“For the tree of the field is man’s life.” (Deuteronomy 20:19)
While an increasing number of people merely mourn the passing of old traditions, Joel Rappel of Bar Ilan University in Israel has succeeded in shaking the dust off a tradition half a millennium old.
This evening, thanks to Rappel, groups of friends and relations from Santa Monica to Jerusalem will be celebrating a Tu B’Shevat Seder, a long-lost offspring of the Passover Seder, almost the way their ancestors did in the 16th century Kabbalistic village of Safed in northern Israel.
In his research at the university’s International Center for Jewish Identity, Rappel uncovered an ancient tradition celebrated in Safed, the seat of Kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) studies in the 16th century. “It was the Kabbalists that actually created the Tu B’Shevat Seder,” he explains.
Literally the 15th day of the Hebrew calendar month of Shevat, Tu B’Shevat was already an important date in biblical times, something akin to April 15 for modern Americans. Except that instead of paying income tax to the government, it was a tithe of produce and livestock that needed to be paid to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which sat on that very same Temple Mount so politically charged today.
“Long after the temple was destroyed, the Tu B’Shevat Seder was a way to heighten and reaffirm the spiritual bond with the land of Israel, in a celebration of the changing seasons and the fruit of the earth,” Rappel says.
Falling sometime, in late January, or early February, when much of America is still chilly, the date is also about the time in Israel when the almond trees burst into elegant white blossoms, harbingers of the approaching spring. For the people of ancient Israel, it also signaled “The New Year of Trees.”
According to Rappel, a version of the Tu B’Shevat Seder was still practiced for centuries among Jews living in Arab countries and in Eastern European, Hasidic communities, but most people had forgotten it.
“During the First Aliya, a major religious immigration from 1882 to 1904, Tu B’Shevat became a day for planting trees, as a kind of religious Thanksgiving,” he says. “But up until recently it had basically turned for most people into the holiday where you eat dried fruit.”
In 1981, while working on the Board of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, a group of friends’ Tu B’Shevat get-together turned into a dinner of fruit and an evening of stories, contemporary poetry and song. Putting it together with the Kabbalistic ceremony, Rappel wrote the Tu B’Shevat Haggadah, a user-friendly guide to the Seder.
Returning to Israel, Rappel was determined to breathe new life into the centuries-old expression of the holiday. With his Haggadah in one hand and a dish of fruit in the other, Rappel took the country by storm, appearing in almost every possible form of the media.
It took years, but it worked. Today, the Tu B’Shevat Seder is again becoming a meaningful tradition in communities and kibbutzim among groups of friends, teachers and workers, in army camps and new-immigrant centers.
In the last three years alone, Jerusalem Today, Israel’s largest newspaper, distributed 3 million copies of Rappel’s Tu B’Shevat Haggadah in time for the holiday.
It is also gaining popularity among American Jews. Dressed in white, with an elaborate selection of fresh and dried fruits, nuts, candles and red and white wine or grape juice, the typical Tu B’Shevat table is an inspiration in, itself.
In addition to prayers, readings and songs, the ritual service for the Seder includes four cups of wine accompanied by fruit divided into levels of “ascending spirituality.” The first cup-chilled white wine symbolic of winter, is accompanied by the “lowest level” of fruit, those that need a protective outer skin for their sensitive edible interior, like almonds or oranges.
A second cup of white wine is mixed with a small amount of red, signifying spring, the budding of new life and spiritual reawakening. In its modern version (also dedicated to the pioneers who rebuilt the ancient homeland), it is served with fruits like olives, apples, peaches, mangoes and dates, in which the outer layer is consumed yet the heart is protected, and contains the seed to create new life.
A third cup-red wine mixed with a small amount of white wine-symbolizes summer and a perfect world in which there is nothing wasted, and is accompanied by the “highest level” of fruit, which are eaten in their entirety, like figs, grapes and berries. This is also considered the highest spiritual level.
A fourth cup, totally red wine, represents fertility and the bounty of fall crops waiting to be harvested. Rappel’s updated version of the Haggadah also dedicates the fourth cup to environmental preservation.
Often personalized by various communities and movements, versions of Rappel’s original Haggadah are now available at many synagogues in America.
Glazer is co-author of the upcoming “The Kabbalistic Kitchen: Food for Spiritual Awakening.”