Etrogcello for Tu BiShvat

Remember last Sukkot? The sound of cornstalks rustling on the roof of my car as I drove slowly home from Renton's farmer's market. The trees on our hills still bright with fading leaves. Carrying my lulav and etrog out to the sukkah in the rain-washed morning, and shaking them in all four directions as I dodged the raindrops still dripping from the sukkah's so-called roof.

And then, when the festival was over, my reluctance to discard the beautiful fragrant etrogim. They had come such a long way to reach us, just in time for the festival! So I peeled them, and poured vodka over the thin shavings of yellow skin, and set them in a cupboard to wait in the dark. At first the shavings sat at the bottom of a bottle of clear liquid. Over time, some alchemy transpired. The liquid became golden, the peel ever-more translucent. Now, some months later, they have been transformed from this:

Etrog, sliced open.

To this:

Before decanting.

I open the jar and am washed with a heady wave of the scent of etrog. Surely smell is one of the most evocative senses: one whiff and I'm transported back to the day before Yom Kippur when I first lifted last year's etrogim out of their foam cradles and brought them to my face to inhale their extraordinary scent. Nothing else smells quite like an etrog. It's lemony, yes, to be sure, but it's more than that. Richer, sharper, more complicated. Over the years I've experimented with etrog preserves, but no jam ever quite captures the way an etrog smells -- the way it makes me feel -- when I first press it to my nose before the festival begins.

But this etrogcello comes close.

A few weeks ago I made a Splenda simple syrup and added it to the jar, then returned it to the darkness. Yesterday, Tu BiShvat almost upon us, I washed out two plastic bottles and prepared them for their new contents.

The 2012 vintage.

We actually still have a couple of tiny flagons of last year's etrogcello left over. It's not as bright or as pungent as this year's stuff, though it's still tasty. I brought some to our Simchat Torah celebration last fall -- after we danced the Torah scrolls around the Williams College Jewish Center, when the traditional schnapps and vodka were brought out for toasting, I added a wee bottle of etrogcello to the table. It was a surprise, a special treat -- a little taste of Sukkot although Sukkot had just ended.

But really the reason I make the etrogcello is so that we can drink it at Tu BiShvat. The New Year of the Trees; the birthday, according to Talmud, of every tree, no matter when it was planted. The date when (our tradition says) the sap begins to rise to feed the trees for the year to come; the time when cosmic sap begins to rise, renewing our spiritual energy for the welter of spring festivals ahead. How better to celebrate Tu BiShvat than with this pri etz hadar, this fruit of a goodly tree, which we so cherished back at Sukkot? It stitches the harvest season to this moment in deepest New England winter. It reminds me that everything which has been dormant can once again bear fruit.

Tonight at our seder I will raise a glass: to the memory of last Sukkot, to the anticipation of next Sukkot, to the trees which bore this etrog, to the many hands which brought it here, to the Source of All from whom all blessings flow. L'chaim!

A gorgeous teaching for this week: on Honi the circle-drawer

One of the stories we read at Tu BiShvat (the New Year of the Trees -- this Wednesday) is the tale of Honi ha-Magel, Honi the Circle-Drawer. Honi was a Jewish miracle worker during the first century before the Common Era, known for his ability to bring rain.

It's a fascinating story. The version we tell at our Tu BiShvat table, and the version I will teach to our Hebrew school kids next weekend, is only the kernel at the heart of the story -- the part having to do with planting trees for future generations. But the whole story is worth reading. Here's the story as it appears in Talmud; I've italicized the section we typically tell at Tu BiShvat, but I hope you'll read all four paragraphs.

Rabbi Yohanan said: "This righteous man [Honi] was troubled throughout the whole of his life concerning the meaning of the verse, 'A Song of Ascents: When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like dreamers.' [Honi asked] Is it possible for seventy years to be like a dream? How could anyone sleep for seventy years?"

One day Honi was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked, "How long does it take [for this tree] to bear fruit?" The man replied: "Seventy years." Honi then further asked him: "Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?" The man replied: "I found [already grown] carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me so I too plant these for my children."

Honi sat down to have a meal and sleep overcame him. As he slept a rocky formation enclosed upon him which hid him from sight and he slept for seventy years. When he awoke he saw a man gathering the fruit of the carob tree and Honi asked him, "Are you the man who planted the tree?" The man replied: "I am his grand-son." Thereupon Honi exclaimed: "It is clear that I have slept for seventy years." He then caught sight of his ass which had given birth to several generations of mules, and he returned home. There he inquired, "Is the son of Honi the Circle-Drawer still alive?" The people answered him, "His son is no more, but his grandson is still living." Thereupon he said to them: "I am Honi the Circle-Drawer," but no one would believe him.

