In his description of the mystics’ Tu Bishvat seder–a ceremony modeled on the Passover seder–Rabbi Waskow offers a unique interpretation of the symbols used in this ritual. In the more common explanation, wine represents different seasons and the fruit and nuts symbolize different type of people. Reprinted with permission from Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology, edited by Ari Elon, Naomi Mara Hyma,n and Arthur Waskow (Jewish Publication Society).
Who could imagine a band of mystics choosing April 15–Income Tax Day [in the United States]–to make a festival for celebrating the rebirth of God?
Yet that is what the kabbalists [mystics] of Tzfat [Safed] did in the 16th century when they recreated Tu Bishvat. Tu Bishvat, the full moon of midwinter, had been important only in Holy Temple days [during the Second Temple period], in the calendar of tithing. It was the end of the "fiscal year" for trees. Fruit that appeared before that date was taxed for the previous year; fruit that appeared later, for the following year. [See Babylonian Talmud, tractate Rosh ha-Shanah 2a passim.]
The Talmud called this legal date the "New Year for Trees." But the kabbalists saw it as the New Year for the Tree of Life itself–for God’s Own Self, for the Tree Whose Roots are in Heaven and Whose Fruit is the World Itself and All God’s Creatures. To honor the reawakening of trees and of that Tree in deep midwinter, they created a mystical seder that honors the Four Worlds of Acting, Relating, Knowing, and Being. These Four Worlds were enacted with four cups of wine and four courses of nuts and fruit (moving from less permeable to more permeable, and after three courses of tangible fruit, ending with fruit so permeable that it was intangible–for the Fourth World of Being, Spirit).
The symbolic system of this seder held still deeper riches, echoes of generation and regeneration in the worlds of plants and animals.
-Nuts and fruit, the rebirthing aspects of a plant’s life cycle, are the only foods that require no death, not even the death of a plant. Our living trees send forth their fruit and seeds in such profusion that they overflow beyond the needs of the next generation.
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