By Ziva Swire, MHWOW Program Coordinator and Loren Berman, Moishe House Regional Jewish Educator
The meaning of Tu B’Shvat has shape-shifted significantly over the past 3,500 years. Does it matter? You be the judge! We want to give you the 411, all the info, of this holiday’s history so you can use what speaks most to you to plan your program.
- “Tu B’Shvat” means “the 15th day of Shevat” – the day it takes place, so it’s easy to remember. This year, Tu B’Shvat begins at sundown on February 9th and ends at sundown on February 10th.
- Tu B’Shvat is considered to be the beginning of the year for the trees because it marks the season in which the earliest-blooming trees in Israel start their fruit-bearing cycles.
- It’s also known by the Sages of the Mishnah, like Hillel and Shammai, as “the New Year for the Trees” because it was a day to mark the beginning of the harvest season in Israel. So why was this considered a holiday? It really wasn’t. Until…
- The 16th Century Kabbalists (mystics) in the Northern Israel city of Tzefat added new meaning to the day. The tree itself came to symbolize the human being and their relationship to God. They created a Tu B’Shvat Seder modeled after the Passover Seder (some great ready-made Seders are here, here, and here) to help strengthen this relationship. Fast forward 300-400 years…
- For the pioneers who came to resettle and build the land of Israel in the late 19th Century, Tu B’Shvat was about celebrating physical labor to develop the land, so they planted trees and celebrated rebirth.
- Today, especially in the United States, Tu B’Shvat has developed as a Jewish Environmentalism Day.
To elevate your Tu B’Shvat, we have compiled 5 different program ideas that you can do in your communities, connected to the 5 senses: feel, taste, smell, hear, and see. This year, we invite you to take your Tu B’Shvat celebrations to the next level by fully experiencing the holiday in a new way and create a deeper understanding of what it means to live in the world around you.
Check ‘em out!
As the “New Year of the Trees”, Tu B’Shvat has become a day to remind us of the responsibility we have as Jews to care for the natural world. To help you and your participants get in touch with the environment, trees, and your physical and mental connection to nature, plan a yoga session outside, preferably in a spot with lots of trees around you. Many poses in yoga are modeled after animals or other things in nature so it is a perfect way to feel grounded to the earth. Here are some tips to keep in mind when hosting a yoga session.
Plan ahead – You’ll want to choose a location that provides comfort and safety for everyone. Find a place that has level ground and is quiet enough that your participants can hear you. Ideas include a public park, the beach, or your own backyard. Check the weather before you set the date and have a backup plan in case it rains.
After your yoga session, you can finish with a Tu B’Shvat Tree Meditation. Script below:
Start by finding a quiet space in nature with a tree. Any tree will work but try to choose one that you connect with spiritually or that you feel has a strong grounding presence. Begin your meditation standing in front of the tree. Cup your hands together and bow to the four directions.
As you stand, try to embody the spirit of the tree. Your feet are planted like roots. Your core is strong like the trunk of a tree. From here, we will go into three different poses:
- For the first pose, raise your hands up above the crown of your head and cup them like a basin. Think of yourself like a tree growing upwards. Pull your shoulders back, but don’t become stiff. Allow yourself to relax. You can even sway in the wind like the tree. This pose represents the heavens. Hold this pose for as long as you feel you need.
- Next, lower your hands so they are eye-level, keeping them cupped. Keep your shoulders back Lower your gaze so your eyes are almost closed. Imagine you are illuminated from within. This pose represents Earth.
- Finally, lower your hands to chest-level. This pose connects you to humanity. Hold this with final pose for as long as you want. When finished, lower your arms and embrace yourself by crossing your arms over your chest to end your tree meditation.
Also, check out some nature-themed coloring pages! Print out the ones you like, grab some colored pens or markers, and pack them up to bring with you. Coloring with the intention of mindfulness allows us to switch off extraneous thoughts and focus on the present moment.
To honor the beginning of the fruit-bearing cycle in Israel, many people host a festive meal or seder (yes, like the one we do at Passover). They incorporate particular fruits and grains that are grown in Israel, called the seven species, to celebrate the start of the agricultural cycle of these foods.
Check out this spin on the tradition with a Tu B’Shvat Tasting that you could do in your home, using the Tasting Menu and Prayer Cards that we designed to navigate through the seder. Remember you can use your budget for printing! Taste and smell the beauty of Tu B’Shvat!
- Set the mood
Set your table as you would for Passover or Shabbat: flowers, tealights, and most importantly, wine glasses for wine or juice! Place napkins on top of the plates and then set your tasting menu and prayer cards on top of the napkin. Turn on some music and get ready to greet your guests as they arrive.
You can either have one person lead the tasting or everyone can take turns. The Prayer Cards have directions about which fruit to eat, the wine to drink, and the blessings that should be recited aloud and the Tasting Menu shows you where to place each item. After each blessing, participants will taste the fruit or sip the wine/grape juice.
- New Year’s Resolutions
After the tasting, you can invite your participants to reflect on what they want to accomplish this year. Write resolutions or commitments on seed paper, which you can then plant and watch grow! Here are some questions to think about when writing:
- What responsibilities do you feel like you have to the earth/environment as a Jewish individual?
- What resolution can you make to help deepen your relationship with the environment?
- What can trees teach us that you want to incorporate into your life?
