A simple way to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for trees, is to grow a plant or eat some fruit. But those seeking a deeper experience with the holiday may choose to take part in a “Tu B’Shevat seder”—not to be confused with the Passover version.
“Tu B’Shevat needed a major ritual, and the seder provides us with that,” entrepreneur, educator, and blogger Rabbi Jason Miller told JNS.org. “Based on the seder of Passover, this is an educational forum and symposium in which we can discuss and also recommit ourselves to the environment.”
Kabbalists from the northern Israeli city of Safed in northern Israel created the ritual of the Tu B’Shevat seder to celebrate the idea that even God’s smallest creations—be they tree, pomegranate, or date—are all equal within nature’s grand web. The initial ritual was outlined in “Peri Etz Hadar” (Fruit of the Goodly Tree), part of an anthology of Kabbalistic customs called the “Heindat Yamun.”
While Tu B’Shevat is widely celebrated in the Jewish world as the religion’s counterpart to Arbor Day, fewer Jews employ the seder ritual on this occasion. Many Jews are troubled by the seder’s apparent roots in the texts written by followers of the 17th century false messiah known as Shabbatai Zvi.
Like the Passover seder, the Tu B’Shevat version relies on the recitation of blessings and the drinking of wine, with a greater emphasis on fruit. Each group of fruit eaten at the Tu B’Shevat seder represents different ways that trees provide for us. Before eating each kind of fruit, a blessing is said and a spiritual question related to that kind of fruit is asked.
To fully appreciate nature’s bounty, Kabbalists matched up Israel’s regional fruit to symbolize the four physical elements: air, earth, water, and fire.
Assiyah, or earth, is symbolized by fruits or nuts with an outer shell and fruit within. This includes walnuts, pomegranates, pistachios, and coconuts.
Yetzirah, or water, is symbolized by fruits with edible outer flesh and inedible cores. This includes cherries, apricots, olives, and plums.
Briyah, or air, is symbolized by fruit that is entirely edible. This includes apples, pears, figs, and raisins.
Atzilut, or fire, is not symbolized by fruit but by things that represent God’s presence all around us. This can include smelling something natural like pine, cedar, or spices.
It is no coincidence that the fruits included in the seder don’t fall far from the tree. The constant imagery of trees is intended to invoke our connection to the earth and our Jewish responsibility as its stewards. Looking from the roots at the bottom to the fruits among the leaves acts as a reminder that when everything is connected, each small action by a human reverberates throughout the universe.
“Trees are so important in Jewish thought that the Torah itself is called ‘a tree of life.’ Perhaps this Torah wisdom can help us think more wisely about using these resources carefully and living in a more sustainable way,” write Dr. Akiva Wolff and Rabbi Yonatan Neri in their article “Trees, Torah, and Caring for the Earth” as part of Jewcology’s “Year of Jewish Learning on the Environment.”
Though the origins of the Tu B’Shevat seder may be hazy, the intention to deepen our connection with nature and assure the preservation of its bounty has led to environmental activism’s increased relevance within the context of celebrating the Tu B’Shevat holiday.
“We are living in God’s creation, which makes us equal to one another and makes us all equal in what we need and what we share equitably,” Sybil Sanchez, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), told JNS.org. “The seder is an important time to ritually recognize our values, but it is also a time to take action.”
For Tu B’Shevat last year, COEJL called for Jewish community leaders to sign its “Jewish Environmental and Energy Imperative,” which asked Jews to reduce their energy use by 14 percent by the fall of 2014. More than 50 Jewish leaders signed the pledge.
Honoring the theoretical foundations of Tu B’Shevat, the Israeli company SodaStream developed CO2-infusing products to create soda and sparkling water at home, in an effort to help the public reduce waste from bottles and cans purchased at stores. According to statistics from the U.S. Recycling Institute, more than 80 percent of bottles in the U.S. do not get recycled and end up in landfills.
Incorporating environmental mindfulness can easily become part of Tu B’Shevat, according to Sanchez, who suggests checking whether your family is using locally sourced fruit, ecologically minded dishes and dining ware, installing energy-efficient light bulbs, and turning off appliances when not in use.
Sparkle up your Tu B’Shevat seder
By Mollie Katzen/JNS.org
Winter fruit might seem less spectacular than the much more time-valued offerings of summer, but oranges and pears in particular, while quiet and “common,” can be the unexpected stars of simple savory dishes.
This is perfect for Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for trees, which is a relatively unsung holiday. Sparkle up your Tu B’Shevat seder with an easy but surprising sweet potato-pear soup, which goes perfectly with a winter salad featuring crunchy, colorful leaves refreshingly coated with orange sections and a yogurty-orange vinaigrette, and exuberantly dotted with pistachios (also from trees). Finish the meal with an old-fashioned cake brimming with apples and walnuts, and studded with cranberries.
