Category Archives: Tu’Bshvat Teachings
Rabbi Isaac Luria and the Medieval Tu B’Shvat Seder
The Peri Eitz Hadar is divided into four sections, each of which describes how the specific foods of the ritual are meant to be eaten, and includes a number of biblical, rabbinic, and, in particular, kabbalistic and zoharic texts about the holiday. While the ritual is similar ot the way in which many of us observe a Tu B’Shvat Seder today, in terms of the foods eaten and the rituals recited, in many ways, the purpose of the ritual is not merely to eat certain certain foods and recite certain blessings, but to think about how what we eat and receive from trees bounds us up in God’s cosmic order. According to Miles Krassen,
“Implicit here is a notion of sacred cosmology, which is not limited to material existence. The kabbalists’ faith involves a hierarchy of worlds that are ontologically higher than the material world. These worlds are populated by angels and spiritual forces that span the ontological regions that separate humanity and the material world from God. Moreover, the forces in these worlds serve as conduits and sources for the divine energy that becomes manifest in nature and in Creation in general.” (3)
Beginning in the kabbalistic period, Tu B’Shvat became a symbol for how the complexity and beauty of nature can serve as a reminder of the cosmic plan God set forth for humanity. When the modern period, Tu B’Shvat’s cosmic significance was no longer about God’s cosmic plan, but about our plan for protecting the holy universe which we given to serve as its stewards.
Ellen Bernstein and the Modern Tu B’Shvat Seder
While the Tu B’Shvat Seder’s growth in the last several decades has been the result of a variety of factors, one of the most important figures in this growth has been Ellen Bernstein, who founded Shomrei Adamah as a national Jewish environmental organization in 1988 that became known for creating a massive community-wide Tu B’Shvat sedarim that attracted over 30,000 people.
On of the core aspects of Bernstein’s work was explaining how the observance of Tu B’Shvat intends to increase our ecological consciousness. Regarding the Tu B’Shvat Seder, Bernstein writes that just as the Passover Seder intends to make the process of slavery to freedom concrete,
“The intention of the Tu B’Shvat seder is also to make an idea concrete. The idea is this: God is the source of all life, so every tiny piece of creation – a raisin, a walnut, a peach – is infinitely valuable. This them speaks to human responsibility; since Nature is a grand web in which everything is connected to everything else, every small action that humans do reverberates all over the universe.” (4)
Bernstein sees Tu B’Shvat as reminding us about the significance of every aspect of God’s creation, from the tallest mountains to the smallest insect. As we mark this day on the Jewish calendar, we are reminded of the glory of God’s creation, and our responsibility to serve as stewards to God’s glorious works.
Furthermore, Bernstein sees Tu B’Shvat as fitting in the larger context of Judaism’s approach to environmental sustainability. She writes that, “While God is the source of our lives spiritually, nature is the source of our lives in the material plane, and being mindful of the godliness in everything is the first step of an ecological lifestyle.” (5) The more we become aware of the significance of God’s creation, the more our actions reflect an environmental consciousness most of us (this author included) sorely lack. Bernstein asserts that,“like ecology, whose concern first and foremost is the ecos, the house, Judaism is interested in preserving the home–our earthly home,” (6) and using Tu B’Shvat in this context allows provides us with a ritual reminder of that obligation every year.
Torah from Trees: Tu B’Shvat and Environmental Consciousness
In many ways, the medieval and modern interpretations of Tu B’Shvat allow us to think about the New Year for the trees in a new light, for now Tu B’Shvat is both about recognizing God’s cosmic plan set forth at creation, and our responsibility to serve as stewards for God’s creation. In this respect, we are asked to think about what is the “Torah” we can receive from the trees and all of the environment.
First, we can learn the lesson that the natural world contains divine sparks within it. Regarding this, the Zohar recounts the following story:
“Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Elazar, Rabbi Abba, and Rabbi Yossi were sitting under the trees in the valley of the Sea of Ginnosar (Kinneret). Rabbi Shimon said: “How beautiful (na’eh) is the shade with which these trees provide us; Let us crown them with words of Torah!”” (7)
The Zohar tells of a legend where some of the most rabbinic sages see God’s wisdom not only in study and ritual, but through the world around them. This sentiment is echoed in a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, who taught that, “It is a great principle that there are holy sparks in all there is in the world. Nothing is void of sparks, even trees and stones.” (8) By extension, if every component of the natural world contains God within it, that reality necessitates a type of care for the environment.
