By Amy Wolff Sorter
Tu B’Shevat may not have the splash of last month’s Chanukah or the rowdiness of next month’s Purim, but according to area Jewish leaders, Tu B’Shevat, with its emphasis on trees and the environment, is an important date on the Hebrew calendar.
This year, Tu B’Shevat — literally the 15th day of the month of Shevat on the Hebrew calendar — takes place from sundown Friday, Jan. 25 to sundown Saturday, Jan. 26. During that period, organizations throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area will focus on everything from the meaning of trees to Judaism, to the relationship between Jews and the planet.
At Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Fort Worth, children attending the religious school will plant in Gan Ahavath Sholom — its new community garden — and will also take part in a Tu B’Shevat seder.
“That’s what the holiday itself is all about; it’s about the trees,” said Marti Herman, who is spearheading Gan Ahavath Sholom planting activities. “It just made sense. It’s an appropriate time for spring planting, and that coincided at just the right time.”
Meanwhile, in Dallas, Congregation Shearith Israel will have a full-fledged seder, complete with four cups of wine, tasting of fruits, singing, dancing and a dairy dinner. Congregation Anshai Torah in Plano also is having a seder for adults and kids, with foods native to Israel, such as figs, olives and carobs. Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson will have a congregational Tu B’Shevat Shabbat dinner.
“We try to get both the children an adults attuned to Tu B’Shevat and environmental concerns,” said Bob Westle, Anshai Torah’s education director.
In addition to trees, Tu B’Shevat focuses on the environment and environmentalism. But environmentalism and ecology take on different forms in the secular world — some folks are content to stick soda bottles in a recycling bin and call that “environmentalism,” while others refuse to use plastic bags at the grocery store and build a compost heap in their backyards. Given the different definitions of “environmentalism,” it’s probably little wonder that Tu B’Shevat observations and celebrations can differ greatly.
Even the origins of the specific holiday differ. CSI Associate Rabbi David Singer explained that the sages don’t refer to Tu B’Shevat specifically, but to a tree’s “new year” throughout the Mishnah. The sages explained that understanding a tree’s age was hugely important, as it determined whether its fruit would be eaten or offered to the Temple.
“During the first three years of a tree’s life, it’s not ours, but God’s,” Singer commented.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman of Adat Chaverim in Plano also said Tu B’Shevat’s origins were born from tithes during the days of the Temple.
“It started out as a tax holiday,” he explained. “Any tree that fruited by a certain time would have to be tithed that year, whereas trees fruiting afterward would tithe in the following year.”
Once the Temple was destroyed and the Diaspora was in full swing, many things changed; one of which was the meaning and observation of Tu B’Shevat.
“It’s a holiday that’s changed its focus over time, and its observance has changed over time,” Sternman said. “A Tu B’Shevat celebration depends on the culture of a particular congregation.”
There are practical observances, such as the one going on at CAS’ Gan Ahavath Sholom. Herman said the planting project is ongoing, with the resulting produce going to area food banks. “It’s our hope that the kids can see what their labor of love can produce for others in need,” Herman commented. “Plus they can see the full process of how food comes from the field.”
Some Reform congregations encourage religious school students to plant parsley at this time of year, Sternman added. By Pesach, the vegetable will have sprouted and be ready for harvest, to be used at the Passover seder.
Yet the Tu B’Shevat seders throughout the area encompass more of the mystical side of the holiday, in addition to its practical viewpoint. Rabbi Nasanya Zakon, director of DATA of Plano, noted that Tu B’Shevat seders are filled with blessings over unusual fruits and nuts.
“An important approach to this holiday is a sense of gratitude,” he said. “We live in a world in which so much is synthetic, we can lose appreciation for God’s beauty and creation. Tu B’Shevat is a great way to look at the brilliance of a pineapple and to appreciate the taste of an orange; to appreciate God’s creations.”
Singer agreed, pointing out that the Tu B’Shevat observance, no matter which form it takes, provides a priceless opportunity to reflect on the beauty of creation, and to ensure that beauty is cared for.
“God promised not to destroy creation again after the Flood,” Singer said. “As partners, in creation, as partners living on this beautiful earth, we have a responsibility to protect what’s been given to us.”
In addition to the “attitude of gratitude” focus, the holiday offers a good time to reconnect with, and protect, the Earth, something that’s mentioned over and over throughout the Bible.
Tu B’Shevat offers interesting symbolism, especially if examined through Kabbalistic eyes, Zakon said. The holiday takes place during a time of year in which sap begins flowing in trees.
Though we don’t see the actual results of that until around Passover, “in Deuteronomy, there are comparisons between human beings and trees in the field,” Zakon explained. “As trees grow in two different stages — internal and external — humans do as well.”
The mystics explain Tu B’Shevat as a holiday that sets the stage for growth – both human and plants – because it’s a holiday that launches internal growth.
Singer believes that, however it’s celebrated, Tu B’Shevat is nature’s wake-up call to Jews.
“Much like the shofar blast during the High Holy Days is a wake-up call to our souls to help perfect our beings, Tu B’Shevat is the wake-up call for us in regards to nature, reminding us that we have an opportunity and obligation to protect the planet,” he said.