Servings: about 8
Back by popular demand from the original Moosewood Cookbook, this recipe now appears, adapted slightly, in The Heart of the Plate. The cake is quite sweet as is.
If you are going to serve it with the ice cream, you might want to reduce the sugar a notch or two — maybe to 1½ cups. If you buy extra-fresh whole cranberries in season and freeze some, you can enjoy them year-round. No defrosting necessary. Use nonstick spray.
1 3/4 cups (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup grapeseed or canola oil
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour (also called “white whole wheat”)
(could also be unbleached all-purpose)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 medium apples (about ½ pound)—peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (chopped to the size of peanuts)
1/2 pound fresh (or frozen) whole cranberries
Lightly spray a 9 X 13-inch pan with nonstick spray. Heat the oven to 375°. In a medium-large bowl, beat together the sugar, oil, and vanilla. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. In a second bowl, combine the flour with the other dry ingredients until thoroughly blended. Add the dry mixture to the wet, stirring until combined, folding in the fruit and nuts as you go. The batter will be very thick. Patiently spread the batter into the prepared pan (take your time spreading it in place) and bake in the center of the oven for 40-45 minutes, or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan, and the top surface is springy to the touch.
If you choose to form a bed of couscous or extra yogurt underneath each serving, you will be rewarded with an extra layer that both absorbs the delicious trickle-down juices and also boosts the volume of the dish, herding it into light main-dish terrain. You can wash and spin the salad leaves (keeping them cold and very dry), prepare the vinaigrette, and section the oranges well ahead of time. Dress and finish the salad immediately before serving. The tangy vinaigrette, free-standing, will keep for weeks in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. Shake well, or stir from the bottom, before using.
1 heaping tablespoon finely minced shallot
1 teaspoon agave nectar or honey
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt (rounded measure)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup plain yogurt (regular or Greek)
1/2 pound very fresh radicchio (any type)
A handful of small arugula leaves
About 6 perfect, crisp romaine leaves
2 oranges, sectioned
1/2 cup lightly toasted pistachios
Optional enhancement: Spread a bed of yogurt and/or couscous on the plate underneath the salad, as a bed to catch the dressing (and to make this more of a light main course).
Combine the shallot, agave or honey, orange juice, vinegar, and salt in a small bowl, and whisk to thoroughly blend. Keep whisking as you drizzle in the olive oil, keeping up the action until it is completely incorporated. Stir/whisk in the yogurt and mix until uniform. Cover and refrigerate until use.
Have the cleaned, dried salad leaves in a large-enough bowl. Break them into bite-sized pieces as desired. Add about six tablespoons of the vinaigrette, tossing as you go, to thoroughly coat all the leaves. Add the orange sections toward the end, mixing them in gently so they don’t break. Sprinkle in the pistachios with the final toss, and serve pronto.
This unusual combination is slightly sweet, slightly tart, and deeply soothing. My original version (published in “Still Life with Menu”) included milk or cream. This version is vegan-friendly, using oil instead of butter. Use any wine that you enjoy drinking. Be sure to use the moist, orange variety of sweet potato (not the drier, starchier white type).
2 medium-sized sweet potatoes (1 pound)
4 cups water
1 3-inch stick cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 large ripe pears (any kind but Bosc, which are too grainy)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter—or grapeseed or canola oil
1/2 cup crisp white wine
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime juice (to taste)
Cayenne or white pepper (optional)
Peel sweet potatoes, and cut into small (about 3/4”) pieces. Place in a large saucepan with water, cinnamon stick, and salt. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer until tender (about 10 minutes). Remove the cover and let it simmer an additional five minutes over medium heat. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick, and let the sweet potatoes rest in their cooking water while you fix the pears. Peel and core the pears, and cut them into thin slices (about 1/4”). Melt the butter (or heat the oil) in a heavy skillet over medium heat, and swirl to coat the pan. Add the pears, and cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, or until quite soft. Add the wine, cover, and simmer about 10 minutes longer over lowest possible heat.
Transfer the pear mixture to the sweet potatoes-au-jus, then purée everything together until smooth with an immersion blender (you can also use a stand blender in batches, and then return it to the pot). Add lemon or lime juice to taste, plus a touch of cayenne or white pepper, if desired, and serve the soup hot. (It reheats well, if necessary.)
Mollie Katzen is listed by the New York Times as one of the best-selling cookbook authors of all time and has been named by Health Magazine as one of “The Five Women Who Changed the Way We Eat.” Her new book, The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation, was published in September 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.