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Tu B'Shevat the Tradition of Eating Dried Fruits and Nuts  

By Oded Schwartz

Oded who is the author of seven books is best known for his hugely popular cookery and food
-related writing. Oded's first book 'In Search Of Plenty - a history of Jewish food' (1992) was
short-listed for the British Andr? Simon award and won a special mention in the international
"Lenghe Ceretto Prize" for food and wine culture. He now lives in Cape Town and contributes
occasionally to Al'Hashulchan (a leading Israeli food & dining magazine). He is still researching
and writing about the history and culture of Israeli & Jewish food.

The first time Tu Beshvat - Rosh Ha'shanah Lailanot - New Year for the trees is mentioned in the
Mishna is in connection with tithing of fruit. According to the sages at this point the tree has
supped the winter rains and is starting to produce fruit and therefore it is possible to calculate the
tenth of the crop that is due as a tax to the Temple. As it was a purely administrative holiday no
liturgy was created.

After the destruction of the temple the day, which has lost all its agricultural and administrative
relevance developed into a minor holiday. The symbolic consumption of fruit was meant to affirm
the Diaspora's allegiance, to the land of Israel. The land which is referred to in Deuteronomy 8:8
as 'a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, of olive trees and honey'.
Traditionally, the word honey, here and elsewhere in the Bible is interpreted as fruit trees
- according to the Sages honey was not farmed or used until the return from the Babylonian exile
(except in Samson's foible where the habit of opportunistic gathering of honey - from the Lions
carcass, is mentioned). The Biblical honey is thought to be a thick syrup extracted from sweet
fruit such as dates, figs and carob. This kind of honey is still used all over the Middle East to
sweeten and give a pleasant, characteristic acidity to many sweet and savory dishes.

In the European Diaspora dried fruit - the only fruits that are available when the holiday occurs, at
the end the European winter, were symbolically eaten on the day. Raisins, figs and dates where
eaten by those who could afford them while the poor celebrated the holiday with Carobs - which
were cheap and readily available. Nuts where also eaten, almonds in particular. Being,
traditionally, the tree to herald the spring the almond is the symbol of rebirth and purity.

The holiday took yet another turn in the Kabalistic courts of medieval Sfad. To the Kabalists the
tree has an enormous symbolic value and Tu Beshvat is one of the important tikun olam
(mending of the universe) when human actions can correct the harms done to the natural balance
- the tree of life. Therefore a Seder (order) ceremony, based on the Pesach Seder was devised
where 3 courses each containing 10 fruits are served. It is believed that by eating them
- accompanied by reciting the appropriate portion of the Old Testament, they will bring back the
natural balance - the balance that was disrupted by the damage that was done to the tree of
knowledge. The ritual also involves, like the Pesach Seder, the drinking of 4 cups of wine. The
first one is white wine, symbolizing the dormant winter; the second cup is of white with a few
drops of red mixed in the third is mostly red while the last cup is red with just a few drops of whit
mixed in. The red wine represents activity - nature in bloom.

Historically Tu Beshvat was more widely celebrated by the Sephardi Diaspora. Being more
exposed to the kabalistic tradition, the community celebrated the holiday lavishly and associated
it with spring and fertility rather than affirmation of the land of Israel. At this time of the year while
Central and Northern Europe are still under snow, the Middle East and the Mediterranean regions
are at the beginning of Spring - a much more conducive time to celebrate a holiday with roots in
spring and rebirth.

The holiday changed its character yet again with the establishment of the Israeli state. The
concept of an agricultural holiday with strong association to the land and renewal appealed to the
secular Zionists and the holiday was adopted and celebrated, mainly by school children and the
kibbutz movement. The tradition of tree planting was established and the holiday is celebrated by
picnic meals consisting mainly of vegetarian dishes made with fresh and dried fruit and nuts.

Yet, there is a deeper, Pagan root to this celebration. In the parched, dry landscape of our
ancestors Middle East, trees played an essential role. In summer they supply a most important
shelter from the scorching rays of the sun; their roots hold the crumbly land together and protect
the soil from erosion. When they died they were turned into coal - a scarce commodity in the
largely deforested Middle East. Most importantly, they provide a convenient and concentrated
source of energy that is stored in the sugar rich fruit - especially dried fruits, which were one of
the staples of Middle Eastern nutrition. Dried fruit and nuts are relatively light, don't spoil easily,
sweet and rich in calories and are the most convenient foods to be taken to eat in the fields. It is
no surprise that biblical law prohibits the destruction of fruit trees during a war.

In the last couple of decades a new trend is emerging. The Reform movement, ecological
awareness and the recent interest in Jewish mysticism and the alternative sects that are
associated with it, are reclaiming the Kabalistic Seder. Liturgy is being published, blessing
assigned and new menus being created - a tradition in the making!

Copyright Oded Schwartz 2004 - All rights reserved.

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