A fruit-based Seder to honor Tu B’Shevat

This past Monday was Tu B’Shevat. Did you celebrate it? Did you mark it in any way? Do you even know what it is?
I had the recent opportunity to lead a Tu B’Shevat Seder for Herzl Hadassah. I asked for this privilege to honor the memory of longtime Herzl member Natalie Lewis, who passed away in her 90s during 2018. Before she left Dallas to live near her children in the D.C. area, she was a noted area bookseller who advised book groups about their choices, a religious school teacher for more than 50 years, a dear friend to many (including me), and a Hadassah stalwart who conducted this early-spring event herself for several years.
Most Jews think that “Seder” is a word confined to Pesach. But in truth, it means “order”: to do things in a specific order, as we are commanded by our guidebook, the Haggadah, at the Passover table.
Popularizing the Tu B’Shevat Seder is a gift from the Reform movement, which produced a simple “Haggadah” for it several decades ago. Its form — its “order” — takes us on the same kind of journey we travel at the Passover table, giving us the same kind of understanding of how to observe the holiday as we go: At its table, we also drink four cups of wine, but instead of matzo and the Seder plate’s mandated foods, we eat at least three fruits (a word that in this context also includes nuts) that grow in Israel. We may choose those we like, but according to specific “rules” — one whose hard outside covers an edible center; then the reverse, one whose edible outside covers a center that we cannot eat; finally, one to be eaten whole, its inside and outside together. You can see how this can also become a delicious holiday.
In Israel, Tu B’Shevat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of that name) is for planting trees, so some call it “the Jewish Arbor Day”; its other name is “the birthday of the trees,” because every living tree is considered one year older on that date. Here, like this year, planting is sometimes impossible. But uncooperative weather isn’t enough reason to neglect the annual celebration.
At our Hadassah Seder, we served up, along with our fruits, both white and red fruit juices — no wine for a bunch of primarily senior women at 10 a.m. These were poured and mixed appropriately as needed, at four times during the Seder, to represent four stages of tree and plant growth: first, all white, the earliest awakening; second, white tinted with red to make pale pink, for buds fully opening; third, a half-and-half of the two, showing a high point of growth; and the final fourth cup — all red — representing that growth in its ultimate fullness.
Our “fruits” of choice were oranges and almonds, because the almond tree is the first springtime bloomer in Israel; unpitted olives; and figs, which are totally edible, tiny seeds and all. Of course, before each fruit and each drink we offered the traditional blessings for God’s gifts of vine, earth and tree. This routine, this “Seder,” is a wonderful way to teach children (as well as our unknowing selves) about a holiday so little-known and little-observed by Jews in America.
I tell you this with hopes of encouraging more local observance of this springtime holiday. Even if we can’t actually dig in the earth to plant something new, we can remember and honor the advice of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, whose wisdom comes down to us from the time of the Second Temple: “If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone comes to tell you that the Messiah has arrived, first plant the tree, and only then go out to welcome the Messiah.”
P.S. If you dislike carob, the most traditional Tu B’Shevat fruit, as much as I do, no one will penalize you for observing the holiday without it.

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