Cheat Sheet for Tu B’Shvat

For some reason Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish new year for trees, doesn’t get as much attention as some of the more well known Jewish holidays. Perhaps it’s due to the lack of a central image and/or salient theme that might make it more memorable. Hanukkah’s got the timeless menorah, Purim has the hamantashen and grogger, and Passover’s chock full of matzah and red wine. Not the case with Tu B’Shvat. This holiday is defined by trees–a broad, universal signifier that is in no way inherently Jewish.

Tu B’Shvat is, however, a classically Jewish holiday with its own characteristics and customs that in many ways are as traditionally Jewish as dipping the apple in the honey (plus it’s got one of the most hummable songs in the Jewish holiday canon). Below are several of the well known (and less well known) ways of celebrating the 24-hour holiday (which occurs on the fifteenth day of the Jewish month of Shvat, February 8, 2012, AKA today).

1) The Tu B’Shvat seder deviates from the Passover seder with its abundance of exotic fruits, fruits juices, and wine to the exclusion of all other foods. Imagine a meal comprised almost entirely of fruit sampling. A Tu B’Shvat seder is a great excuse to try ambarella, mamoncillo, santol and a bunch of other kinds of fruit you never knew existed.

2)  I have a distinct memory from our Tu B’Shvat seder in yeshiva of a rabbi tracing back this tradition to the mystical enclave of Tzfat in the 1500s. The kabbalists held that eating fruit on Tu B’Shvat serves as a tikkun (a way of repairing) the sin of Adam and Eve. So according to that esoteric strain of thought, munching on unusual fruit is as good as ignoring a loquacious serpent!

3) Tu B’Shvat  is also a festival rooting the Jews to their land. It’s not unusual for schools in Israel to host tree-plantings on the festival,  and for schools in America to host fundraisers to plant trees in Israel. At the very least, Tu B’Shvat serves as the most ecologically-aware date on the Jewish calendar.

So whether you’re planting cedars, consuming date wine, or “repairing” a millenia-old sin, Tu B’Shvat is a day to take a step back and admire our world’s marvelous fruit and trees!

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