Second, just as the kabbalistic imagery of the Tu B’Shvat Seder reminds us that we exist in a larger cosmic framework, developing an environmental consciousness will also remind us that we our actions are not performed in isolation. Regarding this, the following Midrash is taught:
“Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai said: Three things are balanced together, and they are land, humanity, and rain.” Rabbi Levi b. Haytah said, “And all three of these are only three letters [in Hebrew], to teach you that if there is no land there’s no rain, and if there’s no rain there is no land, and without either of them, there’s no humanity.” (9)
We all exist in a cosmic balance, one that contains every living being, every natural creation, and every decision we make in terms of how to shape God’s creation. When we are faced with the question of how we must respond to the present environmental crisis facing our world, we must begin by remembering that no action towards this world is done in isolation, but affects the ecology of every living being.
Additionally, if the fundamental purpose of our existence is to guard and protect God’s creation, any type of destruction works against the mission that God laid out for humanity. The most famous manifestation of this concept is the mitzvah of lo tashhit, that one should refrain from wanton destruction. The mitzvah originates in Deuteronomy and states that,
“When you shall besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by forcing an ax against them; for you may eat of them, and you shall not cut them down. For is the tree of the field a man that it should besieged by you?” (10)
Ultimately, while the Torah’s original mitzvah is limited to a particular type of destruction of a particular type of tree, our rabbinic commentators ultimately see this mitzvah as reflecting an all-encompassing principle for how to treat God’s creation. TheKitzur Shulkhan Arukh states that, “Like a person needs to take care of his body so as to not lose it or spoil it or damage it…all who spoil anything that is fit for the enjoyment of humanity transgresses lo tashhit.” (11) Since we were placed on this earth to plant and to protect, Tu B’Shvat ought to be a reminder of the sin that is committed when we destroy that which was given to us.
Finally, the Torah we learn from trees reminds us that we need to consider our relationship to the environment, and think about how our actions that caused so much destruction are anathema to God’s vision for humanity. In a text cited in The Living Talmud, the medieval scholar Rabbi Jonah ibn Janach describes God’s vision in the following way:
“A man is held responsible for everything he receives in this world, and his children are responsible too…The fact is that nothing belongs to him, everything is the Lord’s, and whatever he received he received only on credit and the Lord will exact payment for it.”
“This may be compared to a person who entered a city and found no one there. He walked into the house and there found a table set with all kinds of food and drink. So he began to eat and drink thinking, “I deserve all of this, this is all mine, I shall with it what I please.” He didn’t even notice that the owners were watching him from the side! He will yet have to pay for everything he ate and drank, for he is in a spot from which he will not be able to escape.” (12)
We may have the ability to use and abuse God’s creation, but we have no right to do it, and God is watching us when we treat creation with disrespect. In a modern era in which environmental consciousness is too slowly becoming a priority for people around the world, Tu B’Shvat must represent not only a holiday of celebration, but a memorial of responsibility, where we remember that we learn trees from Torah, and now have the responsibility of treating our natural world with honor and respect.
(1) BT Rosh HaShanah 1a.
For a more in depth, ecological, and super meaty take on Tu B’Shvat check out Reb David’s offering:
While explanations of the significance of Tu B’Shvat laid largely dormant during and immediately following the rabbinic period, the kabbalists of the Middle Ages ultimately developed the Tu B’Shvat Seder as a means of articulating God’s cosmic significance in our world. This ritual ultimately became outlined in the Peri Eitz Hadar, a text of the Seder that is normally ascribed to the kabbalistic movement of sixteenth century Tzafat under the leadership of Rabbi Isaac Luria.
The Peri Eitz Hadar is divided into four sections, each of which describes how the specific foods of the ritual are meant to be eaten, and includes a number of biblical, rabbinic, and, in particular, kabbalistic and zoharic texts about the holiday. While the ritual is similar to the way in which many of us observe a Tu B’Shvat Seder today, in terms of the foods eaten and the rituals recited, in many ways, the purpose of the ritual is not merely to eat certain foods and recite certain blessings, but to think about how what we eat and receive from trees bounds us up in God’s cosmic order.
