The development of the seder, and what we can learn about our will for assertion from this tradition
Tu biShvat – the New Year for the Trees – is probably one of the most enjoyable, and yet one of the least understood, holidays in the Jewish calendar. It is a highly mystical holiday, and also deeply connected to nature. And because us moderns tend to be quite detached from both the mystical and the natural world, it’s hard for us to connect with this frame of mind. It’s often hard – especially for those of us who are primarily urban business people – to connect with the land and do it in a most spiritual way.
This is especially more so for us Jews outside of the land of Israel, where the agricultural issues of how to manage the crops of Eretz Yisrael and where observing the related halacha isn’t something we really experience.
This holiday marks the agricultural fiscal year in the land of Israel. This is when all the trees are accounted for in the land, allowing the growers to know when it was appropriate to harvest from a tree. This accounting made it possible to know when to observe the many agricultural related Torah mitzvot; such as to give first-fruit offerings from a new tree, and when to mark for the agricultural sabbatical years (shemitah) in the land, and from what point to give tithes from ones crops. (see Leviticus 19:23-25)
Notice that this year is the shemitah year in Israel, where we don’t plant or harvest in Israel. We let the land rest and lay fallow in the holy land. But here in the diaspora most people are unaware of it. Like I said, it’s hard to connect to this outside of the Land of Israel. Where the seasons might not jive and the cycle doesn’t apply. This makes it difficult to grasp and appreciate, this cycle of life in Isreael. And this can even be unnerving to some, who do not hold Israel dear. As indeed, this holiday does ask us to consider the nature and produce of the Land of Israel. And it also calls us out to actively connect with this very land.
But this holiday which we know today comes down to us today as an outgrowth of both spiritual and secular reinterpretation. Ones which have greatly shaped the holiday and the way we celebrate it today.
The kabbalists of the middle-ages – those Jewish masters of mysticism and the esoteric – they were deeply connected to the land of Israel after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and upon their arrival in the holy city of Tzfat (Safed). There the symbolisms of this holiday came alive for them as they began to renew the land. And there they were also able to discover deeper spiritual meanings to this observance and to the traditions surrounding this holiday.
Out of this tradition we received the seder for this holiday, as documented in the “The Pri Etz Hadar: Fruit of the Majestic Tree seder for Tu biShvat by Rabbi Natan Binyamin Ghazzati (ca. 17th c.),” a deeply mystical text intended to help people take a spiritual accounting of their growth and produce on a soul level. This text first documented the customs for the Tu biShvat seder we know today. A source text made popular among Sephardic and Chassidic masters, being close adherents of the mystical schools.
Of course, as the age of enlightenment arose many people began to neglect the deeply mystical practices. And intern this holiday of Tu biShvat fell into neglect by many in the next couple centuries.
However, another huge revival and re-envisioning of this holiday – this time a secular one – would come about as the result of another direct encounter with Jews and the land of Israel. Actualized as part of the Zionist dream during the 19th and 20th century, during the rebirth of the land of Israel and the formation of the modern, secular State of Israel. This holiday would take on the role akin to Arbor Day, and focus upon the restoration of the land of Israel. Planting trees and restoring the wildlife of Israel, which had been stripped bare in the many wars, crusades and occupations.
For many Jews in diaspora, Tu biShvat would thus also come to hold significance. A day in which we direct our focus towards Israel. To try to connect with eretz Yisrael in the most direct ways possible. Many contributing to the restoration and preservation of the land. The world over, Jewish progressives and religious Zionists would come to observe this day by giving tzedakah (charity) for planting trees in Israel. This day noticeably marked with the passing around of the Jewish National Fund pushka.
Believe it or not, especially for Orthodox Jews in America, the giving of tzedakah for planting trees is one of the only ways most of us remember observing the holiday as kids. I was talking about this with my friends who were former yeshiva bochurs as we planned for the holiday this year. Except for obtaining from fasting, which isn’t necessarily an observance in and of itself, that was about it. Raising money in diaspora and physically planting trees in Israel was the most pronounced observance any of us remembers. One which was less likely if you were haredi, and therefore not Zionist leaning.
