Tu B'Shvat: Fruits and Trees, and the Human Being

by Rivka Chaya Berman - WESTMINSTER, CO

February 13, 2006

Pomegranates were on Leah Brackman’s mind. The fruits, a splash of ruby against the muted tones of the winter-scape, were not the only exotics on Chabad of Westminster, Colorado, representative Brackman’s shopping list. She tossed olives, barley, grape juice and dates into her shopping cart, too. All were in preparation for the four-course meal she’s preparing for her women’s circle Tu B'shevat celebration on February 12.

The women of Chabad of Westminster will not be dining alone. Across the United States, Chabad centers have proven to be fertile ground for elaborate celebrations of Tu B'shevat, the Jewish New Year for Trees. Mentioned as one of four New Years in the Talmud, Tu B'shevat (the 15th of the month of Shevat) marks the end of the ‘fiscal year’ for produce tithes, which were distributed to the Levites and the poor when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem. Couple that with the Torah passage that likens humankind to trees of the field and chichi eco-sensitivity, and it’s easy to see why more and more Chabad centers get large crowds at their Tu Bishevat events.

Brackman is planning to seed her Tu Bishevat dinner with insights for personal growth that may be gleaned from mystical understandings of certain fruits. Wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive and dates, the seven species for which Israel is praised, are rich with spiritual symbolism. Along with the core group of women who usually attend Brackman’s popular events, newcomers have reserved places at the upcoming Tu Bishevat dinner. “Tu B'shevat gives us a chance to get together, have fun, and come away inspired,” Brackman said.

Ideas for the elegance of Brackman’s feast were borrowed from Chabad of Burlington, VT. Chabad’s Tu Bishevat women’s dinner in Vermont has attracted 100 reservations, prompting the celebration to move out of the Chabad Jewish Community Center and into a hotel hall. But the food will still be cooked by the event’s originator, Rachel Jacobs. A transplant from Israel, where shopping for dried fruit and nuts in honor of Tu B'shevat foods is a must-do, Jacobs feels Tu B'shevat is comfortable for all. “It’s not like you have to eat a date at exactly five o’clock to celebrate it.”

Chabad of Burlington, representative Zeesy Raskin has seen the warmth of the Tu Bishevat dinner spill over to other Chabad events. “People see that there is a social aspect to Chabad. They ask about the preschool, the camp. There’s always a ripple effect,” she said.

Though Tu B'shevat celebrations are open to interpretation, there is real meaning at its core. In a Chabad.org essay, Shlomo Yaffe writes, “Just as the earth conceals the greatest treasures beneath its surface -- both in the form of precious metals and gems that lie buried in the depths of the earth, as well as in the productive energies locked in its soil -- so, too, each one of us has the capacity to discover huge reserves and potentials of good and holiness hidden within him or herself.” On the Tu B'shevat Chabad Family Mitzvah Day in Parkland, FL, children and parents will be digging deep, literally, to plant trees on site, replacing one of the many trees lost in Hurricane Rita.

In the 16th century, kabbalists in Tzfat, Israel, prescribed a set of fruits to eat, wines to drink on Tu B'shevat as a way of tapping into the mystical and philosophical concepts of the day. A midrash on Song of Songs, mentioned in the ritual, likens the rows of seeds in a pomegranate to “little children who study Torah and sit in rows in their class like the seeds of a pomegranate,” (Shir HaShirim Rabba 6:11). For the holiday, Chabad of Mission Viejo, CA, is taking their Hebrew school students out of their classroom rows and into Heritage Point senior homes to create planter crafts with residents.

Tu B'shevat is the New Year for Trees, and around the world, Chabad is using the day to promote spiritual and personal growth.

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