Tu B’Shvat is the traditional Rosh Hashanah for trees. There are four Rosh Hashanahs or New Years mentioned in Jewish tradition; and each occurs at a different time of year.
Man is compared to the trees – the divine logic can be observed from Scripture. “Man is as a tree of the field”. (Deut. 20,19) On Tu B’Shvat, the primary goal, as discussed in the traditional sources, is to rectify the original sin that occurred through Adam the First. It is mentioned in Jewish literature throughout the ages, that Adam’s sin was not in partaking of the fruit of the tree revealing good and evil, but that he did so prematurely – before his prayer to do so had been accepted from on high.
During Shvat trees begin to grow exceptionally well. Most of the rains have fallen, but growth has still mostly not yet occurred. Certainly, the full moon on this mid day of the month – the Jewish months are essentially lunar, is also quite relevant. Shvat is considered to correspond with the ‘dlei’ – the water bearer, known also as the astrological sign of Aquarius – which corresponds to the tribe of Asher, who was especially blessed through the olive and other trees.
Several different arrangements to the Tu B’Shvat seder have evolved. The arrangement following the customs of the ‘Pri Eitz Hadar’ were originally popular, but various Askenazic and Sefardic communities have arrangements which vary from this to a large degree. There is also a Jerusalem custom for the seder as well. The Pri Eitz Hadar is commonly attributed to Nosan of Gaza; the main leader of the false messianic movement of Shabbtai Tzvi of the sixteenth century; and thus, many refrain from following that arrangement.
The traditional seder arises in this manner. There are selections from Tanach relating to fruits and trees. Also, there are selections from the holy Zohar that relate to fruit, to the trees, and to blessing. The introductory selections also include a simple and timely prayer. Subsequent is a seder; centering on eighteen varieties of fruit. The seder, however, is preceded by eating cakes and cookies of wheat. Then, fruits of the nut type are usually eaten first. If making the seder with wine, these are followed by a cup of white wine. Fruits edible only on the outside are eaten next. Afterward, is a cup of mostly white wine, but with some red. Then fruits which are totally edible. These are followed by a cup of wine mostly red, but with a substantial amount of white. After this, the seder calls for other fruits to be eaten (of any type), and these are followed by a cup of red wine, but having just a minute amount of white. At the conclusion, lupines are eaten, (or other fruits or nuts of the earth; i.e. peanuts).
This is another customary arrangement. The man – after Birchos HaMazon (the Grace following a regular meal which includes bread) makes the blessing over ‘mezonos’ grains (and of course, afterward eats) this additional item (cake or cookies, etc.) of wheat; and repeats the verse: “You shall be satisfied through the fat of wheat”. One does this as an omen and in hope of obtaining a blessing of plentiful sustenance throughout the year. The woman recites a blessing over wine or grape juice; saying: “Your wife shall be bear forth as the vine”. The son says the blessing over olives, and the verse: “Your sons shall be as shoots of the olive tree, surrounding your table”. Pomegranates and walnuts are eaten first by one’s daughters, and they say the following: “The glory of the king’s daughter lies within”. (The outsides of these fruits are all inedible – thus, lying within). Date honey and apples are given to the infants, as paralleling the teaching: “I raised you from under the apple tree. Honey and milk were under your tongue”. It is also customary to recite chapters of the mishnah over each fruit.
In kabbalistic teachings, four mystical realms are said to exist. Ten varieties of fruits exist in relation to each of the three lower realms (the highest is too austere for reflection in materiality). The highest of these fruit types are (theoretically) completely edible. These are closest of all to the highest realm of Pure Emanation – being of the realm of Conception or Creation. There are likewise 10 species of fruit in correspondence to the next lower realm of Formation. These are not as close to impurity as those related with the lowest world of Action, but not as far off as those emanating from the higher world of Creation. Therefore, the seeds existing within the fruits of this second category remain inedible. There are additionally ten varieties of fruits of the realm of Action or Physicality – paralleling its traits. In this group, the section of the fruit within is edible, while that which is on the outside is not. The shell of these fruits separates between the nut and between the state of ‘overall confusion’ existing on the outside beyond.