According to Miles Krassen, “Implicit here is a notion of sacred cosmology, which is not limited to material existence. The kabbalists’ faith involves a hierarchy of worlds that are ontologically higher than the material world. These worlds are populated by angels and spiritual forces that span the ontological regions that separate humanity and the material world from God. Moreover, the forces in these worlds serve as conduits and sources for the divine energy that becomes manifest in nature and in Creation in general.”
-Joshua Rabin for JDC Europe
Incredible link to the “Open Siddur Project” and their Pri Etz Hadar translation and explanation from Reb Miles Krassen.
This is a link to a detailed Tu B’Shvat Seder from Yitzchak Buxbaum. It’s a great guide to understanding the 4 Worlds, with inspiration and teachings for each individual World…
|Tu BShvat: Celebrating Pleasure|
|Written by Rabbi David Aaron|
|The celebration of Tu B’Shvat –the 15th of the month of Shvat on the Hebrew calendar– is not mentioned in the Bible. The oldest reference is found in the Talmud, where Tu B’Shvat is called “the new year of the trees.” The Talmud ascribes significance to this date only in terms of the legal implications of taking tithes (10%) from fruits. However, about 500 years ago, the Kabbalists revealed the deeper meaning of Tu B’Shvat. They taught that Tu B’Shvat is an opportune time for fixing the transgression of Adam and Eve. Amazingly, just through the simple act of eating fruit during the TuB’Shvat festive dinner, we are able to contribute to this cosmic repair.
But how? How are we fixing the transgression of Adam and Eve, according to the Kabbalists? First let’s explore the transgression of Adam and Eve, and then we can understand the mystical meaning of the Tu B’Shvat holiday, and why eating fruit is the way we celebrate it.
The Torah says that God put Adam and Eve in the garden “to work it and to guard it.” The Jewish oral tradition teaches us that this refers to the do’s and don’ts of the Torah. The do’s are called the positive mitzvot and the don’ts are called the negative mitzvot. Adam and Eve were given very little to do: eat from all the trees of the garden. And their only don’t—their single prohibition—was not to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What was that about?
The Torah teaches that God created the world so that we could experience goodness in general, and His goodness in particular. Experiencing His goodness—bonding with God—is the greatest joy imaginable. God empowers us to bond with Him by serving His purpose for creation. Just as when we do for others, we feel connected to them, so, too, serving God enables us to bond with Him. Ironically, serving God is actually self-serving—profoundly fulfilling and pleasurable.
If we eat and enjoy the fruits of this world for God’s sake—because this is what He asks of us—then we are actually serving God and bonding with Him. We serve God by acknowledging that the fruits of this world are His gifts to us and by willfully accepting and enjoying those gifts.
The root of Jewish life is, in fact, enjoyment—the pleasure of connecting to God. We connect to God by serving Him, and this means obeying His command to enjoy the fruits of this world.
While in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve’s entire obligation was to enjoy all the lush fruits—with the notable exception of one forbidden fruit. Sure enough, they went after that one. This misdeed demonstrated their confused orientation to the real meaning of pleasure. Rather than seeing the fruits as pleasurable because they are God’s gifts and enjoying them as part of their service to God, they wanted to partake of them independently of God—in fact, contrary to His will.
The Art of Receiving
As already explained, real pleasure is experiencing a connection with God. We enjoy the ultimate spiritual pleasure when we enjoy the physical pleasures of this world as part of our divine service. Then, the act of receiving and enjoying God’s gifts to us is amazingly transformed into a selfless act of serving God.
We can understand now that God’s only desire in giving Adam and Eve those two mitzvot was to give them the ultimate pleasure—bonding with Him. True pleasure was not in the taste of the fruits, but in eating and enjoying these gifts from God. This was the way to serve and connect with Him—the Ultimate Pleasure.
But Adam and Eve misunderstood this. They did not see physical pleasure as a conduit to the spiritual pleasure of bonding with God. Rather, they sought pleasure independent of God.
This is the root of all wrongdoing. Do we see the pleasures of this world as a gift from God, enjoying them in the service of God, and using them as conduits to a connection to God? Or, do we seek pleasure independent of any connection to God? In other words, is the pleasure about us, or is the pleasure about our relationship with God?
