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.
-The four cups of wine were red, rose, pink, white. Thus they echoed generation and regeneration among animals, including the human race. For red and white were in ancient tradition seen as the colors of generativity. To mix them was to mix the blood and semen that to the ancients connoted procreation.
Why then did the kabbalists of Tzfat connect these primal urgings toward abundance with the date of tithing fruit? Because they saw that God’s shefa, abundance, would keep flowing only if a portion of it were returned to God, the Owner of all land and all abundance.
And who were God’s rent collectors? The poor and the landless, including those priestly celebrants and teachers who owned no piece of earth and whose earthly task was to teach and celebrate.
These mystics saw a deep significance in giving. They said that to eat without blessing the Tree was robbery and to eat without feeding others was robbery. Worse! Because without blessing and sharing, the flow of abundance would choke and stop.
Tu Bishvat approaches once again. The trees of the world are in danger; the poor of the world are in need; the teachers and celebrants of the world are at risk.
Give! Or the flow of abundance will choke on the friction of its own outpouring, and God’s Own Self will choke on our refusal of compassion.
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: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.
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.”