For thousands of years, Jews throughout the world have maintained connections with the Land of Israel on Tu Bishvat by eating fruits native to it.
For the kabbalists [mystics], this symbolic gesture has tremendous spiritual ramifications. According to their explanation, every piece of fruit–which can be considered the parent generation–holds the seed of the next generation, in other words, the potential for new life. If, when we eat the fruit, which releases the seed, we do so in a holy way–with proper blessing and gratitude–then we are helping God to renew nature, and the flow of life continues.
Today, with Israel’s agricultural richness and exports, we have many choices for Tu Bishvat feasting, in addition to the dried figs, dates, raisins, and carob of previous generations. Oranges, avocados, bananas, pomegranates, olives, and almonds are wonderful staples for Tu Bishvat meals, either in their natural forms or as recipe ingredients.
Creativity in connection with Tu Bishvat did not stop with the kabbalists’ seder [a ritual modeled on that of Passover]. Colorful practices for eating, distributing, collecting, and even trying to influence fate with fruit developed, largely in Sephardic [Mediterranean Jewish] communities.
Hoping to affect nature, the Kurdistani Jews placed sweet fruits like raisins in rings around trees, then prayed for an abundant fruit season. Some barren women, similarly believing in the power of sympathetic magic, would plant raisins and candy near trees or embrace trees at night, praying for fertility and many children.
Young girls eligible for marriage were “wedded” to trees in a mock wedding ceremony [a custom based on pagan roots]. If, shortly after, buds were found on the tree to which one girl was “married,” she knew her turn would soon arrive. (In Salonica, it was believed that the trees themselves embrace on Tu Bishvat, and anyone seeing them do so would have his/her wish fulfilled.)
Persian Jews climbed onto their neighbors’ roofs and lowered empty baskets into the houses through the chimneys. The baskets would be sent back laden with fruit. Some designed rituals that were even more elaborate than the seder. One custom of the day was to give children bags of fruit to be worn as pendants around their necks. Although in Bucharia and Kurdistan the holiday was known as “the day of eating the seven species,” the Jews there actually ate 30 different types of fruit (the Indian Jews counted 50!).
The wealthy of villages of some countries, like Morocco, hosted lavish feasts for all the residents at which as many as 100 different kinds of fruit, nuts, and vegetables were eaten, or they would invite all the townspeople into their homes and fill their hats with fruit. In Morocco, this home feast was often preceded by a banquet in the synagogue after Ma’ariv [the evening service]. During the day on the 15th, the children would visit relatives to fill their sacks with gifts of fruit.
The Ashkenazim [European Jews], much less colorful by comparison, recognized the day primarily by eating fruits that gave them a connection with Israel (perhaps from an ornamental dish, such as the 19th-century Austrian hand-painted ceramic Tu Bishvat plate now in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem). The wealthy would eat dates, raisins, figs, and occasionally, a costly orange–a splurge even for them. Others would have bokser (Yiddish for” carob”), which grew in great abundance and was therefore less expensive. (When fresh, it is chewy and tastes faintly like the date. After it’s been off the tree for awhile–which is how the Diaspora Jews eat it–it loses much of its appeal.)
After their Hebrew lessons in the cheder [religious school], the children would give up bags of fruit brought from home, the contents of which would all be mixed and re-divided, so that rich and poor alike would share the same sweets. American Hebrew schools distributed bags of the same types of fruits to their students, an observance that continues today.
According to the tradition of the Hasidim, God decides the fate of trees and their fruits on Tu Bishvat. Therefore, they pray that God will grant a beautiful etrog [citron fruit]for the next Sukkot, and following the fall festival, they make preserves of the citrus fruit to eat on Tu Bishvat.
Pronounced: SAY-der, Origin: Hebrew, literally “order”; usually used to describe the ceremonial meal and telling of the Passover story on the first two nights of Passover. (In Israel, Jews have a seder only on the first night of Passover.)
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.
Pronounced: too bish-VAHT (oo as in boot), Origin: Hebrew, literally “the 15th of Shevat,” the Jewish month that usually falls in January or February, this is a holiday celebrating the “new year of the trees.”