Holiday seder is conduit for environmental activism

By Diana Burmistrovich,

A simple way to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for trees, is to grow a plant or eat some fruit. But those seeking a deeper experience with the holiday may choose to take part in a “Tu B’Shevat seder”— not to be confused with the Passover version.

“Tu B’Shevat needed a major ritual, and the seder provides us with that,” said Rabbi Jason Miller, an entrepreneur, educator and blogger. “Based on the seder of Passover, this is an educational forum and symposium in which we can discuss and recommit ourselves to the environment.” 

Kabbalists from the northern Israeli city of Safed created the ritual of the Tu B’Shevat seder to celebrate the idea that even God’s smallest creations—be they tree, pomegranate, or date—are all equal within nature’s grand web. The initial ritual was outlined in “Peri Etz Hadar”(Fruit of the Goodly Tree), part of an anthology of Kabbalistic customs called the “Heindat Yamun.” 

While Tu B’Shevat is widely celebrated in the Jewish world as the religion’s counterpart to Arbor Day, fewer Jews employ the seder ritual on this occasion. Many Jews are troubled by the seder’s apparent roots in the texts written by followers of the 17th-century false messiah known as Shabbatai Zvi. 

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Like the Passover seder, the Tu B’Shevat version relies on the recitation of blessings and the drinking of wine, with a greater emphasis on fruit. Each group of fruit eaten at the Tu B’Shevat seder represents different ways that trees provide for us. Before eating each kind of fruit, a blessing is said and a spiritual question related to that kind of fruit is asked.

To fully appreciate nature’s bounty, Kabbalists matched up Israel’s regional fruit to symbolize the four physical elements: air, earth, water, and fire. 

• Assiyah (earth) is symbolized by fruits or nuts with an outer shell and fruit within. This includes walnuts, pomegranates, pistachios, and coconuts.

• Yetzirah (water) is symbolized by fruits with edible outer flesh and inedible cores. This includes cherries, apricots, olives, and plums. 

• Briyah (air) is symbolized by fruit that is entirely edible. This includes apples, pears, figs, and raisins. 

• Atzilut (fire) is not symbolized by fruit but by things that represent God’s presence around us. This can include smelling something natural such as pine, cedar or spices. 

It is no coincidence that the fruits included in the seder don’t fall far from the tree. The constant imagery of trees is intended to invoke our connection to the earth and our Jewish responsibility as its stewards. Looking from the roots at the bottom to the fruits among the leaves acts as a reminder that when everything is connected, each small action by a human reverberates throughout the universe. 

“Trees are so important in Jewish thought that the Torah itself is called ‘a tree of life.’ Perhaps this Torah wisdom can help us think more wisely about using these resources carefully and living in a more sustainable way,” write Dr. Akiva Wolff and Rabbi Yonatan Neri in their article “Trees, Torah, and Caring for the Earth” as part of Jewcology’s “Year of Jewish Learning on the Environment.” 

Though the origins of the Tu B’Shevat seder may be hazy, the intention to deepen our connection with nature and assure the preservation of its bounty has lead to the increased relevance of environmental activism within the context of celebrating the Tu B’Shevat holiday.  

“We are living in God’s creation, which makes us equal to one another and makes us all equal in what we need and what we share equitably,” said Sybil Sanchez, director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). “The seder is an important time to ritually recognize our values, but it is also a time to take action.” 

Incorporating environmental mindfulness can easily become part of Tu B’Shevat, according to Sanchez, who suggests checking whether your family is using locally sourced fruit, ecologically minded dishes and dining ware, installing energy-efficient light bulbs, and turning off appliances when not in use.