I have no childhood memories of Tu B’Shevat. The holiday, celebrated on the 15th of Shevat (February 6, 2023) and known by many names, including Las Frutus (The Fruits), New Year of the Trees, Jewish Earth Day, and Israeli Arbor Day, was never part of my family’s Jewish practice.
I didn’t encounter a Tu B’Shevat celebration until I was well into adulthood and a member of Hadassah. My chapter, in Oakland, CA, organized a seder to commemorate the day, which evolved from an ancient administrative “birthday” for fruit trees (read: an excuse to collect taxes) into a meaningful holiday based on the teachings of 16th-century kabbalists and 20th-century environmentalists, and influenced by global Jewish customs related to celebrating fruit that grows on trees.
The holiday was much more present in Sephardic communities than in Ashkenazi ones, perhaps because in many areas where Sephardic Jews settled, fresh fruit was available. Eastern European Jews made do with fruit that kept well and with dried fruit. One Eastern European tradition was to candy the etrog (citron) used on Sukkot and save it to enjoy on Tu B’Shevat.
The first seder I attended was based on the Passover seder, in which different foods symbolize emotional, personal and spiritual events and add meaning and connection to the holiday.
There are many variants of the seder. At our Oakland Ruach Hadassah seder, we drank four cups of wine or grape juice, starting with white and progressing to white with some red to red with some white to all red, each selection marking the passing of seasons and symbolizing the mystical qualities of life. Each cup was followed by a fruit, with each type of fruit also being symbolic.
I no longer remember what fruits we ate that day, but the order in which we ate them followed the Tu B’Shevat seder order. The first would have been hard on the outside and soft on the inside (such as nuts), the second soft on the outside with a hard pit in the center (olives, dates, peaches), the third fruit completely edible (figs, berries) and the fourth fruit soft and sweet within (mangos, bananas) despite its tough skin. Because this was a Hadassah event, we also highlighted fruits grown in or associated with Israel.
A holiday meal during, after or in place of a Tu B’Shevat seder is also a custom for many and has become how I celebrate the holiday with my family and friends. The meal may include the types of fruits used in the seder, what are known as the Torah’s Seven Species (wheat, barley, figs, dates, olives, grapes, and pomegranates), traditional fruits from ancient Israel (among them almonds and carob), and dried fruits and nuts.
Here is a recipe for a not-too-sweet Tu B’Shevat dessert that is pareve and vegan. (It also makes a great breakfast or brunch dish!) It incorporates four of the Seven Species – barley, grapes (or raisins), dates, and pomegranates. The cinnamon, cardamom and silan (date syrup) or pomegranate molasses give it a hint of Near Eastern flavor.
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Four Species Barley Pudding – Serves Eight
1 cup uncooked pearl (pearled) barley-rinsed (see instructions below)
½ cup sugar
½ cup raisins
½ cup chopped, pitted dates
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground cardamom
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/8 tsp. salt
3 cups water
½ cup silan OR pomegranate molasses, divided (see instructions below)
½ cup plus 2 tbsp. fresh pomegranate seeds
2-3 tbsp. slivered or chopped almonds
2 tbsp. finely grated lemon or orange zest, optional
- Place barley, sugar, raisins, dates, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and salt in medium saucepan.
- Add water.
- Bring to boil over medium heat.
- Cover and let simmer, stirring occasionally, until barley is tender but not mushy (about 25-40 minutes, timing will vary).
- Add water as necessary if the barley dries out while cooking.
- Stir in half of the silan.
(Pudding can be refrigerated at this point. Bring to room temperature or gently reheat, adding a bit of water, if necessary, before continuing.)
- While the pudding is warm or once it is at room temperature, transfer to a serving dish and stir in ½ cup pomegranate seeds, top with a swirl of remaining silan, and garnish with remaining pomegranate seeds, almonds and zest.
NOTES: Regular (“hulled”) barley will work, but doubles cooking time. Silan, also known as date honey, date syrup, or date molasses, is available in kosher, Middle Eastern and specialty stores.