He then repaired to the beit ha-midrash [study hall] and there he overheard the scholars say, "The law is as clear to us as in the days of Honi the Circle-Drawer,”"for whenever he came to the beit ha-midrash he would settle for the scholars any difficulty that they had. Whereupon he called out, "I am he!"  But the scholars would not believe him nor did they give him the honor due to him. This hurt him greatly and he prayed for mercy, and he died. Raba said: "Hence the saying, 'Either companionship or death.'"

That's from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ta'anit, page 23a. It's a bit mysterious, isn't it? The story raises more questions than it answers. First there's the oddity of Honi sleeping for 70 years, a kind of Jewish Rip Van Winkle. But how does the story flow from the initial quote from Psalms, "When God brought us back to Zion we were as dreamers"? And what can we make of the way this story ends? Everyone likes the theme of planting for our children, and with good reason, but there's far more going on here than just that.

Allow me to recommend a terrific commentary on this Talmudic tale. The essay is called The Dream of Exile: A Rereading of Honi the Circle-Drawer, [pdf] and it's by Rabbi Hyim Shafner, who serves Bais Abraham congregation in St. Louis. R' Shafner explores the parallels between sleep and exile, the value one can find in journeying, the importance of having dreams for the future, what it means to be a luminary for (and within) one's own generation or moment in time, the similarities between Honi and Moses, and the power of childlike prayer. Here's a taste:

Honi discovers that even if it were possible to eliminate exile and jump to the time of redemption, the price he must pay is the sacrifice of himself, of his own lifetime. One cannot go to a different time and still be oneself. We must be who we are, suggests this story in the Talmud, we each have our role in the universe. Whether to plant or to reap, to dream or to wake, to be in exile or to be redeemed, it is of no matter; one state is not less valuable than another, and both are interdependent. Being satisfied where one is, even if that means living in a state of unredeemed expectation, is as worthwhile as being redeemed, at least according to the carob tree planter...

This is beautiful stuff, and it illumines the story of Honi for me in new ways. I particularly love R' Shafner's assertion that Honi is a kind of mystic; he is like a child in his state of natural, unmediated closeness with God. Read on:

Part of Honi’s inability to comprehend the preparatory exilic state is that he is beyond it. In exile the Divine is mostly hidden and so we do not see our prayers immediately answered. But for Honi, there is immediate gratification. For him God is not in hiding, He is revealed to Honi and close to him like a parent. Honi is not bound by the limitations of the veiled physical universe. Though this Divine awareness is the source of his greatness, it also prevents him from relating to its opposite, exile — our people’s exile, its value and necessity. Honi’s despair in the face of exile/planting/dreaming results from his inability to fathom, and therefore experience, distance from the Divine.

The whole essay is very worth reading. Take a look.

For me, the most poignant part of the story of Honi is its ending. He is fundamentally displaced; the scholars of the future don't believe Honi's identity, and he becomes so inconsolable that he asks God for mercy -- which is to say, for death. On the basis of this, Raba teaches us that in Jewish tradition, companionship -- hevruta, friendship in which we learn with and from one another -- is so important that without it, one might die. That's a powerful teaching at any time of year.

We harvest from trees planted before we were born; we plant trees so that our children will have something to harvest after we are gone. This is both a literal and a metaphorical/spiritual truth. And this planting and harvesting connects us across the generations: as my grandparents planted seeds which bear fruit in my adult choices, I plant seeds for the grandchildren, and the students-of-my-students, who I may never know. But as important as these vertical intergenerational connections are, we also depend on horizontal connections in our own lifetimes. Our beloved friends, our study partners (both in Torah terms and in life-terms), keep us from dissociating from our lives as Honi ultimately did.

At this season of Tu BiShvat, may we be nourished by our deep roots; may we plant for our descendants, paying the blessing forward as it was given to us; and may we be blessed to experience the sustenance of friendship and hevreschaft, keeping us grounded in the here-and-now.

Three Tu BiShvat Haggadot (Tu BiShvat is on its way!)

The moon of Tevet is beginning to wane. It will shrink down to nothingness and then grow again. When it next reaches roundness, the date will be the 15th of the month of Shvat: the full moon of the deep-winter lunar month when, Jewish tradition tells us, the sap begins to rise again to nurture trees for the year to come.

Tu BiShvat is the (observed) birthday of every tree, also known as the New Year of the Trees. It offers an opportunity to take a journey through the four worlds of existence (action / physicality, emotions, thought, and essence) and to experience those four worlds and the round of the seasons through consuming fruits and juices with holy intent.

