An Original Environmental Tu B’Shvat Ritual

— by Kayla Niles and Rabbi Goldie Milgram

The Jewish festival of the trees, our “earth day” — Tu B’Shvat, begins this Tuesday evening. This article will provide you with a contemporary family ritual for the holiday.

This year happens to be a shmitah year, the year of rest for our agricultural land ending a traditional seven-year cycle explained below. By updating these ancient practices, we can respond to our current environmental crisis with principles derived from our Jewish tradition:

  • When humans are destructive, nature reacts.
  • There is order and inter-relatedness throughout creation.
  • It is a mitzvah to refrain from destruction of the environment — bal tash-chit: For not all resources are renewable.
  • We have to get back to “the Garden.”
  • Earth is “the Garden.”
  • Our responsibility is to tend “the Garden.”

Accordingly, for sure one meaning in Judaism of  “the world-to-come” is this world and having focused consciousness about the condition in which we will leave it for our children.

The Jewish “Earth Day”

Today, Tu B’Shvat has been made into a Jewish “Earth Day” — a festival dedicated to advancing caring and commitment to the well being of the Earth and the environment.

Contemporary Israelis and Zionists also take this as a day of celebration of living on the land, raising funds for planting trees, and eating fruits from the land of Israel. (Carob, by the way, became traditional because it traveled so well from Israel to the Diaspora.) Planting trees was essential to settling the land, given the Ottoman Empire had deforested much of the region to fuel the railroads.

The Talmud reveals that Tu B’Shvat, which means the 15th day of the lunar month of Shvat, is the day fruit trees were tithed in Temple times. This is still done by some communities of practice in Israel with the funds primarily going toward Jewish education, whereas when the Temple stood, tithes were the way the Temple system raised money to care for the Priests, Levites and their families, buildings and grounds, etc.planting the tree of life

It was the Kabbalists who created the idea of a Tu B’Shvat seder to raise awareness about our closeness to the Divine that continues to be widely adapted for contemporary ritual, as it is here. The Tree of Life — the Etz Chayyim in the Garden of Eden — functions throughout Judaism as a metaphor for nature as a manifestation of the Divine, i.e., our need to have awe and respect for the integrity and mystery of creation and the gift of life.

A Sabbatical for the Land
Judaism provides cycles of seven days and years that contain practices that are core to health, awareness and healing:

  • One day of rest out of every 7 days is our Sabbath and our week-long festivals.
  • Shiva is the term for the practices of the first seven (sheva) days of mourning.
  • The Omer is comprised of 7 weeks × 7 days = 49 days of reflection from Passover to Shavuot.
  • Shmitah is the one-year out of seventh of rest for the fields and certain forms of debt.
  • Finally there is also the Yovel—the Jubilee year, one year after every 7 &times 7 years: 49 years that includes liberating agricultural and economic spiritual practices.
Biblical Sources of the Holiday:

Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh year, you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave, let the wild beasts eat of it. You shall do the same with your vineyards and olive groves. (Exodus 23:10-11)

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath of the Lord. For six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and you may gather in its crop. But on the seventh year, a complete rest shall there be for the land, a Sabbath for the Lord. Your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. You shall not reap the wilds of your harvest or gather the grapes of the vines which you set aside; it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. But you may eat whatever the land, during its Sabbath, will produce — you, your male and female servants, the hired workers and those who live with you. And for your animal and for the wild beast that is in your land, shall all its crop be to eat. (Leviticus 25:1-7)

Every seventh year you shall practice release of debts. This shall be the nature of the release: every creditor shall release his authority over what he claims from his neighbor. He shall not force it from his neighbor or his brother, for God’s Shmita has been proclaimed…If there is a needy person among you, one of your brothers in any of your cities, in the land that the Lord gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your needy brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him, you shall lend him sufficiently for whatever he needs. Beware, that you may harbor the thought, “the seventh year is approaching,” so that you are mean to your needy brother and give him nothing. He will cry out to the Lord against you, and it will be your guilt. Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return, the Lord will bless you in all your efforts and all your undertakings. (Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-10)Trees are further singled out for special consideration in the Torah: “When you besiege a city many days to bring it into your power by making war against it, you shall not destroy the trees thereof by swinging an axe against them; from them you may eat but you may not destroy them; for is the tree of the field a human to withdraw before you?” (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

The Kabbalists, developed the earliest forms of Tu B’Shvat seders (sedarim). The Etz Chayyim, the Tree of Life, is the primary metaphor they chose for Tu B’Shvat and from it they created a model for consciousness. Most Tu B’Shvat seders use this model to stimulate reflection about the natural world along with activities to cultivate awe and respect for the divine nature of creation.  The model has four dimensions known as the Arba’ah Olamot—Four Worlds: Physical, Emotional, Intellectual and Spiritual. In daily life these are simultaneous realities. The Kabbalists also correlated these dimensions with the four elements: “Rabbi Simeon Said: ‘Mark this well. Fire, air, earth and water are the sources and roots of all things above and below, and all things above, below, are grounded in them.” (Zohar, Ex. 23b)

Opening Song of Awareness

We’ve got the whole world in our hands,
We’ve got the rivers and the mountains in our hands, We’ve got the trees and the tigers in our hands, We’ve got the whole world in our hands.

