by Oded Schwartz
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 white 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!
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.