What do April 15th and the Shevat 15th have in common? Both are tax days! Two thousand years ago, the 15th of Shevat was when the twelve Hebrew tribes paid tithes to the Levites in Jerusalem. Tu B’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat, is described in the Mishnah as the New Year for Trees. During the times of the Temple, fruit tithes would be calculated beginning on Tu B’Shevat. Fruit that grew on trees after the fifteenth day of Shevat was counted for the tithes that were due the following year. These tithes supported the Levites, helped feed the poor, and paid for Tu B’Shevat festivities in Jerusalem.
Following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, the Jews were exiled from Israel, and tithes were no longer paid. The Jews in the Diaspora preserved the memory of Tu B’Shevat by remembering their connection to the Land of Israel. In the Jewish communities of Bukhara, Uzbekistan, and Kurdistan, Tu B’Shevat developed into the “day of eating the seven species.” The seven species are the seven fruits and grains that are listed in the Torah as special products of the Land of Israel. In the 16th century Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the famous mystic of Safed, and his students collaborated to create the Tu B’Shevat Seder. The observance of Tu B’Shevat has undergone many permutations
since that time.
How can you and your family enjoy this ancient holiday in present day Philadelphia?
Some hands-on ideas to bring your families the warming spirit of Tu B’Shevat this winter follow the jump.
The Longwood Gardens Seven Species Scavenger Hunt
This year, Tu B’Shevat begins on February 7th, at sunset, and extends through the daylight of February 8th. This holiday presents a great opportunity to visit Longwood Gardens. The outdoor gardens will probably be covered with snow, so the half mile long hothouse will be your main destination. The conservatory, built in 1919, resembles a crystal palace. As you step inside, you will be transported to a place where spring has already arrived. The warm air will envelop you. Your family will inhale the aroma of a garden in full bloom, see the beautiful colors of the plants, and hear the rustle of leaves and dripping of water as they explore the greenhouse. It will be fun to look for some of the seven species in the gardens. As is mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8, the Land of Israel is described as a “land of wheat and barley, of [grape] vines, figs and pomegranates, and a land of olives for oil and [date] honey.” Here is a guide to help you find them.
Olives: In Biblical times, olive oil was very important for cooking, as a fuel for lamps, and for preparing soap. There is an olive tree in the Silver Garden.
Grapes: The Estate Fruit House has grape vines. In ancient times in the Land of Israel, grapes were used to make wine and vinegar. The fruit was eaten fresh off the vine. The grape leaves were used in cooking.
Figs at the Vine
Figs: A fig tree grows in The Estate Fruit House. Figs were eaten fresh, and used in cooking in Biblical Israel. Fig honey and alcohol were made from them.
Pomegranates: A miniature pomegranate tree (with tiny red pomegranates!) may be found in the Bonsai Display. In ancient Israel, pomegranates were used to make wine. Pomegranate juice was used as a dye. They were also a popular snack fresh off the tree.
Dates: The wild date palm grows in the Palm House. Dates were eaten fresh or dry during Biblical times. They were made into honey. It is thought that when the Land of Israel was described as a “land flowing with milk and honey,” it meant date honey, not bees’ honey.
Wheat and Barley: Wheat was used to bake bread in ancient Israel. It was the staple of the people’s diet. Barley was used to cook porridge and barley cakes. Poor people relied on barley more than on wheat, since it was more plentiful. It was also fed to the cows and goats. Wheat and barley do not grow in the greenhouses of Longwood Gardens! I suggest planning in advance and ordering a bundle of wheat and a bundle of barley from Curious Country Creations.
You can bring these plants with you, and your family may admire them during the visit to Longwood Gardens. Then, the wheat and barley may be part of your Tu B’Shevat Seder decorations!
You can inform yourself about the plants that these fruits of the seven species come from, and admire their beauty at Longwood Gardens. After learning about all these beautiful plants by seeing, smelling, and sometimes touching them, it is time to go home and taste some of them! The way to do that is with a Tu B’Shevat feast!
