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."
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.
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, 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.
- 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
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 B'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.
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
Copyright © 1998 by Arthur Waskow.
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