This is a holiday I didn't grow up celebrating, but it's become a favorite in my adult life. In south Texas where I grew up -- and in the part of the world where the Tu BiShvat seder originated -- trees are preparing now to bloom. Here in western Masschusetts, this time of year is usually characterized by ice and snow...though also by the rise of sap in the sugar maples, followed by plumes of sweet steam rising from sugar shacks all over the hills.

Back in 2006 I shared a Tu BiShvat haggadah here. (Hard to believe that was six years ago!) This winter I've had occasion to revise it. It now exists in three editions: one for adults and teens, one for kids in first through fourth grades, and one for little kids. We'll use each of these three versions of this haggadah at my shul in our various Tu BiShvat celebrations this year.

These haggadot contain poetry, environmental teachings from Jewish tradition, kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) teachings about the four worlds, and illustrations of fruits to color in. (You can probably guess which of these three haggadot is geared in each of these ways.)

And I share them here, in case any of y'all need a Tu BiShvat haggadah this year! Feel free to use these as-is, or to use them to spark your own Tu BiShvat creativity. (I only ask that you keep the identifying information there, and/or credit me for the editing / compiling / creativity.) May your celebration of the New Year of the Trees be joyful, meaningful, and -- perhaps quite literally -- sweet.

Tu BiShvat Haggadah for Adults / Teens [pdf]

Tu BiShvat Haggadah for Kids  [pdf]

Tu BiShvat Haggadah for Little Kids [pdf]

New Tu BiShvat tune from Nava Tehila

Just in time for Tu BiShvat, the wonderful folks at Nava Tehila (the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem) have released a new melody:

(If you can't see the embedded video, you can go directly to it here on YouTube.)

The text is Psalm 96:12: יַעֲלֹז שָׂדַי, וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ; אָז יְרַנְּנוּ, כָּל-עֲצֵי-יָעַר -- "Let the field exult, and all that is therein; then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy."

Happy new year, trees!

A Tu BiShvat mother poem for Big Tent Poetry: Taste and See






Next winter when you can walk
we'll make our way into the woods
at the edge of our land, trees webbed
with plastic tubing, clear
and pale green against the snow.

We'll go down to the beaver dam, pond
punctuated with cattails, and
I'll show you the rounded buckets
galvanized tin bright
against the grizzled trunks.

Dip a finger beneath the living spigot:
what drips is thin, almost tasteless, but
at every sugar shack across these hills
clouds of fragrant steam billow.
And after long boiling, this amber...

Where I grew up, the air is soft
already, impatiens and begonias thinking
about blooming. In these hills
as this winter moon waxes, this
is what rises, hidden and sweet.

This week's prompt at Big Tent Poetry invites us to write a poem about food. If you follow the Jewish seasonal calendar, and/or if you've been paying attention to recent posts here, you know that this week holds Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, which I will celebrate tomorrow by eating the fruits of many kinds of trees, from the etrog to the maple -- the subject of this poem.

The title is a reference to Psalm 34, verse 8: "Taste and see that God is good."

I haven't formally been writing mother poems since I finished a full year's worth of them at the end of November. I've been polishing and revising those poems into a manuscript, tentatively titled Waiting to Unfold, which I hope will see print someday! But this poem wound up being addressed to Drew, so I'm filing it as a mother poem even though it doesn't fit into that nascent collection.

I'll edit this post on Friday to include a link to this week's Come One, Come All post so you can see what others wrote in response to the prompt. Until then (and after then, too!) I welcome whatever response this poem calls forth from you!


A Short Haggadah for Tu BiShvat

Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, is this Thursday! I'll be celebrating it with the kids in our bar and bat mitzvah prep program at our synagogue, and have created a three-page "kitzur" (abbreviated/brief) haggadah for Tu BiShvat which we'll use as the roadmap for our conversations and our learning. I thought some of y'all might be interested in it too, so I'm sharing it here as well.

This short seder for Tu BiShvat includes some classical teachings about the day, morsels from Torah and Talmud as well as from other religious/spiritual traditions, a dash of environmentalism, blessings for fruits, and a specially-modified version of the traditional blessing which is said after eating snacks. This haggadah doesn't include the blessings over wine and grape juice -- we'll be doing this in a classroom and I'm trying to keep things simple! But maybe it will be helpful to you, so I'm happy to share:


If three pages sounds like more than you want to deal with (or more than you want to print -- save the trees, right?), and especially if you're psyched about the mystical/kabbalistic resonances of the seder's journey through the four worlds, check out the One-page haggadah for Tu BiShvat at On that page you can also find study materials, suggestions on how to use their haggadah, and a variety of other seasonal resources -- if you don't already know NeoHasid, by all means, check them out.

