Connecting to the Tree of Life

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and Rabbi David Markus

Originally published as part of the Auburn Voices series at Auburn Seminary.

Tu b’Shevat, the “New Year of the Trees,” is coming at the next full moon, the night of January 30.

We honor Tu b’Shevat to renew our spirits and prepare ourselves, and the world, for spring’s arrival. Tradition teaches that the Torah is “a tree of life to all who hold fast” (Proverbs 3:17-18). On Tu b’Shevat we invoke this spirit of the Tree of Life.

Tu b’Shevat is celebrated with a seder — a ritual meal, similar to the seder celebrated at Passover. The Tu b’Shevat seder can be seen as a “tikkun” — a ritual of repair. By eating fruits and nuts with mindfulness, we strive to repair our own spiritual brokenness and the brokenness of a world which is not yet as we and God most wish it to be.

Our religious commitments call us to care for the environment, aware that “all of creation is filled with divine glory” (Isaiah 6:3). In the lineage of our teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory, we remain committed to Gaia consciousness: the teaching that the earth is a living organism, and that our religious practices must be shaped by our responsibility to our earth.

In the collection of midrash called Ecclesiastes Rabbah, we read:

God led Adam around the Garden of Eden and said,

“Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent!

For your sake I created them all.

See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world —

for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.”

The Tu b’Shevat seder is designed to awaken and inspire our readiness to heal and protect the created world.

If you’d like to learn more about the history of Tu b’Shevat, here’s an essay by Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber at the Open Siddur Project. Also at Open Siddur, there are a variety of other holiday resources, including prayers both classical and contemporary.

If you’d like to celebrate Tu b’Shevat at home with friends or family, it’s easy to do — and it’s a beautiful holiday that can open the heart to growth, renewal, and sweetness. Here’s what you need:

1) Tree fruits.

Ideally, you need at least one fruit in each of the following categories:

  • tree fruit with an inedible shell (e.g. oranges, bananas, nuts, coconut)
  • tree fruit with a pit or seed (cherries, plums, apricots, olives)
  • tree fruit that’s edible all the way through (figs, mulberries, apples, pears)

You can use fresh fruits, or dried. You can have one fruit in each category, or several. You can opt to try a new fruit that you’ve never had before, and say the shehecheyanu for trying something new. This can be as simple or as elaborate as you want. Some also have a custom of tasting a sip of either maple syrup, or etrog (citron) vodka, at a specific point in the seder.

2) Grape juice or wine, both white and red.

You’ll need enough for four symbolic cups: one white, one white with a bit of red in it, one red with a bit of white in it, and one red.

Since you’ll be mixing the liquids to create different colors in the glass, we don’t recommend using expensive wine or juice for this purpose, but that too is up to you.

3) A haggadah that will walk you through experiencing the four worlds and consuming the symbolic tree fruits and wines / juices that facilitate each step on the journey.

Here’s a new haggadah for this year, shared via Bayit: Your Jewish Home:

It’s a digital slide show, intended to be projected on a screen. If you’ll be a small group around a small table, you could just page through the slides on your laptop. That’s all you need!

If you want to be minimalist: three pieces of tree fruit, two bottles of juice, and a haggadah.

If you want to be maximalist, you can arrange a table laden with tree fruits and even decorations: bare branches representing winter, leafed-out branches from the florist, photographs of trees, whatever calls to your heart.

Whether or not you live in a geographic locale where this time of year is deepest midwinter, this holiday can be experienced as a first spiritual step toward the coming of spring.

We hope you’ll explore Tu b’Shevat and see what it opens up for you, emotionally and spiritually.

If you do use this haggadah, let us know what works for you and what doesn’t — we’re eager to hear. Leave a comment at the Bayit Facebook pageor ping us @yourbayit on Twitter and let us know your thoughts!

You can also find this haggadah archived on the Spiritual Resources page at Bayit.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat is the author of Velveteen Rabbi and a Founding Builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home.

Rabbi David Markus serves as spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El of City Island and a Founding Builder at Bayit: Your Jewish Home.

(The above piece is adapted from a post that originally appeared at Velveteen Rabbi; the haggadah, and these tips for celebrating the holiday, are shared by Bayit: Your Jewish Home.)

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