We’ve got the wind and the oceans in our hands,
We’ve got our sisters and our brothers in our hands,
We’ve got our children & their children in our hands,

We’ve got the whole world in our hands!

The Four Questions of Tu B’Shvat

The sight of the many types of fruits for Tu B’Shvat inspires us to ask questions, just as we do on Pesach: Why is this night different from all other nights?The Four Worlds

  1. Why on Tu B’Shvat do we have a special holiday for trees?
  2. On all other nights, we may or may not eat fruits according to our desire. Why on Tu B’Shvat do we eat many different kinds of fruit?
  3. On all other nights we drink red or white wine according to our preference. Why on Tu B’Shvat do we drink four cups of white, pale pink, reddish pink and red wine?
  4. Why on Tu B’Shvat do we make a special effort to eat fruits and grains from Israel?

You can find the answers to these seder questions throughout this article and seder.

I. Assiyah: (Earth, Actuality, Action) The Physical World

This world is associated with winter, a time of dormancy in nature when snow blankets the earth. It is represented by white wine.

“Earth is the rhythm of our feet on the Mountain. In this world, we bless the physical: our bodies, our land, our homes. It is our connection to the Earth that inspires Action.”

–Ellen Bernstein

First Cup
White Wine or grape juice.

Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam borei pri ha-gafen
Kabblistic interpretation based on Shaarei Ora by R’Gikatilla: We bend our knees at the Pond of Blessings at the Threshold of Eternity blessing the fruit of the tree.

–Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Concern
Shmah — listen deeply: we are told to listen straight to our Godsense (yashar-El) where we know all is One.

For when we respect the interdependence of all that lives and engage in mitzvah-centered rather than self-centered lives, the rains will come in season, the crops will flourish and be gathered in season, and the cattle will be able to nourish themselves on the grasses they need.

But if we leave the path of mitzvah, of the practices designed to that keep humans aligned in healthy and holy ways for the good of all that is, when we move into the idolatry of materialism, using up the earth and polluting the environment, the heavens will turn against us, the earth will swallow us and we will perish from a once good land. (Deut. 11: 13-17, interpretive translation Rabbi Goldie Milgram)

Song

Tzadik ka’ tamar yifrach /K’erez ba’levanon yisgeh /
Shetulim b’veit Adonai /B’hatsrot Eloheinu yafrichu/
Ode y’nuvune b’seivah/D’sheinim v’raananim y’hiyu/
L’hagid ki yashar Adonai/Tzuri v’lo avlata bo

A tzaddik (justice) can flower /like a cedar flourishes in its purity.
Planted in the House/ of Infinite Possibilities (YHVH)/
in the courtyards of our God-sense/it comes blossoming/
Even more so with age/ will tzaddik-consciousness/
bear fruit, vigorous and fresh. (Psalm 92:13-15, Interpretive translation by Rabbi Goldie Milgram)

Action
Collect something from nearby (outside) to represent the earth that you can place on or near our seder plate.

Fruit

For Assiya, we eat fruits with hard outer shells and soft, vulnerable insides, e.g., tree nuts.

Discussion

What are the blessings and responsibilities these fruits evoke?

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam boray pree haetz.
Kabbalistic interpretation: We bend our knees at the Pond of Blessings at the Threshold of Eternity blessing the fruit of the tree.

–Rabbi Goldie Milgram

II. Yetzirah (Water, Formation, Relationship): The World of Emotion

As spring approaches, the sun’s rays begin to thaw the frozen earth. Gradually, the land changes its colors from white to red, as the first flowers appear on the hillsides. So, our second cup will be a bit darker. We pour a little red wine into the white. [EB]

Second Cup

White wine or grape juice to which a touch of red to turn it light pink is added.

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam borei p’ree ha-gafen.

Concern

Hydrofracking pollutes land, air and water. About half of the millions of gallons of water used to frack the wells remains underground, untreated. Pipes and casings are supposed to contain it, but over time cement shrinks and metal corrodes. The other half of the water is stored in tanks or open pits that are vulnerable to leaks. This water is supposed to be treated, but few facilities are prepared to handle it…So to safeguard the water we drink, we have to find another source of energy…. The short-term goal is to ban fracking, the long term goal is to mobilize the political will to replace our current dangerous, shortsighted, fossil-fuel based energy system with a system based on renewable energy.