Alternatively, if you're looking for something longer and more in-depth, I posted a longer haggadah for Tu BiShvat back in 2006, which you can download from this post: A new haggadah for Tu BiShvat. But this year I'm excited to be exploring the shortened version; while I designed it for use with teenagers, I hope it will suit adults, too. One final note: this haggadah was written here in the snowbound Berkshires, so it reflects our seasonal experiences -- if you're in a different climate zone (or a different hemisphere), you may need to revise a bit on the fly!

Etrogcello, part 2

Back in the autumn, I posted about making etrogcello, a variation on the sweet lemon-flavored liqeur limoncello. Instead of being made with lemons, this is made with etrogim, the nubbled citrons of which we make ritual use during Sukkot. I based my attempt mostly on the recipe at When life gives you lemons: peeled the etrogim, set the peels to soak in a large sterile jar filled with vodka, put it in the dark, and waited.

We tasted a tiny bit of it back around the winter solstice (after it had been sitting there for about two and a half months), sweetening our individual nips with sugar or with Splenda. It was pretty awesome. It's bright and citrusy and smells distinctively like etrog, which is an amazing scent and not quite like anything else I know. Ethan liked it well enough that he asked whether we could finish the etrogcello with a diabetic-friendly symple syrup. So I did some digging to see if that would work.

On this limoncello recipe, one of the commentors, blgpts, offered insights on how to make limoncello using Splenda instead of sugar. (I also spent some time reading How to make limoncello, an astonishingly comprehensive post about the making of this liqueur. I'd like to note, for the record, that I was not nearly as obsessive about filtering as it sounds like that guy tends to be...) From all accounts, Splenda adapts beautifully to simple syrups. So I made a Splenda simple syrup and added it to the quart jar... and then returned it to the darkness of the pantry, to remain dormant for a few weeks more.

After I got home from my ordination, I decanted what was in the jar:

The fruits of my etrogcello labors.

The little bottles are meant as gifts (at least one is going to Jeff, who graciously gave me his leftover etrogim to work with) and the big one is for us. I'm planning to save it for Tu BiShvat, the "new year of the trees." We'll toast that new year with a nip of our own homemade etrog liqueur -- a reminder of Sukkot and autumn and our sukkah and the crunch of leaves underfoot, a reminder to look back to last fall and also forward to next fall even as we inhabit this moment in deepest midwinter.

I love (re)connecting Judaism with its seasonal roots. At the full moon of the month of Shvat, Jewish tradition teaches us, the sap begins to rise and trees begin to nourish themselves toward the growing season that's coming. Tasting the fruit of actual trees helps me to remember that this isn't just an intellectual and spiritual teaching. I love all the mystical teachings about the roots of the Tree of Life, but this isn't only a celebration of those things -- it's a celebration of real live trees and their continued existence, too.

Torah is famously compared with a tree ("It is a tree of life for them that hold fast to it"), but at this moment in the year I like to think about the ways in which trees are like Torah: they are beautiful, they nurture us with their shade and their sustenance, and even though they change in appearance as the year unfolds there's something constant and solid about them, something we can hold on to.

And Torah is yummy. Just like our etrogcello. L'chaim!

Plant an olive tree this Tu BiShvat

Tu BiShvat, the Jewish "new year of the trees," falls on January 20 this year.

This year, in celebration of Tu BiShvat, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America is joining Rabbis for Human Rights (the original organization, founded in Israel) to replant Palestinian olive orchards which were burned by Jewish settlers this past fall. (Read more about the destruction in Time magazine or the article A rabbi struggles to protect his Palestinian flock in the Independent.) A donation of $18 will plant an olive tree and a prayer. The following text will be attached to each tree, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English:

May it be your will, O God, who has made us responsible for the deeds of our hands, that this tree will live and grow and bear fruit in peace.

May You guide us in the paths of peace and give us the insight to see Your Image in every human being, whether Jew or Muslim, whether Israeli or Palestinian. Guide us all "to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with [our] God" (Micah 6:8) and help us realize that "we were not brought into this world for conflict and dissension, nor hatred, jealousy, harassment or bloodsheld. Rather, we were brought into this world in order to recognize You, may You be blessed forever." (R. Nachman of Bratzlav)

Olive trees are not only deeply symbolic (for scriptural and literary reasons we associate them with peace and with plenty) -- they're also a source of income for Palestinians and for Israelis. Torah instructs us in no uncertain terms that even if we are besieging a foreign city, we are under no circumstances to chop down its trees. ("When in your war against a city, you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them." -- Deuteronomy 20:19) The wanton destruction of olive orchards is a desecration. Here's a small way to make amends.

If you would like to plant an olive tree this Tu BiShvat, Download Plant a Prayer [pdf] and fill out the information at the bottom of the page, then mail it with a check to RHR-NA at the address provided on the form.

Tu BiShvat is on the way

A big beautiful conifer outside our house, flanked by birch trees.

Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, begins tonight at sundown.

