Winter seems like a funny time to celebrate Tu B'Shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day or Earth Day. It’s a new year for the trees, and a time to celebrate the fruit of the earth. But bare branches still silhouette the sky, and the earth seems to shiver instead of blossom.
In Israel, of course, the rainy season has passed, and the first buds begin to appear around Tu B'Shvat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat. One of the most meaningful ways to celebrate Tu B'Shvat is to hold a seder. The Tu B'Shvat seder originated as a kabbalistic ritual that combines both the tangible and mystical, and honors the most wondrous of birthdays—the earth’s.
We don’t really know when Tu Bishvat came to have the significance it has today. The references in the early Jewish Codes refer only to the eating of fruit on that day, an act that was explained as a prayer for the fertility of the trees. These codes also prescribe that, in view of the joyous nature of the day, no funeral orations (hesped), supplicatory prayers (Tahanoon), or fasting, be allowed. But no explicit mention was made of the day being a minor festival. Only in the later Middle Ages do we find descriptions of the manner in which the day was to be observed by Jews the world over, especially by Jews living in East.
In India we called Tu B’shvat Tob Shebat. Because there is no "v" sound in Judeo-Arabic, the letter vet, or bet, is connected to the tet and yod, and becomes TOV, pronounced TOB. It's an auspicious twist, because tov means good. Tu B'shvat was also once an occasion to distribute charity to the poor in amounts of 91, The numerical value of the Hebrew word אִילָן, from the Aramaic word for tree.
Today's seder is a simplified version of the intricate tradition described in Pri Etz Hadar (Fruit of the Beautiful or Magnificent Tree), an anthology of readings for Tu B'shvat from the 16th century. In our home in Calcutta, we invited guests to enjoy a bountiful spread of about 50 kinds of fruits and nuts, including the Seven Species of the land of Israel, and some fruit you've probably never heard of, like rose apple, moosambi (a type of lemon) and sapota (chickoo), with appropriate blessings recited for each. Readings from the Bible as well rabbinic and mystical texts that relate to fruit and trees are interspersed.
Tu B'Shvat is also celebrated festively in other communities. Ladino-speaking Jews have a ceremony called Frutikas. The Bene Israel Jews of Bombay hold a malida, honoring the prophet Elijah, who the Bene Israel say rescued their ancestors from a shipwreck on Tu B'Shvat in.... India! After prayers are offered, members of the community eat from the malida offering, which features sweetened dried rice mixed with fruits, nuts, and aromatics, piled high in the center of a round plate. The malida is now a national ceremony on Tu B'Shvat.
I also like to picture Tu B'Shvat as a journey of roots, something that marks so much of my work.
We are the caretakers of the earth. Let's celebrate and protect it!