A Giving Circle is created when a community comes together to pool their resources – time, skills, or money – towards a single cause, which leads to greater awareness of, and engagement with that particular issue. What better way to express gratitude for nature’s bounty on Tu B’Shvat than by learning about the challenges affecting the environment and contributing to a cause trying to fight them? Some of these issues, like those which come to mind in Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”, include ones we have brought about, while others may not be our doing, but that doesn’t mean that we – as humans and Jews – are off the hook.
For this Tikkun Olam program, your community will come together to study current environmental issues and the organizations that are addressing them. Here is a step-by-step guide to get you started, but you should check with fellow hosts and residents for best practices and click here for more extensive instructions from Amplifier.
- As a group, explore why participants are interested in an environmental giving circle.
- Reach a consensus on a minimum amount of money people would feel comfortable contributing to a particular organization, to be determined later.
- Divide the group into pairs.
- Have each pair select an environmental issue to tackle (some example issues with background links are below). What is the issue, why does it matter, and what is one organization that is doing good work to address it?
- Bring the group back together and have pairs present their findings about the issue and a relevant organization.
- Vote on the organization to which the group would like to pool their money.
- Click the “Donate” button if the organization has a website, and celebrate your small hand in Tikkun Olam with a glass of fruity sangria or sparkling apple cider.
- Bonus: Gauge interest for future Giving Circle opportunities. Why stop at Tu B’Shvat?
Which feel important to you?
Combining modalities – like text study and reflective doodling – is something we like to do at Moishe House. Using artist Jessica Deutsch’s ready-made text guide on Sefaria, place each individual set of texts and guiding questions (and feel free to add your own!) in a different area of your programming space, like a museum exhibit. In pairs, walk from text to text, spending a few minutes in deep conversation with your partner reflecting on the text and questions. After about 20 or 30 minutes of discussing, gather back together to share thoughts and feelings evoked from the texts. Lastly, have each person pick the text that struck them most and use the matching “design challenge” question in the Sefaria source sheet to make a piece of art to take home.
A full-on text study program like the Paint Night and Gallery Walk isn’t for everyone, but we want you to feel comfortable making Jewish wisdom a welcome guest at any program you host.
With that in mind, inspired by the Hazon Tu B’Shvat Seder, we’ve collected a series of texts and accompanying questions to keep in your back pocket and drag-and-drop into your program. You can use these supplements as conversation starters, intentions to frame ritual, introductions or closings to your program – whatever you feel is best for your program, community, and the moment!
Relating to Trees
|Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit, 7a
Rav Nachman, the son of Yitzchak, said: Why was the Torah compared to a tree, as it says “for it is a tree of life for those who hold fast to it” (Proverbs 3:18)? To teach you that just as a small tree may set a larger tree on fire (lit. “lights up”), so too is it with scholars, where the small sharpen the large. After all, Rabbi Chanania said “I have learnt much from my teachers, and more from my friends, but from my students more than anyone.”
- What are the different physical parts of a tree? How might each part teach us something about our spiritual lives?
- How else are we like trees? How can these similarities influence how we interact with one another?
- Looking for more deeper lessons? Spiritual Lessons from Trees explores just that!
Relating to Ourselves
|A Personal Prayer from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (18th C, Ukraine)
Grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass – among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong. May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field – all grasses, trees, and plants – awake at my coming, to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing things, which are made as one by their transcendent Source. May I then pour out the words of my heart before your Presence like water, O Lord, and lift up my hands to You in worship, on my behalf, and that of my children!
- What is Rabbi Nachman struggling with and why? Do you ever share that struggle?
- How can retreating in nature to help you overcome, reflect, or process that struggle, even for a moment?
- Is the tree on the sidewalk so different from the trees in a forest? How can you bring Rebbe Nachman’s meditative practice, also known as hitbodedut, into your lives? Click here and 3 steps to help you do it here!
Relating to Food
|Vayikra Rabbah 25:3
In truth, from the beginning of the creation of the world, the Holy One, Blessed be He, engaged in nothing but gardening, above all else; it is proven thus, as it is written: ”And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden”; hence, so must you, when you enter the land, occupy yourselves with nothing but gardening above all else; thus it is written: ”When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the LORD; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit—that its yield to you may be increased: I the LORD am your God.”
- What does “God as Gardener” teach us about this author’s perception of God, God’s engagement with the world, and our own relationship with nature?
- How does this text suggest balancing our roles as having dominion over the land, versus stewards of the land?
Relating to the Land
For Adonai your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of [grape] vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and [date] honey; a land where you may eat bread without scarceness, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. And you shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless Adonai your God for the good land which has been given to you.
*Underlined are the seven species, Barley, Olive, Date, Wheat, Fig, Grape, and Pomegrante, which grow in Israel and are eaten during many Tu b’Shvat seders. You can remember them with a mnemonic: BuiLD With Fruit, Grain, and People (creation of Dvir Cahana, Moishe House Montreal).
- This text has us blessing God for the land after we’ve completed our meal. Who else is in the long value chain who helped bring your food to your plate?
- When many of us live in (sub)urban areas, what can we do to help us remember and identify with the land from which our food came?
- How in touch are you with your own city/state’s local or seasonal fruits and vegetables? What do you think it would feel like to try “eating local” for a month?
- Curious about our relationship with the physical environment? Check out Jewish Environmentalism: An Ancient Jewish Value or Our Obligations to the Environment.