January 11, 2005
Today is the first day of the month of Shvat, which means it's only two weeks until Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees. Living in New England, as I do, I'm always a little bit amused by the notion that this is the time to celebrate trees and planting. (We're pretty snow-covered around here, and will be until Pesach.) But I like the rhythm of the year that tells me that we're moving towards spring, even if I can't sense it. The days still feel short, but they're lengthening. And tradition teaches that at Tu BiShvat, the sap begins to flow for the coming year. (This means it will be reasonable soon for me to start counting the weeks until sugaring season, when we can savor maple breakfasts at Ioka Valley Farm...)
I didn't grow up observing Tu BiShvat. It's a holiday I've come to know as an adult. I started reading and writing about it a few years ago; two years ago I celebrated it at home with a group of friends; last year I led the Tu BiShvat seder at my shul, after leading my first Shabbat morning service. That was an exciting day. (More about the cusom of holding a Tu BiShvat seder in a moment.) Every year I learn fascinating new tidbits: the month of Shvat is associated with water, and is a kind of conduit for spirituality. If we regard the winter months as one long night, Tu Bishvat is considered to be somewhere around three a.m., neither precisely night nor precisely morning. The reason why 15 in Hebrew is denoted alphabetically with tet-vav instead of yod-heh (e.g. why we call this date "Tu BiShvat" instead of "Yah BiShvat," and what difference that makes.) And so on.
Most of us associate the word "seder" with Passover, for obvious reasons. But seder just means "order," though colloquially it refers to a meal-centric home-based religious ritual with many parts. And increasing numbers of Jews are holding Tu BiShvat seders these days.
New-agey as the custom may seem, it's actually been around for a while. In the sixteenth century, the Lurianic Kabbalists of Tzfat established the custom of a Tu BiShvat seder which takes the participants on a journey through the four worlds. We begin in the external world of action, symbolized by fruits (nuts, usually) with hard outer shells. Representing the world of emotion, we eat fruits which are soft on the outside but retain a pit inside. In the world of thought, we eat fruits which are soft all the way through. And entering the world of essence, we eat nothing at all, because no food can adequately symbolize the infinity of being. All kinds of neat lessons can be drawn from this progression, which is also conceptualized as moving through the Tree of Life from roots to treetop. The four worlds also correlate to the four seasons and the four elements. This kind of dense, resonant esoterica is totally up my alley.
Like the Passover seder, the Tu BiShvat seder involves a haggadah. Of all the rituals I've written in the last several years, my Haggadah for Tu BiShvat is one of my favorites. Some poems, some teaching, some readings; bits of some of my favorite source-texts, plus some work of my own that I spent a happy while honing and polishing.
The holiday's in just over two weeks: plenty of time to stock up on some grape juice or wine, nab a few fruits in each category, and gather friends or family for a Tu BiShvat seder. Anyone who wants to use my haggadah is welcome to do so; you're also welcome to use my haggadah as a jumping-off point for crafting your own.
And if you're so excited by this that you don't want to wait two weeks, hey, you could also try Rabbi Jill Hammer's Rosh Chodesh Shvat Seder of Fragrances. Her ritual is parallel to the Tu BiShvat seder, but intended to be celebrated at new moon instead of full moon.
If you have questions or suggestions, let me know. May Shvat be a month of blessing!