Maybe not surprisingly, I haven't had time to collect any new resources for the holiday or to write any new holiday reflections or prayers this year. So I'll point you to the Tu BiShvat category on this blog -- feel free to look there for previous years' posts, including the Haggadah for Tu BiShvat I posted a few years ago.

My own celebration will probably be simple: eating some of the etrog marmalade I made last Sukkot, and maybe treating myself to pancakes with maple syrup -- the fruit of our most truly local trees, and the only local fruit which is currently in season!

Anyway, here's to the sap rising: to more sweetness and more life, to what has been brittle becoming more supple, to the promise of eventual spring.

Resources for Tu BiShvat

My friend and colleague Reb David Seidenberg has a beautiful post at The Jew and the Carrot today in celebration of Tu BiShvat (which begins tonight at sundown): Letting the fruit ripen: the blessings of Tu BiShvat. He writes eloquently about the earth-centered spirituality of the Tu BiShvat seder:

Unlike what we do now to our rituals in too many suburban synagogues, when the Kabbalists turned Tu Bish’vat into a spiritual celebration of the Tree of Life, they didn’t forget agriculture and the earth. Rather, for the Kabbalists, a fruit tree was both the ultimate metaphor and manifestation for both the Tree of Life and for the way God’s blessing is manifest in the world. It was and is an image of God, in the full sense of that phrase, uniting heaven and earth through its branches and roots, giving freely of its energy and gifts through its fruit...

Over at his own site,, there's a beautiful section of resources for Tu BiShvat, including a one-page haggadah, instructions on how to run a kabbalistic Tu BiShvat seder, and a blessing from the first published Tu BiShvat seder, the 17th century text Pri Etz Hadar ("Fruit of a Goodly Tree") accompanied by a meditation and instructions for how to use the blessing.

If you're considering having a Tu BiShvat seder tonight, I want to highlight what Reb David says at the beginning of his JCarrot post: this can be a seder which is "truly free-form and creative, without any rules about what we are supposed to do or say." The idea behind the seder is simple: to eat fruits and nuts, and in so doing, to elevate the act of eating into an act of consciousness of the divine flow which fills the fruits of earthly trees and which runs through the cycle of the seasons.

That said, if you're the kind of person who likes to have a written roadmap for your ritual experiences, here are a few. At NeoHasid there's a one-page haggadah and a double-sided study sheet featuring dozens of texts (Hasidic, kabbalistic, and midrashic), both available at One-page Haggadah plus more links. COEJL (the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) has a page of Tu BiShvat resources including a sample Tu BiShvat haggadah. And a few years ago I put online my own haggadah for this holiday's seder, which can be downloaded here: Haggadah for Tu BiShvat [pdf].

May our celebrations of this New Year of the Trees inspire us to treasure the trees among whom we live, to experience gratitude and joy as we eat of their fruits, and to become ever more conscious of the flow of divinity which connects us with the tree of life.

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Getting ready for the New Year of the Trees

There's always something a little bit funny to me about celebrating the new year of the trees when the trees where I live are leafless and resting quietly beneath snow. This year we haven't seen the ground since -- oh, sometime in the fall, I don't even remember when! It's been sparkling white for a while now. (My favorite kind of winter. If it's going to be cold, it should be cold and beautiful and crisp, like this.)

Much of the Diaspora literature on Tu BiShvat talks about how at this time of year the almond trees are blooming in Israel. (There's a glorious photograph of almond trees in bloom here at Israel the beautiful.) I grew up in south Texas, where trees will start to bloom soon; I remember the exquisite profusion of mountain laurel blooms in March, sweet as honey. So I can imagine trees flowering now...but only in another climate zone, another world. Not here in New England, where all is white.

But our tradition talks about this as the time of year when sap begins to rise in the trees, feeding them for the year to come, and that feels true to me here. (I just checked my favorite sugar shack to see when they're going to start their annual tradition of maple breakfasts; not this weekend, but next.) All around the Berkshires, trees will start sprouting tin buckets -- and their less-picturesque but easier-to-handle descendant, clear plastic tubing running from tree, to tree, to tree, to a basin somewhere downhill.

And the tradition names this as the time to remember our connections with the Tree of Life: with Torah ("she is a tree of life to all who hold her fast," Proverbs 3:18), with the divine emanations which stream forth into creation (which the kabbalists connected in an organic pattern called the Tree of Sefirot.) These resonate with me at this moment of deep winter. What better time to study the wisdom of our tradition than when we are tucked inside our warm houses like seeds waiting to sprout?

Honestly, I like celebrating the New Year of the Trees when the trees around me are dormant. It offers me a reminder that winter is finite. That spring is coming, subtly, in the hidden rising of sap beneath bark. The hidden rising of shefa, divine abundance, even when the world seems cold and inhospitable, when things long-hoped-for seem far away.

Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, falls on the Gregorian calendar this coming Sunday night and Monday. Read previous years' Tu BiShvat posts here.

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Tu BiShvat poem: Birch Magazine

In honor of Tu BiShvat, I offer a poem I wrote a few years ago at this season. (Any guesses as to which magazine I was, at that time, submitting a query letter? It seems obvious to me, but has evidently stumped a few folks, so I'm curious to know what comes to mind...)


A typo transforms my cover letter
into one aimed at an editor at Birch

and I find myself wondering
what kind of articles they publish there.

Rebuttals of that famous Frost poem,
perhaps, from the point of view

of the trees getting swung-upon.
Praise-songs penned on curled bark

and sent, ironed flat, via post.
Recipes for soda and syrup.

I imagine their mission statement:
giving voice to the thickets of saplings

rising slim and dark from snowy earth
heretofore considered silent, voiceless.

This would be their dormant period,
reading season, manuscripts considered

carefully before the spring rush
-- that heady upswelling

of sweet inspiration -- bursts forth
new pages that rattle in the wind.

I could offer something for their special
Tu BiShvat issue, a birthday song

for homes and synagogues worldwide
where we'll celebrate another ring

in every trunk, joining trees in traveling
from creation to essence, appearance

to ultimate reality,
holy roots to holy sky.

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ט’’ו בשבט שמח / Happy Tu BiShvat!

According to the Jewish way of counting, every tree in the world has its birthday today! At this full moon, the tradition teaches, the sap starts rising. Even though spring won't manifest here in the mountains of western Massachusetts for a solid few months yet, the trees are beginning to draw the sustenance they'll need for the coming year.

Though the holiday's roots are in an ancient tax system (whereby the fruits of trees could not be tithed to the Temple until they'd reached a certain age), Jewish mystics brought it to flower in a whole new way. They saw God as a tree Whose divine abundance flows like sap into creation, enlightening and enlivening all things. (We have them to thank for the custom of the Tu BiShvat seder, a ritual meal that's chock-full of symbolism, fruits, and nuts.) In our day Tu BiShvat is also an environmental festival, a time to celebrate not only trees but our obligation to care for the earth in which we are all planted.

For my part, I'm meditating today on the lessons we can draw from trees. My friend David sent me this quote, which I quite like:

In the Bible, as well as in later Torah literature, the tree is not regarded merely as a plant that gives fruit or provides shade. The tree is a symbol of life, and also the symbol of the upright man.  What impressed our sages was its endurance and tenacity.  The tree weathers all storms and yet keeps on clinging to the soil.  It suffers adversity, it is beaten by the winds and lashed by the rains, it is plucked bare in the autumn and snowed over in the winter.  Yet it does not wither away.  It retains its inner strength, and bursts forth into fresh blossom the moment the sun graces it again with its smile of spring.

For we know that it is in adversity that the tree collects its strength for renewed life.  Throughout the winter, the tree is not lifeless, even though it may appear so.  Beneath the crust of stem and branch, down below in the roots, hidden away in the soil, life goes on in undiminished intensity.

All the time, the tree is storing up new life energy and is replenishing its resources, to burst into full activity the moment Nature gives it the sign of spring's awakening: 'Gather strength through adversity, renew your life in times of suffering.'

That's what I was thinking about this morning as I breakfasted on an English muffin slathered with the etrog-ginger marmalade I made at the end of Sukkot. And I offer, again, a link to a Haggadah for Tu BiShvat [pdf] -- this is an amalgamation of two haggadot, one that I created and one that my rabbi created, and you're welcome to use it either as-is or as a jumping-off point for your own creative Tu BiShvat endeavors.

May we all know ourselves to be rooted, unshakeable; may we be able to find the sustenance we need to get through winter, on all levels; and may the light of the full moon bring us joy.

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Happy (belated) New Year, trees!

"Today is the full moon of Shvat -- well, it's not long after the full moon," I amended. "It's the full moon, observed." Everyone laughed. "Which makes it Tu BiShvat: the new year of the trees."

My synagogue's Tu BiShvat event was meant to happen last weekend, but we postponed it by a week because of the dire weather predictions. As it turned out, we hardly got any snow here last weekend -- I envied those south and east of us! -- but by the time we realized it was safe to be on the roads, we had already set up the phone tree to inform people of the new date. So, our Tu BiShvat event was today, and we gathered several families with young kids for a morning of activities followed by a potluck lunch.

We began by passing out apples slices and talking about apples: why we like them, why they're special, what it's like to pick them. We brainstormed the many steps in the trip these apples took from their tree to our fingers, and took a moment to be thankful for the apples, the trees, and everyone who made the apples' journey possible. Then, of course, we blessed and ate them. Mmm.

