Divre Harav – January, 2023

Deuteronomy 31:30 describes the land of Israel as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” This phrase evokes the image of richness and sweetness of milk, cheese, yoghurt, and ice cream, sweetened with honey made from figs, dates, or sometimes made by bees. Exploring the nature of the land of Israel will be a part of the Tu Bishvat Seder that we’ll celebrate together with Temple Emanuel early next month (February 5, 5:30 p.m., at Temple Emanuel), which will also will explore the mystical/environmental side of Jewish thought and practice.

The Seder is based on the notion that we live in four different kinds of worlds. At the basic level, we live in the world of asiyah, action. This is a physical world ruled by the expected laws of nature, physics, chemistry, and biology. In the fruits of the Seder, this world is represented by nuts with a hard shell, representing a world in which the spark of God’s presence is hidden. It is also represented by winter, a time of year in which a great deal of life is hidden and dormant.

We also live in the world of Yetzirah, formation. In the spring, life begins to sprout. Transcending the physical world, this world encompasses emotion and creativity. This is represented in the fruits of the Seder by fruits with an inedible pit. The seed is the blueprint for the fruit. Contained in the seed is the excitement of new life. We can imagine what the seed will become, the life that will be born. This level is also represented by spring, a time when God’s presence blossoms like a sprouting seed.

Above Yetzirah, we find the world of Beriah, the world of creation. This is the realm of thought. We hold the concept of something in our head, we envision it, but we have not yet taken steps to put together the elements. This stage is represented by fruit which is completely edible. This is also represented by the warmth of summer, when living beings sense God’s energy. This is the feeling of the nullification of the self, when we feel ourselves to be completely aligned with God.

Finally, the highest world is Atzilut, the world of emanation. This space is dominated by the infinite God alone, which radiates its energy down through the lower levels. Rather than the taste of fruit, this stage is represented by the sweet or energizing smell of spices like cinnamon, rosemary or cedar, indicating that we don’t exist on this plane, but we can be aware of its presence. This stage is represented by fall, a time when we celebrate the fullness of the harvest.

These four world intersect with the the seven species of grain and fruit of the land of Israel mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8: wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranates, olive oil, and dates or date honey, foods typically eaten at a Tu Bishvat Seder. I hope you’ll join me, Rabbi Schadick, and Cantor Fair to celebrate Tu Bishvat with a seder and a light dinner on February 5, 5:30 p.m., at Temple Emanuel.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • hita – wheat
  • s’orah – barley
  • gefen – a vine (as in grapes)
  • t’einah – fig
  • rimon – pomegranate
  • zayit (shemen) – olive (oil)
  • d’vash – honey

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – February/2012 – Tu Bishvat

Tu Bishvat is a multi faceted holiday, actually quite complex. It is correctly considered a minor holiday, but like many such days, it has accumulated layers of meaning over the centuries. Religious Schools and the Jewish National Fund and Ecological Organizations have not done Tu Bishvat a favor by narrowing the focus to planting trees, recycling, and singing about planting trees (“maybe apple, maybe apricot”), thus obscuring the rich and deep meaning.

Tu Bishvat is first mentioned in the first century Mishnah.  The first Mishnah in the Tractate of Rosh Hashanah begins, “There are four New Year’s Days.”  The 15th of Shevat, or Tu Bishvat (Tu = tet-vav, tet = 9, and vav = 6), is designated as the New Year for the planting of trees.  Leviticus 19:23 prohibits eating the fruit from trees for the first three years after they are planted.  Tu Bishvat was designated as a somewhat arbitrary “birthday” for trees, so any tree growing before that time would automatically become 1 year old on that day.  This was important for calculating ma’aser, tithes. The day was chosen for a very practical reason, because in Israel, at least, it falls past the midpoint of the winter, just before the time that the fruit trees would begin blooming.

In the 16th century, Jews following a mystical tradition invested Tu Bishvat with additional meaning, and began to celebrate a Seder on that day drinking four cups of wine and eating different kinds of foods from the land of Israel, celebrating both the land of Israel and our desire for redemption and peace in the world.  They focused on three different kinds of fruits – those with inedible skins, those with inedible pits, and those that are eaten whole.  Each represents a different level of God’s creative energy in the world.  The Seder also focuses on the Tree of Life, a representation of 10 mystical emanations of God.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, as the Jewish National Fund was born, the Zionist movement was focused on rebuilding the land of Israel.  Tu Bishvat became a time to plant trees.  Planting eucalyptus trees was a way to absorb water and drain the swamps which were a major source of malaria carrying mosquitos.  Many of us remember the JNF blue boxes, and collecting money to fund the forests of pine trees planted around Israel.  In the late 20th and early 21st century, it has been recognized that some of the early efforts to drain swamps and plant non-native trees have damaged the ecology of Israel.  Thus, the focus of Tu Bishvat has added an aspect of examining the impact that we have on the natural world, and trying to live more in harmony with God’s creation.

Tu Bishvat this year is celebrated on Wednesday, February 8.  The Beit Sefer B’yahad/United Jewish School will hold a Tu Bishvat Seder for the students that afternoon.