Class 2: Feast of the Tree of Life - Tu b'Shevat
"The new moon of Shevat is the new year of the trees: these are the words of Beit Shammai. Beit Hillel says: the fifteenth of Shevat.” - Talmud, Rosh haShanah 2
"The Divine caused to grow from the earth every tree that was beautiful and good for food, and the Tree of Life was in the midst of the garden." - Genesis 2:9
The tree has always been central to the Jewish imagination. In the Garden of Eden, we have the Tree of Life (Etz Chayim) and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Etz Daat Tov veRa). In Exodus, we hear of the menorah, a tree-shaped lamp that is to be lit eternally in the sanctuary of the Israelite people.In Proverbs, the Tree of Life becomes Wisdom, whose ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. Later, the Tree of Life becomes a name for the Torah. And the kabbalists of the Middle Ages and beyond used the Tree of Life to describe the flow of divine energy through al lthe worlds. Since earliest times, treeshave been the spiritual companions of our ancestors.
The Babylonian Talmud (Rosh haShanah 2a) lists a variety of new years, pertaining to plants, animals, and time itself. The fifteenth of the month of Shevat, or Tu B’Shevat in Hebrew,is the new year for trees. Tu b’Shevat always falls on the full moon, and in the Western calendar usually arrives in late January or early February. Tub’Shevat also falls halfway between the first of the month of Tevet (the first day of winter) and the first of the month of Nisan (the first day ofspring). It is a liminal doorway between the seasons.
The legal meaning of this date has to do with the ancient practice of tithing. The fruits of a three-year-old tree were given to the Temple, and on Tu b’Shevat, Jewish farmers counted all their trees one year older, so they would know how old their trees were and be aware of when to tithe. Tu b’Shevat was also a seasonal transition. One tradition about Tu b’Shevat, found in the Jerusalem Talmud, is that the trees begin to suckle from the new rains, the spring rains, on this day.
In the sixteenth century, the great kabbalist Isaac Luria and his companions, the kabbalists of the city of Sfat, came to believe that Tu b’Shevat was a day for celebrating the Tree of Life. These mystics invented a seder forTu b’Shevat, based on the Passover seder.The Tu b’Shevat seder honored the kabbalists’ belief that God’s presence was like a tree “rooted in heaven” that stretched down from the Divine realm to enter our world.
The traditional Tu b’Shevat seder has four stages representing the four worlds of Jewish mysticism:
- Assiyah - Doing - The Physical Earth
- Yetzirah - Feeling - The Emotional Water
- Beriyah - Thinking - The Mental Air
- Atzilut - Being - The Spiritual Fire
The seder includes the drinking of four glasses of wine or grape juice, representing these four stages. The seder also includes the eating of three kinds of fruit:
- Fruit with Husks Assiyah
- Fruit with Pits Yetzirah
- Soft Fruit Beriyah
- No Fruit (some use scent) Atzilut
These stages and rituals represent the flow of Divine energy into the world— the sap flowing through the Tree of Life.The kabbalists believed that by eating fruit, they could absorb the Divine energy within the fruit and raise it upward to God. The first written version of this seder, published in the 18th century, was called the Pri Etz Hadar, or “fruit of the beautiful tree.” From Sfat, this custom spread all over the Jewish world, and took on many different meanings.For some, Tu b’Shevat has became a time to connect to the land of Israel through its fruits. For others, Tu b’Shevat is a time to remember our relationship with the earth and promise to become better stewards or nature.
Source: from the forthcoming book Tree Psalms by Jill Hammer. The full book can be downloaded later in this lesson.
Please read the following readings in preparation for listening to the lecture for this class.
- Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy, p. 105-114
- Jill Hammer, Jewish Book of Days, p. 156-183
- Sarah Chandler, “Outdoor Rituals for Tu b’Shevat"
Lecture: TU B'SHEVAT
An introduction to the different stages of development of the New Year of the Trees, and different practices associated with this holiday.
Psalms & Seder
Read this psaltery Tree Psalms: A Tu b'Shevat Practice, a Tu b'Shevat seder is at the end of the document.
Seder of Fragrances
In Jewish mysticism, the scent represents the soul. This Tu b'Shevat seder will revive our souls as we prepare for spring. Instead of a seder of taste, this will be a seder of fragrances. Just as we smell spices to enliven us at the end of havdalah, we will use our sense of smell to wake us up to the worlds around us and the worlds within us.
Decorate the space with flowers, and place a particularly beautiful and/or good-smelling flower in the center of the table. Chant a niggun, or sing a song with natural imagery in it. If there are a number of people, invite every participant to say her name.
