Tu Bish’vat is here, along with the delightful hunt in the market for new fruits, some exotic, some uneaten since Rosh Hashanah, and the chance to sit around the table and have a seder that is truly free-form and creative, without any rules about what we are supposed to do or say.
One element of the seder is this exuberance of fruit, all of its colors, smells, and textures. There’s even a special blessing to say for the sweet smell of fruit! Tu Bish’vat is not generally a “locavore’s” holiday, especially here in Western Massachussetts, where only a few of the fruits we can buy are local. (Back in Berkeley it was quite different, not only because you can get so many fruits grown locally in mid-winter, but also because you can go to the Berkeley Bowl and experience the most diverse, exuberant and orgasmic produce section that most human beings will every see.)
There is, however, an order to the seder (seder after all means “order”), something to structure this exuberance, moving from the hard shelled fruits (mostly nuts) to the ones with pits to the ones whose seeds and peels can be swallowed and eaten. This brings up some interesting botanical and culinary questions. First and foremost: are citrus fruits in the first category or the third? Does it matter if we eat chocolate-covered orange peels and lemon zest, but not so much the peel of the grapefruit? Here’s my criterion: if it won’t hurt you to eat it, I count that as edible. Turns out you can make some interesting food stuffs out of carob seeds, which may resolve another one of those dilemmas, namely, whether those small hard beautiful seeds are more like pits, which would “demote” carob pods to category number two.
The seder comes from Kabbalah, but Tu Bish’vat was around for centuries before the Kabbalists took hold of it and turned it into a Jewish proto-Earth Day. Tu Bish’vat, contrary to common expectations, was never a particularly good day for planting trees, even in Israel (JNF notwithstanding). Rather, it’s a time when trees have not really begun growing again, hence a good day for reckoning whether any particular tree’s fruit belongs to the oncoming or immediately past agricultural year–something that mattered a lot when figuring out how much one needed to give in tithes (that is, the minimum 10%) to the Levite, the poor, and the stranger.
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. This is what the 16th/17th century author of the original Tu Bish’vat seder meant when he wrote:
You made trees and grasses bloom from the ground in the shape and pattern of what is above, to make known to the children of Adam wisdom and discernment to reach what is hidden.
Part of this pattern was “the four worlds” (four levels of reality and of God), which according to Kabbalah are reflected not only in the structure of the tree (roots, trunk, branches and leaves, fruit) but in the kinds of fruit that the trees gift us. That’s what gives the traditional Tu Bish’vat seder its order. The first three levels are symbolized by the three kinds of fruit. (The fourth world, the highest and most ephemeral, isn’t symbolized by physical fruit, though a good scotch might do the trick.) However, what gives the seder its meaning is not the levels and kinds of fruit, but the basic mystical idea that human consciousness can effect real blessing (and real curse) in the physical world. That’s why the original seder prays:
May the power and merit of eating the fruits which we now eat and bless, and our meditating upon the secret of their roots above, make the flow of desire and blessing and shefa (divine energy) flow over the trees, to return again to make them grow and bloom, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year, for good and for blessing, for good life and for peace.
So what really matters is not the words or the haggadah you use, but this beautiful intention, the desire to give back to the trees what is highest and deepest within ourselves. More than this, the goal is not just to pray for healthy trees and a good fruit harvest, though that was certainly important. The goal was to repair the way humans have negatively impacted this creation, from our very first act of eating the fruit of the Tree of Life in Eden. That is what is meant by the last part of the blessing from that first seder:
May the might and majesty of the blessings for eating the fruits become lights in the wellspring of blessings, and may all the sparks scattered by our hands, or by the hands of our ancestors, or by the sin of the first human against the fruit of the tree, be returned to be included in the majestic might of the Tree of Life.
These stirring words apply just as much to our scientific Tree of Life, the evolutionary tree that unites all living things into one family and history, as they do to the Kabbalists’ tree, which after all was the blueprint for all life.
According to Kabbalah, the prohibition against eating that first fruit was meant to prevent us from picking and eating the fruit before it was ripe. That’s a foodie/slow food issue if there ever was one. May we learn the patience to not get everything at once, to not take more than we can savor. May we honor each life that nourishes our own, allowing each species to mature and grow according to its destiny, intertwined with us, but not subservient to us.
For me this year that means organic produce. I realize that someday it may also mean fewer fruits from South America and less opportunities to taste passion fruit. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that in that coming reality, the fruit will only be more exuberantly colored, more orgasmic and passionate, than it is even now. But nothing will be sweeter, not even the sweetest fruit, than the chance to live fully in witness to “the majestic might of the Tree of Life”. May this Tu Bish’vat be filled with blessings given, and blessings received!