Tu b’Shevat marks the beginning of spring in Israel. The season of consistent, pelting rains has reached its peak, and the previously parched, desert terrain has transformed into a self-sustaining, vibrant land beginning to bud with new life. The trees have started to emerge from their deep winter slumber and begin their new fruit-bearing cycle.
To mark this miraculous occasion, many customs and traditions have emerged. For years, Tu b’Shevat – which is often dubbed the Birthday of the Trees or the New Year for the Trees – has been marked by planting a tree in Israel. In more recent times, many people chose to eat at least one of the seven species that grow in abundance in the land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.
In the 16th century, Kabbalists developed a ritual meal for the holiday modeled after the Passover seder. The traditional Tu b’Shevat seder, which has experienced a new-found popularity in recent years, usually incorporates the seven species as well as groups of fruits and nuts that are used symbolically in the seder – nuts with shells and fruits with peels (oranges, avocado, pomegranates), fruits with edible seeds (blueberries, strawberries), fruits with inedible pits (peaches, plums, dates) as well as red and white wine or grape juice. Several local synagogues and religious schools have begun to host annual congregational Tu b’Shevat seders, and you can find many ideas online for home-based seders.
With growing environmental concerns filling our minds and hearts, Tu b’Shevat has taken on an additional role: an ecological call-to-action, a Jewish Arbor Day that not only celebrates the trees’ bounty this season, but protects future bounties.
This year, why not start your own tradition? On the evening of Tuesday, February 3 – the start of Tu b’Shevat – host a dinner party that celebrates all of these traditions. Gather family and friends before the sun sets and plant a tree together. Your love and friendship can grow throughout the years as you can watch the tree grow and develop.
At dinner, brainstorm ideas on how you can continue to work together to present a united front against the dangers plaguing our environment. The steps can be as simple as vowing to unplug appliances when you are not using them or more complex, such as starting your own organic compost heap. The possibilities are endless.
And, because no proper Jewish gathering would be complete without a delicious feast, create a healthy Tu b’Shevat meal that includes some – or all – of the seven species. A dairy meal could start with a cheese platter featuring a beautifully firm and salty Israeli feta cheese (available in local markets including Trader Joe’s) served with organic grapes, figs and an array of Israeli olives.
Take a page out of fellow JFE blogger Julie Silverstein’s book and create a series of infused olive oils for dipping your whole grain challah. In addition to rosemary and thyme, Basil, hot pepper and garlic can add to your repertoire of infused olive oils. This week’s recipes for a pomegranate salad dressing and a sweet-ending with a date-infused cookie will add to your seven species-inspired meal.