Why is This Night Different? Thoughts on Tu B’Shevat

January 6th, 2020

RICHARD H. SCHWARTZ, PHD

One of the highlights of the Passover seder is the recitation of the four questions which consider how the night of Passover differs from all the other nights of the year. Similar questions are appropriate for Tu B’Shvat because of the many ways that this holiday differs from Passover and all other days of the year.

While four cups of red wine (or grape juice) are drunk at the Passover seder, the four cups drunk at the Tu B’shavat seder vary in color from white to pink to ruby to red.

While Passover is a holiday of springtime, Tu B’Shvat considers the changing seasons from winter to autumn, as symbolized by the changing colors of the wine or grape juice, to remind us of God’s promise of renewal and rebirth.

While Passover commemorates the redemption of the Israelites, Tu B’Shvat considers the redemption of humanity, as the kabbalists of Safed who inaugurated the Tu B’Shvat seder regarded the eating of the many fruits with appropriate blessings and kavannah (intentions) on Tu B’Shvat as a tikkun (repair) for the original sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

While other Jewish holidays honor or commemorate events and people, Tu B’Shvat honors trees, fruits, and other aspects of nature.

While people generally eat whatever fruits are in season, on Tu B’Shvat people try to eat fruits from Israel, especially fruits mentioned in the Torah.

While people generally take the environment for granted, on Tu B’Shvat there is an emphasis on the proper stewardship of the environment.

While people do not generally think about trees in the winter, there is much interest in trees on Tu B’Shvat, although the spring is still months away.

While people generally think of Israel as the land of the Bible, as the Jewish people’s ancestral home, and as the modern Jewish homeland, on Tu B’Shvat people think of Israel in terms of its orchards, vineyards, and olive groves.

While people generally think of fruit as something to be purchased at a supermarket or produce store, on Tu B’Shvat people think of fruit as tokens of God’s kindness.

While people generally try to approach God through prayer, meditation, and study, on Tu B’Shvat people try to reach God by eating fruit, reciting blessings with the proper feelings, and by considering the wonders of God’s creation.

While many people eat all kinds of food including meat and dairy products during most Jewish holidays and on most other days, the Tu B’Shvat Seder in which fruits and nuts are eaten, along with the singing of songs and the recitation of Biblical verses related to trees and fruits, is the only sacred meal where only vegetarian, actually vegan, foods are eaten as part of the ritual.

While people generally look on the onset of a new year as a time to assess how they have been doing and to consider their hopes for the new year, Tu B’Shvat is the New Year for Trees, when the fate of trees is decided.

While most Jewish holidays have a fixed focus, Tu B’Shvat has changed over the years from a holiday that initially marked the division of the year for tithing purposes to one in which successively the eating of fruits, then the planting of trees in Israel, and most recently responses to modern environmental crises have became major parts of the holiday.

Shlomo Carlebach once quipped that the most important Jewish holidays are the ones that are least celebrated. While there has been increasing interest in Tu B’Shvat recently, this holiday that is so rich in symbolism and important messages for today is still not considered to any great extent by most Jews. Let us hope that this will soon change and that an increased emphasis on Tu B’Shvat and its important lessons will help revitalize Judaism and shift our imperiled planet to a more sustainable path.

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