There is also a fourth category of tree that bear fruit that is mostly or totally inedible or not at all. It is mentioned that Rabbi Chaim Vital for one, distanced himself from these, he being a master of the soul. For these all have relation to ‘the side of the left’. One can’t help but notice the sages’ astute recognition long ago, of the potential ill effects of plants and compounds derived from trees such as these, which are so often misused today: cocaine, marijuana, and others, – as these also, are derived from trees and plants corresponding to this last non fruit-bearing category.
The four types of wine (white, red, and their mixtures) reflect the four seasons of the year. White is indicative of autumn. White with some red represents the winter – (the red ‘warmth’ of spring even then somewhat perceivable). Red with some white, as traditionally used for the third cup, is the spring. Pure red is the summertime, when the crops have fully matured. The fifteen traditional fruits of Tu B’Shvat are the following. Of Creation: figs, grapes, apples, pears, and quince. Of Formation: dates, olives, plums, cherries, and hawthorn berries. Of Action: pomegranates, almonds, walnuts, lupines (these are fruits of the earth, and not of perennial trees), and ‘sidrah’ (a tree nut).
Rabbi Chayyim Vital, disciple of the holy Arizal, mentions that there are ten species of each general variety of fruit; thus thirty primary species, and each is indigenous to Israel. Each species also has many varieties. This follows the sages’ interpretation of the verse: “…and seventy dates”. They understood this to imply there were seventy varieties of dates. So, then is the case regarding other species of fruit. These thirty species therefore have among them several varieties of the same fruit. Also, each is primarily attributed with a particular of the ten ‘s’firos’ or divine attributes as generally known from kabbalistic and chassidic teachings. These ten traits are first the intellectual qualities of keser (the crown); chochmah (wisdom) and binah (understanding). Then follow chesed (kindness); g’verah (restriction or holy selfishness) and tiferes (beauty – especially as a balancing of these previous two traits).
Then netzach (the enduring quality of truth), and hod (glory of truth). Then yesod (the foundation of purity – especially as an extension of personal lifestyle. Finally, there is malchus (the sovereignty of G-d, and spontaneous service of Him). These parallel the ten sayings of G-d during Creation; within the Ten Commandments, as well as many other facets of reality and of Torah thought.
The thirty are the following. Of Creation: grapes, figs, apples, esrogim (citron), sweet lemon, pears, quice, mulberries, sorb-apple, and carob. (Questions regarding the apparent inedibility of the pits of some of these is discussed). Of Formation: olives, dates, sweet cherries, jujube, peaches, plums, apricots, sour cherries, hawthorn berries, loquat. Of Action: pomegranate, walnuts, almonds, chestnuts, hazelnuts, oak nuts, coconut, pignolias or pine nuts, pistashios, and Israeli pistachios.
Interesting, also, is that the Tu B’Shvat seder is very similar to the Passover seder exactly two or three (Hebrew) months away. It may be understood, that just as the primary citing of the Passover seder, is ‘to teach one’s sons on that day’, here the purpose is to teach oneself – of the inner meaning and relevance, of the Torah’s traditions.
Many have the tradition of saying various Scriptural and Midrashic passages before the fruit seder. The passages from Tanach (Scriptures) are not usually said when making the seder at nighttime, however. Many communities also have the tradition to sing afterward.
Any formal observance of a Tu B’Shvat seder or even of eating any fruit whatsoever is of course only customary. Yet, an interesting quote from the past is that of Rabbi Eliyahu HaCohain of Izamir. He mentioned in a testament to his son; “My son, be steadfast to make the blessing over fruit on Tu B’Shvat – for it is a worthy custom and correct, though there is no definitive arrangement to the seder, and no specific tradition to the occasion. Rather, the celebration is according to the situation in which one finds himself, concerning not only which fruits one eats, but also, in which order.