First Fragrance: The Earth/The World Around Us
Questions to discuss or consider: What kind of smells do we associate with the outside? With winter? How do smells begin to change when spring arrives? Is there a particular smell we associate with spring every year? Are there any people present who can’t smell most smells? Who smell very acutely? How does this influence how they experience the world? Do the natural smells we love get swallowed up by man-made things like asphalt? Does the society around us value intangible things like smell?
If in a group: ask each participant to name a smell she personally wants to do something to protect. Put all of these scents on a paper “scroll” of “ingredients” for the “perfume” the group will create.
Lift up a cinnamon stick, myrtle branch, apple blossom branch, or other fragrant wood in front of each person. Ask each person present to smell the object carefully and take in its scent.
Then say the blessing over fragrant woods: Beruchah at yah, eloheinu ruach ha’olam, boreit atzei vesamim. (Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, borei atzei vesamim.) Blessed are You, God/dess, Spirit of the Universe, who creates fragrant trees.
Second Fragrance: The Water/The Feelings that Flow Through Us
Questions for the Group to Discuss: The Talmud quotes Genesis, telling us that when Isaac smelled his son Jacob, he said: “See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which God has blessed.” The Talmud says that this is the smell of an apple orchard (Taanit 29b). Isaac smells apple blossoms when he smells his son. What smells do we associate with the blessings of our loved ones? What kinds of memories and feelings do we associate with smell?
If in a group: ask people to work in pairs. Ask one person in a pair to share, for two or three minutes, a memory of someone they love associated with a smell, to make the memory as concrete as possible to the other person. The other person should listen. Then they should switch. If alone, think over smell-memories of beloved people and places.
Take out an apple, orange, or other fragrant fruit. Then say the berachah over fragrant fruit. Feminine: Beruchah at yah, eloheinu ruach ha’olam, notenet reiach tov baperot. Masculine: Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, notein reiach tov baperot. Blessed are you, God/dess, Spirit of the Universe, who gives to fruits a good fragrance.
If you wish, you can eat the fruit, adding a sense. If you do so, say the blessing over eating a fruit: Beruchah at yah, eloheinu ruach ha’olam,boreit pri ha’etz or Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, borei pri ha’etz.
Third Fragrance: The Wind/The Inner Truths
There is a midrash about Sukkot that tells us that the etrog, the citron, represents those who are fragrant with good deeds. Scent can represent the intangible. The Talmud teaches: “At every word that went forth from the Holy One’s mouth at Sinai, the whole world was filled with the fragrance of spices… the Holy One brought forth the wind from God’s store-chambers and caused the fragrance of each word to pass on, so that each new word would smell fresh. This is why it says in the Song of Songs: His lips are like roses.” (Shabbat 88b) In our tradition, even God has a smell. What could God’s smell be?
If in a group: Break the group into three. Give each group pencils, crayons, paper, and any other decorating materials you wish. Ask them to come up with a name for God’s perfume, what that perfume smells like, what its ingredients are, and what kind of bottle it comes in. They have ten minutes to come up with these ideas and draw a picture of the bottle. Have each group present their perfume. If alone, imagine God/dess's perfume.
Now take out a rose or rose petals, or another fragrant “herb” (something that grows in the ground but is not a tree). Ask them to smell the rose and recite the blessing: Feminine: Beruchah at yah, eloheinu ruach ha’olam, boreit isvei vesamim. Masculine: Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, borei isvei vesamim. Blessed are You, God/dess, Spirit of the Universe, who creates fragrant grasses.
Fourth Fragrance: The Inner Flame
This final fragrance cannot be physically represented; it is the essence of our being. We must call it to mind inside of us.
Meditation: Imagine that you are walking down a path somewhere outside—in a forest, on a beach, in a garden of flowers. You smell a wonderful smell that causes you to change direction and walk toward the smell. As you approach the source of the smell, you see where it is coming from. What you see before you is a mystical representation of your soul—it could be a tree, a flower, a seashell, an animal, a building—anything at all. Go up to your soul and examine it. What do you like about it? What parts of it trouble you? What kind of nourishment does it need? Smell your soul. Take in its scent and see what it reminds you of. Ask it for a gift that it can give you. Then say goodbye to your soul and walk back down the path.
The final berachah is the berachah over mixed spices, over our own inner fragrances: Feminine: Beruchah at yah, eloheinu ruach ha’olam, boreit minei vesamim. Masculine: Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, borei minei vesamim. Blessed are You, God, Spirit of the Universe, who creates many kinds of spices.
Closing: May these scents and any others that we need come to us throughout the year. May they perfume our lives and enliven our days. May we sniff out good wherever it may be, and be tolerant of the scents of others around us. May this be Your will. Amen.
End with a song or niggun, and serve good-smelling snacks!
Spirit Journey: Tu b'Shevat and the Journey to the Tree of Life
This spirit journey will invite you into the essence of Tu b'Shevat. Find a quiet moment to close your eyes and listen to the recording. Please post your experiences with the journey below.