1 Tishrei
Autumn Equinox
Rosh HaShanah

11 Cheshvan
Rachel's Death

1 Tevet
Winter Solstice

15 Shevat
Festival of Trees

1 Nisan
Spring Equinox

18 Iyar
Lag B'Omer
Torah and Manna

1 Tammuz
Summer Solstice
Mourning Jerusalem

15 Av
Tu B'Av
Harvest Dancing

The Sap

In my climate, Tu B’Shevat comes in deep winter (January or February), when storms are harsh, yet sap is rising, rain is falling, and buds are beginning to creep into the air. In Jewish tradition dating back to the Talmud, Tu B’Shevat, the fifteenth of the month of Shevat, is “the birthday of the trees,”1 and is one of the four new years of the Jewish calendar. Tu B’Shevat was once a minor festival, a Talmudic tax date that told farmers how to date the age of their trees so they would know what fruit to tithe of the temple. Hai Gaon, a 9th cent. Sage, relates the following Arabic tradition about Shevat:

In the month of Shevat, God throws down three burning coals to warm the earth. On the seventh of Shevat the first coal falls, to warm the air. On the fourteenth of the month the second falls, to warm the water in the trees. On that day the Arabs say: Today water has entered the trees. On the twenty-third of Shevat, the third coal is thrown, to warm the soil.

Shevat photo

“A ladder stood on the ground, and its head reached to heaven, and messengers of God were going up and down in it…” —Genesis 28:12

Element: Gateway between Fire and Air
Direction: North-East
Angel: Ilaniel
Sefirah: Daat (Knowledge)2
World: Beriyah (Intellect)

In Hebrew, the word for sap is saraf, which means fire. Shevat is a time of warming the world, and Tu B’Shevat is a day to welcome and honor the sap—the water in the trees that allows life to return. Tu B’Shevat represents the rising life force as the year moves toward spring—this day is a celebration of the inner fire that waits to burst into air. The
shoot that grew up at the winter solstice grows as the sap moves and spreads life.

R. Yochanan said: One day [Honi the Circle-maker] was journeying on the road and he saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him: How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit? The man replied: Seventy years. He then further asked him: Are you sure you will live another seventy years? The man replied: I found [full-grown] carob trees in the world. As my ancestors planted them for me, so I will plan them for my children. —Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 23a

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Jewish mystics, starting with Isaac Luria, developed Tu B’Shevat as a mystical holiday celebrating the Divine life force. Luria invented the custom of drinking four cups of wine — white, white mixed with red, red mixed with white, and red — to symbolize the four worlds of mystical tradition. In the seventeenth century, Nathan of Gaza, a mystic, created a Passover-like seder for Tu B’Shevat, including biblical and rabbinic passages about trees to be studied. Among Sephardic Jews, there are many traditions for celebrating this day: special poems called complas are recited, laws and traditions related to trees and fruit are read. Charity is distributed known as fruit money (ma'ot perot), and children are given a bolsa de frutas, a bag of fruit.3

In modern Israel, Tu B’Shevat celebrates the fruits of the land: dates, figs, carobs, oranges, and other fruits of local trees. The Tu B’Shevat seder has also become a way to celebrate the human responsibility to care for trees and all of nature.4 And the holiday retains its mystical nature: the celebration of God’s flowing life-force, the ever-young sap that runs through the branches of the universe. This awakening force will soon lead us to the first of Nisan, to the flowering of spring in the earth and in ourselves.


The Story of the Season


The mystical seder for Tu B’Shevat is a sacred meal during which we can experience the four worlds of the Divine—assiyah (earth/doing), yetzirah (water/ making/ feeling), beriah (air/ creating/ thinking) and atzilut (fire/ spirit/ being)—through the taste of various kinds of fruit. These four worlds make up the eitz chayim or tree of life, a mystical tree embodying the unfolding of God within the natural and spiritual world. Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) believed that Tu B’Shevat honored the Tree of Life, a name for the Divine.5


The kabbalists’ seder was similar in structure to the Passover seder. The mystics recited biblical verses and ate fruits representing the four worlds of the mystical universe—fruit with shells to represent the earth, the body and the concrete world—assiyah; fruit with pits to represent the water and the world of emotions—yetzirah; and entirely edible fruit to represent the air, the mind, and the world of beriyah. The world of spirit and fire, atzilut, had no fruit to represent it because it was the level of pure Divine energy. The mystics would drink four glasses of wine— white, white with a touch of red, red with a touch of white, and red, to represent the progression of spring—as sap rises and branches begin to bud, the trees turn red. Through this ceremony, they let themselves see God's attributes within themselves and understand the physical world as a manifestation of the Shekhinah.

Tu B’Shevat often falls around Shabbat Shirah (Sabbath of Song, the Sabbath when the Song of the Sea, the song celebrating the parting of the sea during the Exodus) is read. One Ashkenazic custom for that Shabbat is to go out and feed the birds—creatures of air and song that remind us of the beauty and the needs of our natural surroundings.6 The birds also represent the legendary story that as the Israelites walked through the miraculously split sea, trees sprouted in the sea and grew fruit for the Israelites to feed their children.7 These trees represent the nourishing force of the Divine. They are trees of life that, like the tree of life in Eden, promise eternal vitality. They are midwives overseeing the transition, through a birth canal in the sea, from slavery to freedom. So too, Tu B’Shevat is a midwife. It passes us through the four worlds of the Divine and brings us out in a new and free place.

Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone;
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day
Among the trees and grass—among all growing things
And there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with
the One to whom I belong.
May I express there everything in my heart,
And may all the foliage of the field - all grasses trees and plants -
Awake at my coming, to send the powers of their life into
the words of my prayer
So that my prayer and speech are made whole
Through the life and spirit of all growing things,
Which are made as one by their transcendent Source.
May I then pour out the words of my heart
Before your Presence like water, O Lord,
And lift up my hands to You in worship, on my behalf, and
that of my children!
—Reb Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810)

A menorah (branched candelabrum) stood in the mishkan and later in the Temple.8 It may have been a representation of the “tree of life” that appears in the book of Genesis.9 The Torah too is called a tree of life.10 Another association with the tree of life is Asherah, a Near Eastern goddess of love, fertility, and wisdom who may have been once worshipped by the Hebrew people as a consort of God. She was associated with the image of the Tree of Life, and is one of the origins of the image of the Shekhinah.11 It is noteworthy that from China to Ireland to Scandinavia, female deities rule over trees with fruit that has the power to grant eternal life. Israelites were forbidden to put up poles or trees representing Asherah because of monotheistic principles, but the menorah and the yearly celebration of the Divine as a tree are still part of Jewish practice, reminding us of the sacred and ever-growing path of life.

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them.
You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human, to withdraw before you under siege?" —Deuteronomy 20:19

Steps of the Season


After Tu B’Shevat comes to warm the earth, the month of Adar, a joyful month, arrives. The next Jewish festival is the full moon of Adar. Purim, a playful, joyful festival of masks and noisemakers, celebrates the triumph of Queen Esther over Haman, the enemy of her people. Jews read the book of Esther, invent parodies of things that are normally held sacred, and send gifts of food to one another and to the poor. Esther’s name comes from the goddess Ishtar or Asherah, and reminds us that, like older mythic figures such as Inanna, Esther descends into the underworld (in her case, the king’s harem) in order to save life. This descent into the underworld is like the sap’s hiddenness within the tree or nature’s hiddenness during winter—there must be a period of darkness in order for life to re-emerge.

A recent issue of Lilith Magazine detailed the relationship between Purim and older sacred festivals and goddesses, and described the three-cornered “hamantaschen” cookies traditionally eaten on Purim, and often filled with poppy seeds, as a vestige of ancient nature-awakening fertility customs that were practiced at this season.
Purim also represents our necessary desire to make fun and to laugh, to reverse the order of things and indulge in chaos. On Purim, men dress as women and women as men. Everyone wears a mask of some sort. The story of Purim, in which Esther conceals her identity as a Jew and marries a Persian king, contributes to the theme of secrets and unpredictability. This wildness signifies the pent-up energy of those who have been copped up inside during the winter, and reminds us of the burgeoning life that is coming.

There is a legend that Moses spent all of the month of Adar setting up the Tabernacle, the mishkan. Each time, he got it wrong. Adar is a signifier of mystery and uncertainty, of anticipation. The next month, the month of Nisan, is the month when the mishkan is set up properly. That will be the month of revelation and clarity, the month when spring truly arrives.

the shekhinah sends down her roots

Shafts of light
striking sparks from the leaves.
A green poem. The watery sun-wiped fields.
Hear the double heartbeat: mother
and child, soil and plant, branch
and bird. What you are
and are not, are and are not.

—Jill Hammer

Other Paths

Tu B’Shevat is one of a number of holidays that celebrate the warming of the ground in spring. Tu B’Shevat tends to fall at the same time as Imbolc, the Celtic fire-holiday of the maiden-goddess Brigid, honoring lambs and new growth.12 In Christianity, this holiday becomes Candlemas, the day when Mary goes to the temple to purify herself after childbirth and dedicate her son (in Ireland, a Christianized Brigid was said to have been Mary’s midwife). Tu B’Shevat also falls at the same time as the Greek holiday celebrating Demeter’s search for her lost daughter Kore/Persephone, who represents spring’s emergence from the underworld, and coincides with the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, a time of revelry and wildness.


Ideas for Celebration


We can celebrate Tu B’Shevat by holding a Tu B’Shvat seder in which the four cups and the many kinds of fruit represent the four worlds—physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual— and the four elements—earth, water, air and fire. We can bring pine cones, flowers, and other tree-objects to the seder and talk about their meaning for us, or build a seven-branched menorah from gathered gifts of nature. Tu B’Shevat can also be a time to visit the trees we love as their buds are beginning to burst into the air. We can water trees and dance with them, tie ribbons to them and sit under them, remembering that the Divine rises within them.

There is a North African Jewish women’s tradition of marrying one’s daughter to a tree on Tu B’Shevat to insure her fertility. We can go out on Tu B’Shevat and choose a tree to which we want to be “married” during the year, marking it with a ribbon to indicate our commitment. We can show love and support to the chosen tree throughout the year by watering it, fertilizing it, and protecting it.

There is a Jewish tradition that we can refresh ourselves with the smell of spices. Another way to mark this sacred time is to make a collection of spices and scents from trees, and use that collection throughout the year, either for havdalah (end of Shabbat) ceremonies where spices are blessed, or whenever we feel in need of mental refreshment.

Jill Hammer



after that it snowed
a crispy inch or so
and after this the sky
resumed her rinsed blue scintillance

and after that I remembered the birds
so I filled the feeders with two kinds of seed
and after this a cardinal
a red-capped woodpecker
and some finches

have been flying around
Now you are smirking at me
See how simple it really is
to receive a blessing

—Alicia Ostriker, in The Volcano Sequence (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002). p. 9


[1] Babylonian Talmud, Rosh haShanah 2a. The first of Tishrei is the new year for people, the first of Nisan is the new year for time, and the first of Elul is the new year for animals. Back to [1]

[2] I have associated this seasonal moment with the realm of daat/knowledge (sometimes considered as an eleventh sefirah or realm of God), because the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is called “etz daat tov vera,” using the same word, daat. Back to [2]

[3] Fishman, Priscilla. Minor and Modern Festivals (Leon Amiel Publishers, 1973), p. 65-66. Back to [3]

[4] See Ecology and the Jewish Spirit: Where Nature and the Sacred Meet, ed. Ellen Bernstein (Jewish Lights, 2000). Back to [4]

[5] Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shevat Anthology. Ed. Ari Elon, Naomi Hymna, and Arthur Waskow (Jewish Publication Society, 2003). Back to [5]

[6] This tradition is attributed to the rabbi known as the Maharal of Prague. Back to [6]

[7] Exodus Rabbah 22:1. Back to [7]

[8] Exodus 37:17-24. Back to [8]

[9] Genesis 2:9. Back to [9]

[10] Proverbs 3:18. Back to [10]

[11] Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess (Wayne State University Press, 1967), p. 34-53. Back to [11]

[12] Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess (HarperCollins, 1979). Back to [12]

back to top