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Some Thoughts for Tu B’Shevat

This week, we’re celebrating Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish environmentalist’s dream holiday. It’s the holiday on which we celebrate nature. 


The Origins of Tu B'Shevat

 Originally, Tu B’Shevat was not a holiday but rather a date to determine the age of fruit trees. The Torah says: 

“When you come into the land (of Israel) and have planted all manner of trees for food, then you shall count the fruit thereof as forbidden; three years shall it be forbidden to you; it shall not be eaten. And in the fourth year, all the fruit shall be holy, for giving praise to God. But in the fifth year, you may eat the fruit, that it may yield to you more richly the increase thereof.”        

Leviticus 19:23-25



In other words, for the first three years that a tree bears fruit, the fruit is not kosher. In the fourth year, the fruit was given to the Kohanim in the Beit HaMikdash, and only in the fifth year was it kosher to be eaten. Tu B’Shevat (the 15th day of the month of Shevat) was designated as the New Year by which to determine how old a fruit tree was in order for its produce to be kosher. In the 16th Century, the Kabbalists in Tzfat instituted a Seder, modeled after the Passover Seder, to celebrate nature, especially the seven species of fruit and grains of the Land of Israel. Over the ages, the holiday has evolved into a general celebration of nature with a seder filled with fruits and nuts. Planting trees in Israel through the Jewish National Fund evolved as another Tu B’Shevat custom in the 20th Century.  


Where is the Water?

While I love Tu B’Shevat, once again, I find myself asking the question: Where is the Water? Many Tu B’Shevat Seders are modeled off the 4 Worlds of the Kabbalah. Without getting too deep into the weeds about the 4 Worlds, the easiest way of describing them is as four levels of consciousness. For the Tu B’Shevat Seder, each of the worlds equates to a season of the year (winter, spring, summer & fall) and four basic elements (water, earth, air & fire). Within the context of the Seder, water is usually associated with rain, which waters the trees and crops that provide us with food, or as a spring whose water is used… to water the trees and crops that give us food. So, while I love Tu B’Shevat, it must be acknowledged that it is a holiday that is limited to the terrestrial realm.

  



In some ways, Tu B’Shevat is like the Jewish People. We speak about Jews and non-Jews as if these are equal parts of the same coin. In reality, when we speak of Jews and non-Jews, we seem to sidestep the fact that there are only about 15 million Jews in the world, and the “non-Jews” make up the other 7,985,000,000 people on the planet. The same is true with Tu B’Shevat and a celebration of Nature. While we land dwellers think that everything centers around us, we forget (or maybe didn’t even know) that 99% of the inhabited space on Earth is underwater.  


We have blessings that we say for the “fruit of the tree” and the “fruit of the ground,” but there is no blessing for the fruit of the Sea. Yes, we call it seaweed (what a horrible name), but the fact is there are many types of sea vegetables (my personal favorites are Umibudo and Wakame) that are full of nutrients, but for which we do not even have an accurate blessing. They don’t grow like trees or vines, so they can’t be given the traditional blessing for fruits and vegetables. Trees and vines have root systems to get their water and nutrients from the soil. Sea vegetables don’t have root systems because they get their nutrients from the water in which they live.  



So why, if we celebrate nature on Tu B’Shevat, do we leave out the water? I believe the answer can be found in Psalm 115.  

הַשָּׁמַיִם שָׁמַיִם, לַיהוָה וְהָאָרֶץ, נָתַן לִבְנֵי-אָדָם
The Shamayim is the Shamayim of God, 
and the dry land was given to humans.

 Psalm 115


On Tu B’Shevat, we recognize the water that serves us, but we don’t celebrate water in its totality because it isn’t ours. The dry land was given to humans. We are terrestrial beings, and our intimate connection with water ends at the shore. In his book, I and Thou, Martin Buber presented the concept that deep relationships require deep intention, not objectification. He referred to it as an "I-Thou" relationship as opposed to an "I-It" relationship. He said that with the proper intention, a person could even have an I-Thou relationship with a tree. Just read Shel Silverstein's story "The Giving Tree" and you'll understand Buber's premise. And I admit it, I have such a relationship with my own trees. I have given them names and talk to them every day. My mango tree is named Murray. My banana tree is Berkley. My jasmine tree is named... well, Jasmine (OK, it’s not very original but that's beside the point). The point is that we can’t have a meaningful relationship with that with which we cannot engage on a deeper level. So, we have no blessing for sea vegetables, and fish are not considered meat even though they are alive. In fact, there's no specific blessing for anything that comes from the water. Why? Because the Water is not ours. If a tree is on land that I own, then I own the tree. Water is transient. It's not ours. It falls from the sky as rain and is absorbed in the soil. Or it rolls in the Ocean and evaporates into the atmosphere. As Heraclitus said: "No person ever steps into the same river twice."


But the Psalm says HaShamayim is the Shamayim of God.

Doesn’t HaShamayim mean “the Heavens?”

What do the heavens have to do with water?

That, my friends, I will have to leave for another Devar Torah.

In the meantime, have a wonderful Tu B’Shevat, and celebrate the wonders of the terrestrial realm in all its glory.


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