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Backyard Bounty for a Tu Bishvat Seder

Jan. 29, 2009

LOS ANGELES (JTA)--Planning a birthday party for your trees this Tu Bishvat? Celebrating this year on Feb. 9, what on earth do you serve? Fruits, nuts and wine are definitely on the menu. But if shopping for boxes of raisins or salted nuts doesn't do much for your spirituality, there is a whole other way to go.

Tu Bishvat ("tu," the Hebrew letters tet-vav, have the numerical value of 15) is the holiday derived from the Bible and Mishnah that marks the Jewish new year for trees. It is celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Shvat in homes, synagogues and centers with a fruit, nut and berry and wine- or juice-filled seder.

almond bloomsDevised by the kabbalists (Jewish mystics) in the city of Safed in northern Israel in the 17th century, the seder is ordered to represent four different levels of existence that the mystics perceived to make up the world. At the seder these levels are interpreted in a multitude of ways and are represented by a multicolored and textured variety of fruits, nuts and berries, especially those found in Israel.

Level 1 is Assiyah, making it in the kabbalistic order of spiritual worlds the form that needs the most protection. It is represented by fruits and nuts with inedible shells such as pomegranates, grapefruits, coconuts and bananas.

The second level, Yetzirah--formation, a spiritual step up--is represented by fruits with pits, a symbol of growth found in dates, avocadoes, cherries and peaches.

Level 3 is Briyah, creation. Its fruits are soft with no protection or pit, representing a complete and perfected form like an idea or memory. Briyah is represented by figs, strawberries, kumquats, raisins, seedless grapes, apples and carob.

The fourth and highest level, Atzilut, godliness, has no fruit. It is its own nourishment and is represented by pure thoughts of loving kindness and beauty.

To fill the list, usually you go to the market. Usually.

Living in sunny California, where seemingly everyone has a fruit tree, and having read too many articles about shopping locally or growing your own, I decided to see if I could assemble the makings of a Tu Bishvat seder by calling and e-mailing friends and family for backyard fruit.

I wanted not only to gather the needed consumables, but also to see if through people's stories about their trees I could find some connection to the mystics' four levels and connections as well to my own roots.

In my own backyard I saw a tree filled with kumquats, fat, orange and shiny. Kumquats are soft and entirely edible; I knew right at the beginning that I had a fruit representing Briyah. There were hundreds of them and I could use them as a form of exchange to trade for what I needed.

My first call was to my good friend, Michael.

"Why don't you just go to the market?" he asked after hearing about my quest for backyard fruit. "And what if I don't like kumquats?"

Warming to the idea, Michael revealed that he was the proud owner of a tangerine tree and that his mother's backyard had an orange tree. He offered the fruit of both.

Many other trees had family roots. One friend had a backyard orchard planted by his father. Another was the proud owner of a fragrant orange tree given to him as a gift at his father's passing. A neighbor confessed that his own feelings about trees stemmed from his father's love of them.

In my drives around town to pick up fruit, a strange thing began to happen: Cruising much-traveled streets, I suddenly became aware of trees, yards, sometimes entire rows of houses, with yards filled with before unnoticed fruit.

If Assiyah is a perceptual shell, it now had vanished.

Adding to the familiar connection, I remembered that my in-laws had planted a grapefruit tree in their backyard on the occasion of our son's pidyon ha'ben, a ceremony for first-born boys that commemorates the Temple in Jerusalem. He's now in college and the tree is old enough to bear fruit. What I collected--round, yellow, hand-sized--was a symbol of growth, Yetzira.

Another friend, Marty, left what he said were "a few apples" from his tree in a bag on his porch. I looked into the bag then shook it. Two small, thumb-shaped yellow and red "apples" rolled to the center.

Yes, they were apples, but not as I imagined. They were small and long and weird, like something you might buy at a farmer's market. Even in this imperfect form, with not even a hint of Eden, the apple was still giving knowledge, altering my idea of it in a way that supermarket fruit could not. Perfect Briyah.

In my season of collecting, I gathered 13 different fruits and nuts from 15 "Tu" neighbor-farmers, with at least one item representing each kabbalistic level. Lots of citrus, with a few surprises like bananas found growing in the parking lot where my wife, Brenda, works, carob from a tree growing on a city parkway and lovely green avocadoes from a neighbor's tree.

Only two more things were needed to complete the stores required for the seder--wine and something for a festival meal.

Stuart, a friend who has been baking for years, supplied the "meal." It is customary to have grain products at the seder and to fulfill the requirement he provided some very tasty home-baked onion bialys.

As for wine, my friend Pini has a sizable grape arbor in his yard. A few years ago, after a bumper crop, he decided to try his hand at winemaking.

"Why plant grapes?" I asked.

"Every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him," he replied, right out of the prophet Micah, sharing his own peaceful vision of Atzilut.

He presented his vintage for tasting. Kind of a funky amber, with more than a strong hint of alcohol, I was at first reluctant to take a taste.

"It's homemade," he said proudly.

How could I resist? I took a taste. It was sweet--and very strong. I'd call it "handcrafted."

I'll have to go easy on it at the seder.

Hebrew for "15th of [the month of] Shevat," both a date and the name of a holiday celebrated on that date. A holiday that falls in January or February, it's the New Year for trees. Hebrew for "repetition" (from the verb meaning "to study and review"), it refers to the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions ("Oral Torah"). Mishnah is the first post-biblical collection of Jewish legal materials, and the primary building block of the Talmud (the major collection of Jewish law), as interpreted by the rabbis. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.

Edmon J. Rodman is a Los Angeles writer and designer.

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