In the orthodox world I remember we would all do a little learning, but few people held a full Tu biShvat seder in those days. Most likely, because few people knew exactly how to perform it well enough. Which is quite sad because the seder is dripping in symbolism which should be most meaningful for those who are fully immersed in the verbiage of kabbalah and chassidus. And yet, we admit we have often been lacking in our application and enthusiasm.
Of course since then, a lot has changed. Newer siddurim and the advent of online resources, more people are finding the seder more accessible. But the reviving observance is also greatly motivated by a growing interest in kabbalah in society today. An interest which many traditional movements are thrilled to be meeting, so today there is a lot more promotion of this holiday more than ever to address this interest.
However, for the most part the most success in incorporating this holiday into the consciousness of diaspora Jews has come during the latter part of the 20th century and during the turn of the 21st century has been made by progressive Jews. By diaspora Jews who have brought the lessons learned in modern-day Israel to the rest of the world. Who have witnessed the melded of the secular with the spiritual in the modern-day State of Israel. And who have in this model taken the holiday and made it more socially conscious in our own lands. And who have also come to mark this day as an opportunity for their communities to become socially and politically active regarding the environment and nature. Realizing that we wont bear fruit until we break ground through social action.
In this spirit the holiday of Tu biShvat has come to be embraced the world over as a Jewish Earth Day Celebration of sorts. Where people not just celebrate nature, but actively show their green thumb and their social activism. A time when one gets to show their love for nature and vow to preserve it.
The latter reason is probably another factor for why this holiday of Tu biShvat is more well observed among progressives and less so among conservatives in America. Be it personal discomfort with being called a tree-hugger, one’s dissociation with nature… or even worse, ones troubling environmental politics. What ever the reason, many religious Jews in the Americas show neglect towards our observance because of our personal sentiments we need to correct.
Today I want us to take the time to focus on a tikkun atzmi – a correction and repair within ourselves. So intern we can be more effective in making a tikkun olam – a correction and repair in the world! We need to have both.
A Peek into the Mystical Aspects of the Tu biShvat Seder
And that is precisely what this holiday is about according to our kabbalistic tradition. Making a tikkun (a correction) within ourselves.
And more specifically making a correction within our male energies and over our sense of assertion. This is a very virile holiday, it is not so much about embracing mother nature. It’s more about becoming aware and mindful of how we assert ourselves over nature, and then taking those lessons inward.
And this is where I fear I might lose readers, both nervous males and bashful females. I’ve noticed I can talk as much as I want about the feminine aspects of G-d’s shechinah these days, but talking about masculine things is something many are becoming less accustomed to! Men and women, both equally, show discomfort at times. However, I think that whatever our gender is we can all learn a very important lesson by looking at the very masculine and assertive essence of this holiday of Tu biShvat.
I don’t want to make it weird so let me explain what I mean, and use the paralleling examples we can draw from. At this time of year we are approaching the spring harvest two months from now, which is the biblical new year; that is something most of us know little about. So instead let us look at the opposite side of the calendar, and compare it to the coming of the civil and religious new year – to Rosh haShanah; that is something we seem to all naturally know more about. I’m sure many of you will immediate recognize the polar distinctions between these two seasons in our tradition.
When we think of the season of Rosh haShanah we think of it as a season with female spiritual correspondences. The season of Elul and Tishrei are often regarded as a feminine and receptive time of year. This month of Elul, its kabbalistic Zodiac sign is the Beitulah; the virgin which corresponds to Virgo, explained as the same virgin (beitulah) of Libra with the scales of justice (moznayim) in hand. This symbolizes the receptive nature of the virgin earth, during the season of plowing of the land. It also represents Din – or judgment, which is also seen as a feminine aspect of the Divine. As we know, we are making selichot in that month of Elul, in preparation towards being judged in Tisherei. That season is characterized by judgment and restriction.
