The Tu B’shvt Seder: Insights into Living and Drawing down Blessings
By Ariella Bracha Waldinger
The festival of Tu B’Shvt, the “New Year of the Trees,” began at sundown on Tuesday, Feb. 3rd, 2015. The original purpose of Tu B’Shvt was solely related to the land of Israel and its laws of tithing fruit and orlah during Temple times. Rashi explains, the Land of Israel is not like any other land: it is HaShem’s special Holy Land and has an entire array of special commandments that must be observed in the land, and nowhere else. Many of the commandments deal with trees and their fruit. However, since we are without the holy Temple, and cannot perform the special commandments, we celebrate the festival in a different way.
The Kabbalists of Tzfat, in the northern region called the Galilee, established a special “Seder” in the 1500’s. The meal is similar in structure to the Passover Seder and involves drinking 4 cups of wine (or at least taking a few sips). The mixture of red wine and white in the four successive cups is likened to the progression of seasons from winter white to the full red of autumn. They also relate to the four spiritual realms described in the Kabbalah. The most important part of the ceremonial meal is partaking of the seven species for which the land of Israel is praised: wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, grapes, olives, and date-honey or dates. The celebration also involves eating particular fruits in a specific order (Seder) and reading mystical passages which relate to the inner meaning of the day itself, the fruits and the Land.
One of the most important Rabbinic authorities, the Magen Avraham states that it is the custom to eat many different kinds of fruit on this festival. Some say it is recommended to eat a minimum of 12 fruits as the number 12 corresponds to 12 permutations of G-ds four-letter name. Others teach, we should eat 15 and some say 30. Whichever number you choose, remember, by eating fruit on this day, we can rectify the sin of Adam and Chava, who ate the forbidden fruit. Tu B’Shvt has the ability to repair one’s eating for the entire year since the spiritual fall of Adam and Chava came about through impulsively eating from a tree. Partaking of the different fruits and eating them with mindfulness, enables us to create a spiritual elevation and expansion which creates holiness.
Fruits grow because G-d wills it. Fruits add flavor, color, variety and fragrance to our lives. They awaken our senses. They remind us that the journey of life is full of joy and spiritual pleasures. When we serve G-d with joy and thankfulness, we are said to be eating from the fruits He planted for us. The blessings we recite before eating help us focus our minds on the vital energy embedded in the food, which gives us the energy to serve G-d. We thus elevate the food beyond its taste. When we do not recite a blessing, we deprive the world of the divine beneficence that could have been channeled into it by means of the blessing. Eating a fruit for the first time in its season is considered one of the auspicious occasions for a special blessing of joy called Shehechiyanu. The Torah teaches us that through the physical act of eating for the purpose of strengthening ourselves to do G-d’s will, we create rectifications and unifications between the spiritual and physical worlds. It also teaches us that the real pleasure of eating comes not from the physicality of the food but from the spiritual “word of G-d within the food.”
In Kabbala, the flow of G-ds beneficence is called the “Tree of Life.” The roots which are metaphysically connected to the upper spiritual worlds at their root source send down divine emanations to the fruits below, causing them to grow. It is taught that Tu B’Shvt helps us to align with holy eating when we eat in a state of mindfulness, linking the variety of the fruit with their deeper message. The fruits become the vehicle for understanding their deeper meaning which initiates us into the spirituality of eating. It is important to understand that reciting a blessing before eating draws down a flow of divine energy through the fruit or other food and restores the soul. Thus to encourage the flow of divine life energy from above, it is fitting on Tu B’Shvt to eat many kinds of fruits and recite blessings over them with this intention. As we partake of the delicious fruits and delicacies we have the ability to expand the boundaries of holiness thereby permeating the world with the light of wisdom. In fact in this way we open a flow of kindness into the world.
There are differing opinions on the order and presentation of the Tu B’Shvt Seder. The following one is a Seder guide from Rabbi Yerachmiel Tilles of the Ascent center in Tzfat, available at www.kabbalahonline.org.
The first 12 fruits of this Seder and their meaning: 1) Wheat is the basis for our sustenance but only after we have labored to grow, harvest and prepare it. It is a staple of most diets and is compared to Jewish law. For the Seder, You can bake or purchase a cake or cookies or anything that is made primarily from wheat flour. 2) Olives yield the best oil only when they are crushed. Olive oil floats on top of all liquids and does not mix. Olive oil represents wealth and abundance and brings light into the world. 3) Dates are a metaphor for the righteous. The date tree is both lofty and fruit bearing and is impervious to the changing winds. 4) Grapes can be turned into many varieties of foods and drink. Each Jew has the potential to be successful in some aspect of Torah in his own unique way. 5) Figs must be picked as soon as they ripen because they can quickly go bad. We too must be quick to do good deeds before the opportunity is spoiled. 6) Pomegranates are said to have exactly 613 pips which are equal to the number of mitzvot in the Torah. They remind us of the merits of the Jews. 7) Etrogim are considered to be an extremely beautiful fruit and are of great importance for the holiday of Sukkot. They remain on the tree throughout the entire year benefiting from all four seasons. In fact, the Etrog lives on the tree from year to year and when the new crop grows, the one from the previous year still exists on the tree. From this, we learn that the Torah teaches us to observe and learn from the past. 8) Apples take 50 days to ripen and just as the apple tree produces fruit before its leaves, so too do Jews perform mitzvot without totally understanding them. 9) Walnuts are divided into four sections corresponding to the four letters of G-d’s name. Walnuts have two shells which have to be removed: one hard and one soft which is likened to Jews. 10) Almonds signify enthusiasm in serving G-d, for the almond tree is always the first to bloom. Aaron’s rod sprouted specifically almond blossoms. 11) Carobs take longer to grow than any other fruit and they remind us of the necessity to invest many years in Torah study in order to attain worthwhile and clear understanding thereby bearing fruit. 12) Pears represent longevity which is related to our mitzvot which will live on into eternity.
After finishing the delicious fruits and delicacies that G-d has provided for us, we close with a heartfelt blessing of thanks to our Creator. Through the vehicle of the Seder, we have partaken of fruits, wine and other delicacies, which remind us of the four facets of the Seder: the Temple Service, the Land of Israel, the fruits of the Land of Israel along with our commitment to G-ds land and the spiritual rectification brought about through mindful eating. We have become re-oriented to a renewed perspective of our true mission in G-ds holy world, as we come to understand that pure pleasure is rooted in the soul’s desire to serve G-d. We have gained insights into living as well as drawing down blessings. We have come to realize that the entire physical world is one big beautiful metaphor teaching us deep spiritual concepts with G-ds love as the focal point. And so, as we finish the Seder, may we merit to savor and hold onto its depth, truth, wisdom and beauty, thus hastening the coming of our long awaited Moshiach and our Holy, Magnificent 3rd and final Holy Temple which will bless the entire world with peace and goodness for all mankind.
With Blessings for a joyous, bountiful and spiritually charged Tu B’Shvt Seder, Ariella Bracha