In the throes of the North American winter, when temperatures still hover too close to zero, it is hard to imagine that in Israel the first buds of spring are beginning to unfurl. The Jewish calendar marks and celebrates a cycle of agricultural events. Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, is Chag Ha’Ilanot, the holiday of the trees. It celebrates the regeneration of dormant vegetation, and like Shavuot and Sukkot, it is also closely tied to the tithing commandment.
During Biblical times, the first fruits of the season were put aside for the priests in the Temple. These were the seven species with which the land was said to be fruitful: wheat, barley, figs, grapes (wine), pomegranates, dates (honey) and olives (oil).
Tu b’Shevat was fully embraced by young Israel to strengthen the bond to the land. With the rebirth of the state of Israel and the reimagining of the new agricultural Jew, avodat ha’adama (the tilling of the earth) became a highly regarded, if not supreme, value. The holiday was tied to Ben-Gurion’s and the Zionist movement’s vision of flourishing in the wilderness.
For us kids, though, it was a totally fun holiday, without the religious observance of other holidays. The children’s songs I learned in preschool still make me associate Tu b’Shevat with the blooming almond tree’s pink crêpe “dress,” birds tweeting in the sunny sky, a plate of dried fruit and nuts and muddy winter boots. Dressed in blue and white, we celebrated Tu b’Shevat at school noshing on a plate of fruits and nuts and went out to plant trees in the Jewish National Fund’s forests.
The Tu b’Shevat plate (tishbachat batzlachat) traditionally contains dried fruits—varieties of the seven species—and nuts. The fruits are not seasonal and hence dried. Except for the almond, which is considered the harbinger of spring in Israel, neither are the nuts. This plate of healthful munchies is chock-full of vitamins, minerals and good fats.
Like in most anything Jewish, the traditional foods connect us to our shared history. Food tells the story of were we came from and also shapes who we want to become. To celebrate tradition this Tu b’Shevat, I created the Seven Species Challah, which includes all seven of them, including the two missing from the traditional Tu b’Shevat plate: wheat and barley. It also includes ingredients that the Bible mentions in reference to the Land of Milk and Honey—butter, honey and cinnamon—and almonds, the symbol of Tu b’Shevat in Israel.
Even though tree planting in my childhood did not turn me into a farmer, I make a point to dig into the earth and plant every spring.