Tu B’Shvat, the fifteenth day of this Hebrew month of Shevat, is our New Year for Trees. The skies may still be gloomy, the trees may still look barren, but Tu B’Shvat is our wake-up call, a reminder that change – and spring – are inevitably coming. The French medieval commentator, Rashi, explains that Tu B’Shvat is when the sap of new life begins to rise in the trees, which leads to the production of new fruit. In other words, even though we can’t see it yet, Tu B’Shvat is when the magic starts.
By calling our attention to the beautiful blossoms and delicious fruits we will enjoy at the culmination of spring, which are for now still invisible to our eyes, Tu B’Shvat invites us into greater awareness of what is happening just under the surface, all around us. A hidden process is just beginning that will soon manifest in surprising and nourishing ways. And since our ancient sages playfully reread a verse in the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:19) to mean that “a human being is a tree,” our tradition insists that what applies to trees is also true for us humans.
Riffing off this idea that we are somehow akin to trees, our teachers down through the generations point out that we also produce fruits – for example, our words and deeds. Furthermore, they point out that our own creative process parallels that of trees; long before we have something tangible of value to share with the world, there are deep stirrings within us, our own inner “sap” of creativity and desire must arise and flow to allow new possibilities to manifest.
Our calendar adds a further, beautiful dimension to Tu B’Shvat. In the Northern Hemisphere the full glory of spring will manifest around the time of Passover, in the month of Nisan, which indeed the Torah calls “The Month of Spring” (Exodus 23:15). The Hebrew calendar is designed so that our reenactment of the Exodus from Egypt, the Passover Seder ritual, usually takes place on the full moon closest to the spring equinox. In other words, our own rebirth and liberation is always reflected in the natural world around us.
When we tell and re-experience that story on Passover, our guiding text, the Haggadah, invites us to see ourselves as if we were slaves, who are currently undergoing a dramatic journey into a vast wilderness of unknown possibilities.The new life pulsating in the plant and animal worlds in the spring mirrors our own potential for newness.
Tu B’Shvat, which marks a key point in beginning the new cycle of life in the trees around us, is therefore also a key moment in our own rebirth and liberation. This is brought home beautifully by the annual Torah cycle, which places the Torah portions describing the Exodus as close as possible to Tu B’Shvat. For those of us who follow the weekly readings, their words give us a preview of what hopefully awaits us when spring fully arrives.
This is helpful in many respects. The Hebrew word for Egypt,means a place of constriction or narrowness, and Tu B’Shvat reminds that the struggles and enslavements of our own personal need not be endless. There is hope, change and renewal embedded within the seemingly simple and mundane fabric of life itself – the earth, the soil, the plants and trees we see every day.Reading the Torah portions of the Exodus can awaken us from despair. They signal that there is a wave of renewal and liberation beginning, for those who dare to ride it.
On the foundation of these interwoven layers of history, ritual and spiritual practice, the kabbalists of 16th century Tzfat crafted the Tu B’Shvat Seder. This ritual is a powerful technology for preparing for deep renewal. Just like the Passover Seder, it takes us on a journey through four cups of wine, each one associated with its own songs, teachings and ideas. These four cups relate to the four worlds into which kabbalists categorize much of existence, and which are mirrored in four dimensions of human experience: physicality, emotion, intellect and spirituality or self-transcendence.
May we all be blessed to be renewed along with the trees around us, and to produce fruit that we have not yet imagined.
For a guide to experiencing and sharing your own Tu B’Shvat Seder, with some delicious related teachings from mystical sources, please click here and write “Tu B’Shvat” (spelt however you like!) as your message.