Tu Bishvat, or the "birthday" of all fruit trees, is a minor festival seemingly tailor-made for today’s Jewish environmentalists. In fact, there is an ancient midrash (rabbinic teaching) that states, "When God led Adam around the Garden of Eden, God said, ‘Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world–for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you’" (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.13).
But it was not always this way. In ancient times, it was merely a date on the calendar that helped Jewish farmers establish exactly when they should bring their fourth-year produce of fruit from recently planted trees to the Temple as first-fruit offerings. After this, all subsequent fruit produced from these trees could be eaten or sold as desired.
Tu Bishvat could easily have fallen into desuetude after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, since there was no longer a system of fruit offerings or Temple priests to receive them. However, the kabbalists (mystics) of Tzfat (the city of Safed) in the Land of Israel in the 16th century created a new ritual to celebrate Tu Bishvat called the Feast of Fruits.
Modeled on the Passover seder, participants would read selections from the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature, and eat fruits and nuts traditionally associated with the land of Israel. According to Deuteronomy 8:8, there are five fruits and two grains associated with Israel as a "land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees, and [date] honey." The kabbalists also gave a prominent place to almonds in the Tu Bishvat seder, since the almond trees were believed to be the first of all trees in Israel to blossom. Carob, also known as bokser or St. John’s bread, became another popular fruit to eat on Tu Bishvat, since it could survive the long trip from Israel to Jewish communities in Europe.
Participants in the kabbalistic seder would also drink four cups of wine: white wine (to symbolize winter), white with some red (a harbinger of the coming of spring); red with some white (early spring) and finally all red (spring and summer).
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