But at the same time the season of fall is an intimate season, in which we are to mystically mirror a young virgin longing for marriage and intimacy. When we want to mirror that longing in our relationship to G-d. That is why we also consider Rosh haShanah our wedding day to G-d. From that point of spiritual reference, we focus upon our receptivity.
See, that wasn’t so hard. Not too difficult to talk about. And even if we are not kabbalistically learned, most of us recognize these themes. Now let’s see if we can grasp the other end of this.
In contrast, at this time of year we are supposed to be focusing on the more masculine correspondences displayed in these upcoming months. Now during Shevat we do not consider this season barren, this is now the time of the almond blossoms breaking forth. The ground will soon start to break forth with life, and with the hopes of budding of fruits to come.
We are now going into the fertile months. Two months from this night, we will be looking up at a full-moon like this and celebrating Pesach; we will be eating the produce of the spring wheat harvest, and counting towards the barley harvest until Shavout. This is a seminal and groundbreaking time of year. A very virile and fertile time of year!
We aren’t the only people who see this, consider how strong the theme of fertility is present in the cultures around us as this season approaches. As the common culture will soon find their celebrations also entrenched in symbols of fertility; as they decorate everything in eggs and bunnies. This theme is starting to be in the air for many cultures the world over, not just for us alone. It’s not hard to recognize and understand this seasonal contrast.
In contrast to the feminine and receptive nature of Rosh haShanah (and Beitulah), the spiritual new year of Pesach is a strikingly masculine holiday. And so is Tu biShvat. The Fall nature is barren and receptive, the Spring is asserting and springs forth. We know what we are talking about here, as traditionally cultures have often binarily called this “masculine initiative,” so we get what this means. I don’t need to be too explicit, I think we all get this.
Notice how the kabbalistic zodiac sign Taleh, the lamb in our tradition or a ram, it corresponds to the spring month of Aires (the month of aviv, spring; Nissan); it displays the masculine spiritual forces par-excellence. It represents an active and domineering partner in its spiritual attributes. It displays the Divine aspects of Chesed – that passionate and ever-expansive type of love. That fiery and lusty energy is what takes center stage as this time of fertility draws close.
Now we really need to pay special attention to this point. And I think if we examine our own drives we can clearly connect to these points in every person. That what this side of the Divine essence represents is that power of assertion we have inside us. That drive to want to assert ourselves in life and in our relationship to other things. It signifies that ever-expansive desire to aggressively assert ourselves over nature and life itself. To take whats barren and make life spring erect from it.
These are the words and themes mystically woven together in this Tu biShvat seder. For those who are attuned to kabbalah and chassidut we know that part of the this tikkun we are making is within our own personal will and drive to assert ourselves; and to bring balance to an ever-expansive type of chesed in us, as displayed by masculine aspects of the spiritual forces used in the text of the seder. (Abba, Tzedek, Yesod, etc.) It calls us to consider and make tikkun (correction) for an expansive love and passion on overdrive.
Take a look at the Pri Etz Hadar when you get a chance. Notice that the seder wording clearly makes those parallels in how it speaks about making a correction in Yesod (the phallus), and by means of this expressing how our over expansive drives are so seen as a form of unchastity. As we are embracing the virile energy at this time of year, we are also asked to be equally mindful in using that power responsibly. It calls us to make a correction in ourselves, related to bring balance to our own carnal desires and actions. Instead of giving completely over to this virile drive we are called to bring balance to it. Asking men in the traditional text to be mindful that they might be over-expansive in their carnal passions, and to make a tikkun (a correction inside ones self) for that.
This is a lesson which was learned though nature, and which needs to be applied back in our relationship with nature. At the heart of the Tu biShvat seder, under all the layers of mysticism, that is what it is doing by calling us to on all levels overcome a base-level drive inside of ourselves to assert ourselves over nature and be more responsible with the power we assert over the earth.