There were two kids' craft projects: making bird feeders (we talked about the animals who live in and depend on trees; the feeders will help our birds make it through the winter, and as an added bonus they're made from old soda bottles, exemplifying the value of recyling), and making family trees. (We had also planned a mock UN summit on the Brazilian rainforest, for teens and for adults, but it made more sense just to do the two workshops for the younger set.)

Then, my favorite part: the seder! We used the haggadah I posted here earlier this month. I edited a little on the fly, since our crowd was mostly smallish kids and parents (and some of the readings in there are a little heady), but I thought it went smoothly. As always, we took our mystical journey through the four worlds, drinking juices to match each world (and each season), and eating different fruits to match the first three worlds (the fourth world, essence, can't be adequately represented).

Home now, relaxing in the wake of a holiday well-celebrated, I find myself gazing out the window at the hillside behind our house, thick with the trunks and branches of bare winter trees. It's nice to think that no matter when each first sprouted, this full moon marks a new year for them, the time when -- according to tradition -- the sap starts to rise again, feeding the new year's growth.

As it turns out, one of my favorite seasonal markers coincided with Tu BiShvat this year: Ioka Valley Farm, the sugar shack nearest to our house, started to offer maple breakfasts again, as they do each year during sugaring season. I doubt they had any idea last weekend was the Jewish New Year of the Trees, but the synchronicity of it makes me smile. Today may be cold and windy, but in some deep way we've turned a corner toward the eventual coming of spring.

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A new haggadah for Tu BiShvat

Tu BiShvat, the Jewish "new year of the trees," falls this coming Sunday. The holiday has its roots in a passage in the Talmud, tractate Rosh Hashanah, about how there are four different iterations of new year's each year:

There are four New Years. On the 1st of Nisan is the New Year for kings and festivals; on the 1st of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of cattle; . . . on the 1st of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for Sabbatical years, Jubilee years, for planting and for vegetables; on the 1st of Shevat is the New Year for trees, according to the view of the School of Shammai, but the School of Hillel says, on the 15th of Shevat. (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:1)

Mainstream Jewish tradition follows Hillel in most things, so we mark the new year of trees at the full moon in the middle of the month. Out of the notion that trees have their own new year (originally used to mark the age of trees, to determine when one should begin tithing fruits to God and when one could eat of the fruits oneself) came an elaborate set of holiday traditions, up to and including a mystical journey through the four worlds. I love this about Jewish tradition -- we're forever expanding small texts in new ways.

(For more on the history of the holiday and its observance, check out some of my previous posts on this one: New Year of the Trees, posted in 2004, or Happy Shvat!, posted in 2005.)

I'll be celebrating at my synagogue, where we'll begin the day with a trio of environmentalism workshops for kids of various ages, and then proceed to a Tu BiShvat seder and potluck lunch. (If you live locally, you're invited; it's open to all, kids' program at 10am and seder at 11:30.) The custom of the TuBiShvat seder comes from the medieval kabbalists of Tzfat, who connected each of the four worlds with a season and symbolized each with a different combination of juices and fruits. Of course, our haggadah diverges a little bit from theirs. Call it a modern variation, based in tradition but not bound to it. I think our changes and additions are good ones. I hope you'll agree.

2006 Tu BiShvat Haggadah (.pdf)

Enjoy the haggadah. Feel free to use it, or to modify it, or to be inspired by it to create a haggadah of your own. (And if you do use it, let me know what you think, and how it works out for you -- I'm always happy to get feedback.) May Tu BiShvat be joyful for you and yours!

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The sap is rising

One of the suggestions my friend Charlene gave me, when I was preparing to spend my first winter in New England, was "grow lots of plants." She too hailed from south Texas, and understood how green-starved southern eyes can get once northern winter sets in. That was a long time ago, but the advice still holds true.

My mother is fond of noting that both of her Massachusetts daughters seem to have green thumbs. (Each of us plays host to a small forest of cacti, philodendrons, and aloes.) I'm not sure Mom understands that the array of houseplants isn't just decorative -- it's necessary. I love the winter wonderland outside my window, and the  fact of greenery in my home helps me sustain that love through the months of ice and snow.

Today I made a happy discovery: my orchid (I think it's some kind of phalaenopsis) is sprouting again. My sister gave me the orchid some years ago, after I led a Passover seder at her house.  We'd divided the labor in our usual way: I handled the liturgical end of things, and she masterminded the food and the guest list. As decoration, she placed a potted orchid on each table. Afterwards, she gave me one of the centerpieces, as a thank-you.

I drove back across the state with the plant in a cardboard box. It blossomed for months, but by Rosh Hashanah the flowers withered and dropped, and then the stalk turned dry and pale. I snipped the stalk off at the base and kept watering the pot. The big oval leaves pleased me, springing from their nest of pebbles and moss.

To my delight, the following spring the orchid sprouted a stalk again. I kept watering it, fed it occasionally, and once the stalk was long enough bound it to the same curved stake that the first plant had grown to follow. It rewarded me with a ridiculous abundance of snowy blooms, fuschia streaks at their hearts. I put it on my seder table again.

The following year, the pattern repeated. This year will be the fourth, which is why I've come to think of this plant as my Pesach orchid. (Kind of like my so-called Christmas cactus, though that one actually blooms at Thanksgiving.) Today the new stalk is about two inches long, with a green tip. I have hopes that it will be tall enough to bind, and maybe even flowering, by Pesach.

It seems appropriate that this tropical plant shows signs of life as we approach Tu BiShvat. The sap may not be rising quite yet in the trees outside our house, but my orchid is waking! Blessed are You, Shekhinah, wellspring of all life, who manifest in so many small and exquisite ways.

Happy Shvat!

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.

The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Tu BiShvat

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!

New Year of the Trees

Full moon falls this upcoming weekend, and with it comes the holiday of Tu BiShvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees.

My only experiences with Tu BiShvat growing up were of faithfully bringing a five-dollar bill to school to pay for the planting of a tree in Israel. Each tree could be bought in honor of someone. I was more interested in deciding whose name would go on the JNF certificate than in the actuality of the trees so many thousands of miles away. Once I left the Jewish Day School, I basically forgot about Tu BiShvat for twenty years. Deciding to play with the holiday as an adult meant beginning, as usual for me, with research.

It turns out that the Jewish year has four different New Years. Tractate Rosh Hashanah of the Talmud tells us, "On the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. On the first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of animals. ...On the first of Tishrei is the New Year for the years.... On the first of Shevat is the New Year for the tree according to the school of Shammai; the school of Hillel says on the 15th." Since modern-day Judaism follows Hillel in most things, the new year of the trees is celebrated on the 15th of Shvat, at the full moon in the middle of the month.

Originally, the day was used for calculating the age of trees for tithing. According to the Torah, trees grown in the land of Israel may not be eaten from during their first three years; the fruit of their fourth year must be tithed to God; after that, the trees can be harvested at will. To make accounting simpler, Tu BiShvat became the birthday of every Israeli tree; regardless of when a tree was planted, its birthdays were marked on the full moon at the middle of the month of Shvat.

In the sixteenth century, the disciples of Rabbi Isaac Luria developed an elaborate Tu BiShvat seder, in which thirty different fruits were consumed in an allegorical journey through four mystical worlds of creation, from the physical world of embodiment to the essential world of pure spirit.

Some Jews regard Tu BiShvat is a kind of hinge-point within the year, between the season of darkness (Chanukah) and the season of light (Passover). Some conceptualize the round of the Jewish year as a single long day, in which case Tu BiShvat comes around 3 a.m., an hour which is neither precisely night nor precisely morning.

Trees are a potent symbol within Judaism. In Genesis, Adam and Eve get themselves exiled from Eden by eating the fruit of the wrong tree. According to the Zohar, that tree (the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) was merely a branch of the Tree of Life until the first humans ate the forbidden fruit, at which point the branch split off and became a tree unto itself. In this teaching, tikkun olam (the healing of the world) means re-unifying the two trees into their initial, singular, state. In Deuteronomy, man is likened to a tree; in Proverbs, the Torah is likened to a tree of life. The Kabbalists of medieval years had a variety of ways of conceptualizing God, including the "sefirotic tree," an arboreal diagram of divine spheres through which holy emanations flowed into creation.

In the last thirty years, as the crisis of the global environment has become clear, many Tu BiShvat observences have come to have a strong environmentalist component. It's traditional to plant trees in the Land of Israel, which connects the holiday to the greening of that particular desert. Some conceptualize the holiday in a more local or global way, as a kind of "Jewish Earth Day," in the parlance of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

Tu BiShvat has become one of my favorite minor festivals. I like the custom of leading a seder in which different fruits and wines are consumed to represent a journey through the four worlds. It's a wonderfully strange holiday, and I'm glad I gave it a second chance in adulthood; planting imaginary trees in a faraway land in second grade didn't begin to scratch the surface of how cool this holiday can be.

In an alternate interpretation, suggested by a modern scholar of comparative religion, this weekend is not Tu BiShvat but rather Tuba Shabbat, when Jews worldwide bring our large brass instruments to shul to have them blessed before we use them to accompany the melodies of the morning service. I don't know about you, but I think a brass quintet in shul would be a lot of fun...