There is a fundamental difference between having pleasure and receiving pleasure. If we want to have pleasure, it doesn’t matter where it comes from. Having pleasure is void of any connection to a reality greater than ourselves. It is simply a selfish desire to experience a particular pleasure for its own sake. Receiving pleasure, however, is rooted in the soul’s desire to serve God’s purpose, which is to receive the ultimate joy of connecting to Him.
Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit, because they were totally confused about their purpose on earth and, consequently, what is truly pleasurable in this world. They were clueless about what would bring them meaning and joy in life.
Following Adam and Eve’s fatal mistake, God told them, “Because you ate from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from, the earth has become cursed.” God was not punishing the earth because of Adam and Eve’s transgression, rather He was informing them that their distorted orientation towards physical pleasures has turned the earth into a source of curse rather than blessing for them and for their descendants.
Depending on how we view the physical world, it is cursed or blessed. If we look at the physical world as a conduit to a connection with God, and if, as a service to God, we gratefully receive His gift of delicious fruits, we thereby experience His presence and the physical world becomes blessed. The physical world then becomes a bridge between the human and the divine. But if we fixate on the physical, independent of any relationship with God, and mistakenly perceive this world as the source of our pleasure rather than as a bridge to God, then this world becomes a barrier to God and a curse for us.
Now that we understand the transgression of Adam and Eve, we can begin to appreciate how we can contribute to its fixing on Tu B’Shvat.
On Tu B’Shvat, the new sap begins to rise up into the trees. And we bring abundance to this process when we celebrate Tu B’Shvat.
The Talmud says that more than the baby wants to suck, a mother wants to nurse. The mother not only gets tremendous pleasure from nursing her baby, but the flow of her milk is actually generated by its sucking. The more the baby wants to suck, the more milk the mother has to give. This principle also applies to our relationship to God.
God wants to give us the greatest of all pleasures which is a connection with Him. But if we don’t recognize that to be the greatest pleasure, and we don’t want it, then He can’t give it to us. Of course, God could give it to us, but it would just be a waste, because we wouldn’t recognize it for what it is.
The Power of a Blessing
On Tu B’Shvat, we attempt to fix the transgression of Adam and Eve when we enjoy the fruits of the earth preceded by the recitation of an appreciative blessing to God—“Blessed are you, God…..” in other words, “God, You are the source of this blessing.”
An apple is not just an apple, an apple is a blessing. Maybe I could believe that apples come from trees, but a blessing could only come from God. If I really contemplate the mystery and miracle of the taste, fragrance, beauty and nutrition wrapped up in this apple, I see that it’s more than just a fruit—it is a wondrous loving gift from God. When I taste an apple with that kind of consciousness, I cannot but experience the presence of God within the physical. When I recite a blessing before I eat and acknowledge it as a gift from God, I reveal the divinity within it, and the transient sensual pleasure of the food is transformed, because it is filled with eternal spiritual pleasure. The food then feeds not only my body but also my soul. However, when I eat without a blessing, it’s as if I stole the food. Perhaps it will nourish and bring pleasure to my body, but it will do nothing for my soul. The soul is only nourished when it experiences its eternal connection to God.
Tu B’Shvat is an opportune time to celebrate how eating and enjoying the fruits of trees can be a bridge to God, and how it can bring back the blessing to the earth.
When we enjoy the fruits of the previous year as wonderful gifts from God and affirm our yearning for God’s presence manifest in the fruit, we are like a baby sucking his mother’s milk with great appetite. We draw forth with great abundance the “milk of the earth”—the sap in the trees rises up with great abundance, so that they will bear much fruit in the coming year.
Unlike Adam and Eve who sought pleasure separate from God and who turned physical pleasure into a barrier to God, we—on Tu B’Shvat—enjoy the fruits as God’s gift and experience their pleasure as a connection to God. In this way we fix the transgression of Adam and Eve. We free the earth from being a curse for us—a barrier to God. We transform it into a bridge, so that it becomes a wellspring of blessing and God-given pleasure.
Excerpt from Rabbi Aaron’s upcoming book: Inviting God In: The True Meaning of the Jewish Holy Days, published by Trumpeter/Random House, available Aug. 2006, http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?1590303377.