Educators and spiritual leaders are planting the seeds for a meaningful Tu B’Shevat.
The Jewish holiday, which celebrates the birthday of trees and promotes ecological awareness — often through eating figs, dates and other fruit — begins the evening of Feb. 5.
Though weeks remain until carob lovers can officially rejoice, Pittsburghers are already preparing.
On Feb. 2, Chani Altein, co-director of Chabad of Squirrel Hill, and Sue Berman Kress are hosting a Tu B’Shevat-inspired event. Kress is a master challah baker who has previously taught community members how to make holiday-themed bread. Altein is an author and Jewish educator. The two women are partnering on what Altein billed as a fun educational evening: While Altein shares lessons about Tu B’Shevat, Kress will instruct participants on creating grape-shaped challah. Grapes, Altein noted, are one of seven biblical species — the other six are wheat, barley, figs, olives, dates and pomegranates.
Tradition teaches that there are several ways to celebrate Tu B’Shevat, but one holiday custom is eating and enjoying “at least some of the seven species that Israel is praised for,” Altein said.
“During the times of the Temple, Tu B'Shevat played an important role with agricultural mitzvot and the early form of taxation,” noted Rabbi Aaron Meyer of Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
The Torah states, “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be for you, not to be eaten.”
Subsequent biblical verses indicate that during the fourth year the fruit was to be offered to the Temple priests and, that finally, during the fifth year, the fruit could be enjoyed by the farmer.
Tu B’Shevat, Meyer explained, was the “birthday of the trees,” and a day on the calendar that helped farmers determine the age of their plantings relative to the multi-year biblical process.
“In more modern days, Halutzim — early pioneers leading to the formation of the state of Israel — reclaimed Tu B'Shevat as a form of Jewish Arbor Day, planting trees and
celebrating the connection between human beings and the natural world,” Meyer said.
Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David said that she and her religious school students have been tracing the history of Tu B’Shevat from its references in the Mishna through modern times.
“It is important to see and contextualize the evolution of all of our holidays and practices,” Symons said. “It roots them in our history while opening the door to innovation and
There is a longstanding tradition to celebrate Tu B’Shevat with customs and joy, explained Rabbi Shimon Silver of Young Israel of Pittsburgh.
In recognition of the holiday, which occurs on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, some people eat 15 fruits — including bokser, or the fruit of the carob tree. There are also people who recite a paragraph of Psalms before eating each fruit. And some people, Silver continued, study a mishna about a fruit and then eat a fruit.
While many Tu B’Shevat practices involve fruit or other biblical species, the day is also marked by omitting the Tachanun prayer during morning and afternoon services.
“Tachanun represents penitence,” Silver said. “On days associated with celebration, it is considered intrusive of the spirit of the day to practice penitence, abstinence and to eulogize the dead.” This is based on a “Scriptural requirement of joy and rejoicing.”
Practicing customs and studying about the holidays are important ways to rejoice. So, too, is reviewing the calendar, Silver said. After all, 30 days after Tu B’Shevat, it’s Purim. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.