenade, because we’re classy like that — and because it gave us a second set of surfaces on the table to which we could affix labels. A third set of four bottles of soda or juice (representing the color spectrum from red to white) gave us our third canvas. The labels we places on each level, each bottle presented all the information of the seder in small, non-threatening and non-invasive chunks. (And lest you think I forgot about the שבעת המנים, the seven types of grains and fruit grown in Israel linked to the holiday, we had crackers made of barely & wheat to complement the rest of the fruits & dips on the seder plates.)

Our crowning achievement was the placemats we created. They were double-sided, with one side aimed at kids featuring a word search, a Cosmo-style “What Kind of Tree Are You?” quiz, and more. The adult side included a timeline detailing the evolution of the holiday from the time of the Second Temple though today, some text about the mitzvah of baal tashchit, and the words to the song השקדיה פורחת. No one had to look at the placemats if they weren’t interested, but to load the deck in our favor, we set the table with transparent plates and cutlery.

Placemat for Grown-UpsThe dinner was a success, both from a culinary standpoint and an educational/programmatic one. Today I printed out a new set of those placemats to use this Shabbat. It’s weird to look back at something from so early in my career — I admit to going through and changing the way I spelled the name of the holiday (thanks, BZ!) (although now I noticed I missed a spot). But I’m still proud of the work Robin and I did. And today it serves as a reminder to me that Jewish education can touch even those most resistant to it if we approach it with a little creativity and a lot of office supplies.

If you’d like to use my placemats at your Tu BiShvat table this year, feel free! here’s the adult version and here’s the one for kids.