Tu B’Shvat Seder: Planet, Poetry, and Power

Next Sunday evening, February 9, on the Full Moon of midwinter, we are taught to gather for the Seder of Tu B’Shvat, the ReBirthDay of trees and of the One Great Tree of Life. We eat four kinds of fruits and nuts, and drink four varicolored cups of wine (or grape juice).


[This graphic is “The Tree of Life Afire,”  by the Prophet Leonard Cohen.  Is this fiery Tree a Burning Bush, calling us to free ourselves and Earth from tyranny? Can the burning of our common home awaken us?]

One of the most wise, most powerful, most poetic, and most activist of all these Seders I have seen was created by students in a class at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. I invite, I urge, I implore you to read it and if you feel as drawn as I do, to use it, with whatever reshapings you desire, for your own Seder this coming Full Moon. Click here to access it:


Of the four sorts of fruit, only three sorts are touchable. The four start tough outside, like walnuts; increase in vulnerability to fruit like olives, soft outside but inwardly protected; then to fruit like figs, soft all the way through; and finally to the fourth sort, so ethereal that the fruit is not touchable,  not visible, at all.   Here are four brief teachings that I suggest you might introduce into the Four Worlds of the Seder, with time for conversation about each. And two brief teachings about the Four Cups of wine or grape juice that we drink in honor of the Four Worlds.

Asiyah (Physicality): This is the only sacred Jewish meal that does not require the death of any living creature. (In fact, one might understand the pattern of this meal as a command that for this meal, celebrating the ReBirth of the Divine Tree of Life, not only is killing not required, but NOT killing IS required.) Even eating the Pesach bitter herb requires uprooting a radish, killing it.  But nuts and fruit come in such profusion that eating them does not threaten the lives or continuity of trees. 

Yetzirah (Interconnection, relationship): This holy day was rooted in Temple times for tithing fruit: that is, bringing a tenth of one’s own fruit harvest to make sure the poor who don’t own fruit trees get nuts and fruit to eat The Kabbalists chose this day partly because, just as they said eating without a brocha --  a blessing  -- was robbery from YHWH [Yahhh, the Holy Interbreath of life], so eating without sharing through tzedakah —socially responsible sharing for the sake of justice -- is robbery from the poor and from YHWH.

 Briyyah (Intellect, Creativity): The custom has grown up to refer to this day, the 15th of Shvat,  as Tu B’Shvat – using the numbers “Tav + Vav, 9+6” rather than “Yod+Hei, 10+5.”  This custom grew up to avoid using “Yod-Hei” as the name for the day because it is one of the Names of God, as in “Hallelu-Yah.” But: A teaching from Rabbi Phyllis Berman:  -- We should on the Full Moon of each month, and especially on the full moons of Shvat and Av, fully welcome the Divine Presence inscribed on the fullness of the moon: Yah B’Av and Yah B’Shvat.

Atzilut (Spiritual Nearness to God, fusion with the Divine): Taught by Rabbi Naomi Mara Hyman: In 1997, dozens of rabbis and other Jews and people of other spiritual, religious, or ethical communities were gathered in a California redwood grove protected by the government. We were holding a Yah B’Shvat Seder, preparing to mount an act of civil-disobedience resistance to a corporation that was logging nearby ancient redwoods. Naomi – sitting at a table for the Seder – looked up at the redwoods all around us, hundreds of feet tall, the tallest living beings on Earth.

She said: “These trees, we call them ‘Eytzim,’ right?”--  “Right.” --  “The two poles that hold up each Sefer Torah, each Torah Scroll, we call them ‘Eytzim,’ right?” – “Right!” --  “If these eytzim (gesturing at the trees) were the eytzim of a Sefer Torah, how expansive, how ‘Torah d’gadlut,’ would that Sefer have to be  -- not only in physical size but in spiritual grandeur?”

(A pause. Then:) “And each of us would be the right size to be a Letter in that Torah!


[This painting is "The Tree of Life Weeping," by Rabbi Meirah Iliinsky. See her Website illuminatedverses.com  This artwork was originally done in grief for those murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. It applies as well to the whole planetary Tree of Life that is now burning, choking, and weeping in pain. More specifically, see  http://www.versesilluminated.com/virtual-exhibit-ii/the-tree-of-life-is-weeping-giclee-art-print  There Rabbi Iliinsky. points out and explains the symbolism within the painting.]

Long pause.  “Right. And of course that is just what we are: letters in the great Torah of the planet, of the universe. We are the letters that can write a Torah that is filled with love and awe. And as is true in the parchment Scroll, no letter stands alone. Only together can we write a world of Torah.”

Four worlds, four Cups of Wine: the first all White; then White with a drop of Red; then half White, half Red; then Red with a drop of White. There are at least two ways to understand this progression. The first is that the colors hint at the dance of the seasons --  from White for winter through increasing redness as new vitality brings more color until the riot of colorful trees in autumn has within it a seed of white, about to go underground. A second understanding draws on the ancient Talmudic notion that fertility begins with mixtures of white semen and red blood, and that the whole process of the Seder evokes the birthing of new life. Both are about fruitfulness – the deepest desire of Tu B’Shvat.

And then there is the question, why wine altogether? Today many Jewish communities use grape juice as well or instead, but it is clear that for millennia, the tradition preferred wine. Why? The obvious answer is that unlike grape juice, wine has the power to change consciousness. Asking more deeply: Why is that?  Wine has fermented. That means it begins as sweet grape juice, turns sour, and then turns again – to a higher sweetness, capable of changing human consciousness.

The spiritual meaning -- rooted in the chemical reality but capable of teaching a truth beyond chemistry --  is that moving through sweetness to sourness offers the possibility of the next step – transformation into a more subtle, more entrancing, form of sweetness. Once we learn this, we can do it with grape juice, or water, or breathing. Once we know this, we may learn to treat neither sweetness nor sourness in our lives as a place to stop --  but as an invitation to transform ourselves.

To transform our selves to loving and healing each other and the mother of all fruitfulness, our Mother Earth and especially her trees. Acting, as Rabbi Langner wrote earlier this week, to feed our most poverty-stricken neighbors from the bounty of new-born trees, and to reforest Earth so that she and we can breathe again.

(See https://theshalomcenter.org/tu-bshvat-reforesting-earth-heal-both-poverty-climate.)

And once again, I encourage you to access, to modify, and to use the Seder at –


Blessings of seed, roots, trunk, foliage, fruit, seed  --  Arthur


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