At Rosh Hashanah in Fall we are called to be mindful of being receptive and properly submissive in our nature. But in this coming season of Spring, we are asked to be mindful of our will to assert ourselves and to expansively spring forth.
For those who are brave and honest with themselves, we need to be asking ourselves some questions deep inside our souls at this time. Privately ask oneself:
- Am I over-asserting myself over the earth in a damaging and disrespectful manner? Am I being over-expansive in respect to the earth?
- Am I over-asserting myself sexually, using it in a damaging and disrespecting manner? Am I being over-asserting in my sexuality?
The Seder and the Four Worlds
Now the structure of the Tu biShvat seder shows us how to apply this vigorous expansiveness, how to properly apply all this Chesed. And addresses how to become more effective in this aspect, both in our passions and actions. It does this by taking us on a journey up the scale of the kabbalistic Four Worlds of ABiYA:
Assiyah: The world of Action
Yetzirah: The world of Formation
Beriah: The world of Creation
Atzilut the world of Emanation (actualization)
In this seder we start our frame of reference grounded in the physical world of action, and we are moving towards pure thought which we perceive as being in the fiery heavens (where the sun and stars burn in the sky) as the mystics perceive of this path. We are moving upwards, elevating our senses and drives and thoughts to even loftier heights.
But it all starts with activity, this process begins with us starting within the world of action. It starts with us putting our hands into action. And then as we begin to act, we can then better perceive of how to form and inspire creation in this world.
This holiday orients us and points us forward, and up. Directing us to strive on for a higher level of thought and passion which is beyond constriction, understood as the world of Emanation (Atzilut). Where G-d is One and the world is one. At this highest level of consciousness, we are trying to actualize a world without striving, restriction, disunity and lack; where there is completeness and wholeness.
Now I’ve said a mouthful, and I know very well that most of us aren’t mystics. I know not many of you consider yourselves too spiritual or mystical. Many of us are moderns and progressives, people who are not wrapped up in a world of mystical symbolisms as others. I understand this.
But that is the beautify of this holiday, it doesn’t require us to be at a place of lofty spirituality. The spiritual exercises of this holiday starts us firmly on the earth, in the natural world and in this very realm of physical action. All we need to do is focus on how to bring our actions better in line with our most loftier thoughts.
This tradition of ours doesn’t tell us we need to attain great spiritual heights. It just tells us to start with our actions, and to elevate our thoughts which inspire our actions. We don’t need to be concerned if we reach Atzilut, really. We aren’t literally trying to reach perfection, but what is important is that we are striving towards bettering and perfecting this world towards that more ideal reality. And doing a tikkun, making a correction, for those defects we recognize in this world.
In both our actions and with our passions as previously discussed, we are asked to become more conscious about our sense of assertiveness. That is what I want us to keep in mind as we make our way through the Tu biShvat seder this year. How to make a tikkun in that area of our lives as well.
Reflection: Now I don’t really think that traditional Jews are less observant than progressive Jews in respect to this holiday, just less enthusiastic about it sometimes in diaspora. As it is noticeable that progressives have started to do more visible activism during this holiday in the west. And that’s a chesed, it’s a really great thing!
In actually, I don’t believe one side is necessarily more observant or correct than the other. But that traditional Jews and the progressives Jews today are often approaching this holiday from different sides, but for the same goal:
- In the orthodox circles, people are and often have been more attuned to their tikkun atzmi – a correction and repair in oneself.
- And in the progressive circles, people are generally more attuned towards a tikkun olam – a correction and repair in the world.
However, the reality is that all of us need to be working towards a tikkun in both these areas, and do so more seriously during this season. Our tradition actually calls us to deal with both. We can’t really achieve one without the other, so we need to bring balance to both.
Tu biShvat Seder Resources: