Among the many blessings of being forty-something are the insights we gain into our parents. For me, this included the realization that my father, a secular kibbutznik, brought to life a kabbalistic practice that has become a modern Jewish tradition — the Tu b’Shvat seder. It also made me realize the effect this had on my own life.
The original creator of the Tu b’Shvat seder was Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (Ha’Aree), a 16th-century kabbalist who lived in the Galilee. The Kabbalah famously attaches mystical significance to trees and fruit. In keeping with that, Rabbi Luria celebrated a seder on Tu b’Shvat, the New Year of the Tree. The seder was rooted in the kabbalistic concept of “tikkun olam,” or “healing of the world”: by sitting around the table, eating specific fruits, drinking four cups of wine, and reciting blessings, humans would bring the world closer to spiritual perfection.
In the centuries that followed, this practice was abandoned and almost forgotten until a little book called Pri Etz Hadar resurfaced. In it was a description of the kabbalistic Tu b’Shvat Seder. At the time, Tu b'Shvat had already acquired great significance in Israel, with a distinct secular-agricultural flair. In the kibbutz of my childhood we celebrated the New Year of the Tree by planting trees and eating dried fruits out of cabbage leaves “bowls.” Every time I go back to my kibbutz, I am slightly horrified by how tall and old these trees are now.
The kabbalistic concept of Tu b’Shvat as means of spiritual ascent, therefore, was very foreign to the secular Israel of the seventies. However, it captured the imagination of two men: Noga Hareuveni, a scholar and educator, and Amnon Yadin, my father.
They separately created Tu b'Shvat seders and ran them in their communities. My father, who was an associate director of a teachers’ seminary, conducted experimental seders with the teachers-to-be. The idea caught on and the Tu B’Shvat seder has now become a standard practice. It is celebrated, in many variations, by Jews both in Israel and abroad.
It is said that the spiritual-religious essence of the kabbalistic seder gave way to a secular-agricultural spirit of Israeli kibbutzim. But I think my father tried to do the opposite.
He was a first-generation kibbutznik, raised in a decidedly secular world. But he was fascinated by the spiritual significance of the world around him.
When I was a child he used to take me from one Arab village to another in a kind of “tree hopping.” In each of those villages there was an ancient, sacred olive tree. Next to it sat an old man who looked a little like the tree: silvery and time-ragged. The man would tell my father fables and traditions associated with that tree, and I remember my father listening to these old Palestinian men with bright eyes, just like a child.
In creating the Haggadah, my father drew from traditional sources as well as modern Israeli ones. Above all, it is a celebration of nature from the tangible to the symbolic. For example, it adapts the kabalistic custom of drinking four glasses of wine. While for the kabbalist the order of glasses symbolizes an ascendance from the earthly (red wine) to the divine (white wine), my father interprets it as the circle of life: the dead of winter (white) to the burst of life in spring (red).
Seder Tu b’Shvat lends itself to many interpretations and adaptations. It is “like a tree,” says the Hazon Haggadah. There are many variations stemming from the original practice like branches, from the mystical (and New Age), to the environmental to the feminist.
My father passed away 32 years ago on the week of Tu b’Shvat. Sometimes I wonder what I learned from him. I too live in a world where the fruits and vegetables that we eat are full life and tradition and wisdom; I actually make a living telling their stories. I also believe, a little like the kabbalists, that eating the right food at the right time can (at least in a practical, environmentally-conscious sense) save the world.
On Tu b’Shvat my kids and friends will gather for a Tu B’shvat seder. We will be using an English haggadah because it speaks to my American teens. But we will eat the holiday foods of my mother and grandmother, because food expresses its spirit much better than words.
The seder consists of four cups of wine that move from red to white (yes, you mix red and white wine. Try to fetch a good rosé or two, if this bothers you). The wine is accompanied by specific fruits, and wheat or barley. I designed the menu around fruits and wheat. I used my mother’s recipes with small adjustments (Not small enough for my mom. I will tell you where I digressed and suggest the original, too).
Many thanks for Rabbi Kerry Olitzky of the Jewish Outreach Institute for his help.
Tu B'Shvat Chicken
Tu B'Shvat Stuffing
Parsley Salad For Seder
Nirit Yadin is a cooking teacher and food writer based in the New York City metro area. She owns a food marketing company.