Tu b’Shvat Seder
The Tu B’Shevat Seder
The first Tu B’Shevat Haggadah was called “Pri Etz Hadar” or “Fruit of the Goodly Tree” in Hebrew. It was published in 1753. This Tu B’Shevat Seder was modeled on the Passover Seder. This Seder consisted of a festive meal that celebrated the Kabalistic diagram of the Tree of Life. The original purpose of the Seder was to restore G-d’s blessing by repairing and strengthening the Tree of Life. The traditional concluding blessing of the Tu B’Shevat Seder is “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 and included in the majestic might of the Tree of Life.” Fruits grown in Israel were served at the Seder and were related to the Four Worlds or “planes of existence” in the Kabbalah. These are Emanation, Creation, Formation, and Action, which are like the roots, trunk, branches, and leaves of a tree. Four cups of wine, symbolizing the four seasons, were also served. Participants read Biblical passages that discussed trees, sang songs about trees and nature, and danced dances inspired by trees. Almonds were important to this Seder because almond trees are the first to blossom in the springtime in Israel. The Kabbalists called this Seder the “Feast of Fruits. Turkish Jews called it “Frutikas Seder,” and referred to Tu B’Shevat as “Frutikas.” You can follow the first published Tu B’Shevat Seder in your own home.
Almond Tree Blossoms
The Tu B’Shevat Seder was first embraced by the Sephardic Jews, and then by the Ashkenazi Jews. The Ashkenazi Jews developed the custom of eating fifteen different fruits in honor of the “Tu” (15 in Hebrew) in “Tu B’Shevat.” It became a tradition to serve carob, a hardy fruit that could travel well from Israel to Europe. Eating etrog (citron) from Sukkot that was either candied or preserved was another custom that developed. In the late 19th century the Zionist pioneers arrived to cultivate the land of Israel. Israel’s ecology had been harmed by many years of war, extirpation of trees, and desertification. In 1890, Rabbi Zeev Yavetz and his students planted trees in Zichron Yaakov in honor of Tu B’Shevat. The Jewish National Fund adopted this custom to help with the reforestation of Israel. Most recently, Tu B’Shevat has become the Jewish Earth Day. Nature, ecology, and environmentalism are celebrated.
In honor of the Tu B’Shevat Seder, your family may have fun making your home look and feel festive, with a tablecloth, some flowers, and the bunches of wheat and barley on the table. Red and white grape juice should be available. The juice should be served as indicated by the Tu B’Shevat Seder Hagaddah of your choice. Several links to free Hagaddas are provided below.
All of the Tu B’Shevat Hagaddot require the following cups of juice:
- The First Cup: White grape juice, to symbolize winter.
- The Second Cup: 2/3 cup white grape juice and 1/3 cup red grape juice, to symbolize a progression to spring.
- The Third Cup: 1/3 cup white grape juice and 2/3 cup red grape juice, to symbolize spring.
- The Fourth Cup: Red grape juice, to symbolize summer.
Fifteen types of fruit should be arranged on the table:
Autumn Red Peaches
- Fruit that is hard on the outside and soft on the inside:
- Soft fruit with a pit in the middle:
- Fruits with and inner pit and a tough skin:
- Fruit is that which is soft on the inside and outside, and is entirely edible:
You may display a picture of an almond tree in full bloom to learn about the first blossoms of spring in Israel. It is customary to serve a dinner which incorporates fruits and nuts in all of its courses. Here is a sephardic recipe which includes all seven species.
Sephardic Seven Species Pilaf
- 1 cup cooked barley
- 1 cup cooked wheat berries
- 1/2 cup cut up dried figs
- 1/2 cup cut up dried dates
- 1/2 cup sliced grapes
- 1/4 cup pomegranate juice
- 1/4 cup vinegar
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Some very good recipes are available at Aish. There are many other recipes that may be found on the Internet. Following are links to some free Tu B’Shevat Seder Haggadahs that are available online. Many more may be found.
- For young children
- For middle school children
- For an environmentally focused Seder
- For a Tu B’Shevat Seder focusing on social action
Plant A Tree
Following a visit to Longwood Gardens, and a Tu B’Shevat Seder feast, there is an opportunity to plant a seed and nurture a plant. It is too cold in January to plant a tree in Philadelphia. Your family can plant a tree in Israel with the Jewish National Fund. There is a delightful new tradition that you may adopt. You may plant parsley seeds in a pot. Then water ther seeds, give them plant food, and make sure that they are exposed to enough sunlight. If all goes well, in April, you will have a parsley plant that may be used for Karpas (green spring vegetable) in the Passover Seder.
From Seder to Seder, may it be a fruitful year of joyful celebrations!