Rabbi Gabriel Botnick introduces a new ritual for Tu B’Shevat
At the start of Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, we learn that there are not one, but four, New Year days in Judaism. We are most familiar with Rosh Chodesh Tishrei, which is not only the first day of a new month but also marks the anniversary of the world’s creation – Rosh Hashanah. The first of Nisan marks the New Year of Kings. Every time a monarch is in power, when this day comes around, we add another year to the measure of their reign. The first of Elul is the New Year of Animals: any animals born after that day are considered for a separate tithe year from those born before. And of course, there’s Tu B’Shevat, which marks the midpoint of the rainy season and is celebrated as the New Year of Trees.
Just as no single day can claim to be the one, true, New Year in Judaism, so too no single day can lay claim to the ritual of Seder. Of course, whenever people hear the word ‘Seder’, most will automatically – and rightly – associate it with Pesach and the festive meal. But the word ‘Seder’ simply means ‘order’ and is used to describe any ritual meal that follows a prescribed order of blessings and traditions before the main course. Another holiday that is celebrated with a Seder is Rosh Hashanah, when – before reciting HaMotzi – we bless a number of symbolic foods, whose names are used in New Year-themed puns. This is the origin of our eating apples dipped in honey: that we may have a sweet year.
But more relevant to this issue of Our Cong, there is also a tradition of holding a Seder on Tu B’Shevat. In this ritual – instituted by the Kabbalists nearly 500 years ago – we begin the festive meal by blessing and consuming symbolic fruits, nuts and wine, each corresponding to a different season of the year as well as various planes of our spiritual existence.
For winter, we drink white wine (symbolising snow) and eat nuts and fruits with inedible exteriors (e.g. walnuts, pomegranates, oranges), representing seeds lying dormant and how we might retreat into our homes and close ourselves off from others.
For spring, we add a drop of red wine to a glass of white – representing the first blush of seasonal colour – and we eat fruits with pits or stones, but that are otherwise fully edible (e.g. olives, apricots). These fruits not only remind us of how the ground is not yet fully thawed, but they also encourage us to identify parts of ourselves which we may be holding back out of fear of becoming too vulnerable.
The third part of this seder is based around a glass of wine that is equal parts red and white – reminding us of the vibrant colours of nature in the warmer months. At this point, we also eat a selection of fruits which are fully edible (e.g. figs, grapes) and represent the ways in which we might fully give of ourselves to others.
Finally, we arrive at autumn – for which we drink dark, red wine and consume no fruit. The hope is that, by the autumn of our lives, we have realized our full potential and embraced wholly our spiritual existence. For this reason, we have no need for the physical nourishment of fruit, as we aim to find total contentment through the Divine.
The Tu B’Shevat Seder adds no more than fifteen minutes or so to our holiday meal, but it leaves us with meaningful teachings that can come back to mind throughout the year as we marvel at the changing of the seasons and the natural world. While I certainly encourage you to try out this beautiful tradition on your own during one of your holiday meals (24–25 January), I also invite you to join us at Belsize Square on 20 January, when we will enjoy a communal Tu B’Shevat Seder during Kiddush, following our Shabbat morning service.