Wouldn't it seem strange if you heard that mystics had transformed April 15, Income Tax Day, into a festival celebrating God's creative force in nature? Yet that is what the Kabbalists of Safed did in the 16th century when they recreated Tu bi-Shevat. Tu bi-Shevat, the full moon of mid-winter, had been important only in Holy Temple days, in determining end of the "fiscal year" for trees for the tithing calendar. Fruit that ripened before that date was taxed for the previous year, fruit that ripened later, for the following year. The Talmud called this legal date the "New Year for Trees."

But the Kabbalists saw it as the New Year for the Tree of Life itself — the Tree whose roots are in Heaven and whose fruit is the world and all God's creations. To honor the reawakening of trees and of that Tree of Life in deep mid-winter, they created a mystical Seder that honors the Four Worlds: Acting, Relating, Knowing, and Being. These Four Worlds were enacted with four cups of wine and four courses of nuts and fruit.

The fruit moved from less permeable to more permeable: the World of Acting, those with tough shells and soft, edible insides (e.g., walnuts); for the World of Relating, those with soft outsides and hard insides (e.g., peaches); for the World of Knowing, those that are soft and edible all the way through (e.g., figs); for the World of Being, fruits so "permeable" they are not tangible at all and exist only on the plane of Spirit.

The symbolic system of this Seder held still deeper riches: echoes of generation and regeneration in the plant and animal worlds.

Nuts and fruit

Nuts and fruit, the rebirthing aspects of a plant's life-cycle, are the only foods that require no death, not even the death of a plant. Our living trees send forth their fruit and seeds in such profusion that they overflow beyond the needs of the next generation.

Four cups of wine
The four cups of wine were red, rose, pink, white. Thus they echoed generation and regeneration among animals, including the human race. Red and white were in ancient tradition seen as the colors of generativity; to mix them was to mix the blood and semen that to the ancients connoted procreation.

Why then did the Kabbalists of Safed connect these primal urgings toward abundance with the date of tithing fruit? Because they believed that God's abundance would continue to flow only if a portion of it were returned to God, the Owner of the land and its produce. And who were God's rent collectors? The poor and the landless, including those priestly celebrants and teachers who owned no piece of earth and whose earthly task was to teach and celebrate.

These mystics saw a deep significance in giving. They said that to eat without blessing the Tree was robbery, and that to eat without feeding others was likewise robbery. Worse in fact, because without blessing and sharing, the flow of abundance would choke and stop.

Tu bi-Shevat approaches once again. The trees of the world are in danger; the poor of the world are in need; our teachers, spiritual leaders, and artists are not taken seriously. Give! Or the flow of abundance will choke on the friction of its own outpouring, and God's Own Self will choke on our refusal to live a life of compassion.


Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center, a network of Jews who draw on and renew Jewish religious and spiritual traditions to seek justice, pursue peace, heal the earth, and build community. He is the author of Down-to-Earth Judaism (Wm. Morrow), Seasons of Our Joy (Beacon), and Godwrestling: Round 2 (Jewish Lights of Woodstock, VT), and co-author of Tales of Tikkun (Jason Aronson). Copyright © 1998 by Arthur Waskow.

SHEVAT Table of Contents



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