— Mirele Goldsmith, The Huffington Post

For Reflection and Action

Place a crystal clear bowl of water on the table.

Kavannah

(Together) Recalling and sharing memorable experiences with living waters, we now we dip our fingers and touch our lips to seal our commitment to the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit – refraining from damaging water and earth.

The seder ritual I find most meaningful is washing my hands as the priests did before they performed a sacrifice.  As I raise my hands to recite a blessing I remember that everything I will eat and drink contains water.

Keep The Frack Out of My Challah and My Fracking Nightmare and a Jewish Ritual of Dream, Mirele Goldsmith

Song

U’shavtem mayim b’sasson/ Mi meye’nei ha-y’shua/ Mayim (4)
Hey mayim b’sasson (2x) Hey (4x) Mayim (6x) b’sasson / Mayim (6x) b’sasson

Draw water in joy/ from the Living Well/Water in joy!
— traditional Jewish folk song melody with interpretation of Rabbi Aryeh Hirshfield

Fruit

The fruit symbolizes the womb and seed the female brings for bearing life.

For Yetzirah, we eat fruits with a tough inner core and a soft outer skin such as olives.
Baruch ata Adonai Elohaynu melech haolam borei pree haetz.

III. Briyah (Air, Creativity, Memory): The World of Intellect

In summer, when vegetable and fruits are abundant, we are reminded of the richness of life, filled with color. We drink red wine with a dash of white.

— Ellen Bernstein

Third Cup

Red with a little white added to make it a light red.
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam borei p’ree ha-gafen.

Concern

The quality of urban air compared to the air in the deserts and forests is like thick and turbulent water compared to pure and light water. In the cities with their tall buildings and narrow roads, the pollution that comes from their residents, their waste makes their entire air reeking and thick, although no one is aware of it. Because we grow up in cities and become used to them, we can at least choose a city with an open horizon. And if you have no choice, and you cannot move out of the city, try at least to live upwind. Let your house be tall and the court wide enough to permit the northern wind and the sun to come through, because the sun thins out the pollution of the air.

– Moses Maimonides, “The Preservation of Youth”: The Guide to Health, pp. 70-71.

For Reflection and Action
We will read these words, then begin the chant below, and go out among the trees in contemplation:breathe

 

The unity of human and tree which is the basis of the Kabbalistic Tu B’Shvat seder is not just a metaphor for how important trees are to us, but a meditation on the idea that both trees and human creatures are patterned after the life of the cosmos. By examining humans and trees together, we may understand something deeper about the meaning of the life we are given and its place in the life of the world. — Rabbi David Seidenberg , from “The Human, the Tree, and the Image of God,” in Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology

Chant

Neshama, Neshima (2x)
I breathe in my life begins
I breathe out my soul travels on

— Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Fruit
This world is associated with summer and by fruits that are soft throughout and entirely edible. Why are these fruits appropriate for this world?

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam borei p’ree ha-adama, or ha-etz depending upon the type of fruit on your table.

IV: Atzilut (Being, Essence, Spirit): The World of Fire
This world is associated with autumn, the season of abundance and teshuvah—entering the crucible of healing of relationships.

Fourth Cup

Our best red wine, which in Judaism symbolizes the Gift of Life — the Life Force for when one brings a better kind of wine to the table one makes a special blessing:

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam ha-tov v-ha-meitiv.

Bending our knees at the Pond of Blessing at the Threshold of Eternity where that which is good and the Source of goodness are. And we continue with:
Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam borei p’ree ha-gafen.

Concern (As metaphor for our present times)


For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.

—Malachi 4:1

For Discussion and Action

For Atzlilut we enjoy fragrance as we do at the end of every Shabbat during Havdalah:

Fragrance at Havdallah and as the fourth world of the Tu B’Shvat seder helps to seal memory. — Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Let us recall and share a fragrance that holds meaning and beauty for each of us.

Kavannah

(Together) May these memories inspire us to create a fragrant world, free of pollution and destruction.

We conclude this seder with the Shemita Blessing and a song of Eliyahu and Miriam, the prophetic figures who inspire our vision of better times.

May the merciful One turn our hearts toward the land, so that we may dwell together with her in her Sabbath rest, the whole year of Shmita.
Harachaman hu yashiv libeinu el ha’aretz l’ma’an neisheiv yachad imah b’shovtah,
kol sh’nat hash’mitah!
! (NeoHasid)

Eliyahu hanavi, Miriam haneviah
Eliyahu, Miriam, bimheira b’yameinu

Bimheira b’yameini yavo eileinu
im mashiach ben David
im mashiach bat David.

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