Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It is a Tree of Life: Tu B'Shevat

The minor holiday of Tu B'Shevat (the 15th of Shavat) is not mentioned in the Bible. It is first brought up in the Talmud, as the "New Year of trees." This refers to tithes collected from fruit bearing trees. Tu B'Shevat is to tithing what Dec. 31st is to our fiscal year - the time to close out the books.

That sounds bluntly administrative, but there's more. In terms of the natural order, in Israel this date roughly marks the winding down of the harshest pounding winter rains (the name for the month, Shevat, means "club"). The rains are a pain, but they are also vital to the vitality of the coming growing season (Israel depends almost entirely on rainfall) so this signals the first hints of renewed life. And trees are emblematic of this hope.

Tu B'Shevat also has a metaphysical importance because of the rain and the trees. Trees, in particular, are one of the most potent symbols of and for Judaism. Rooted in the ground and reaching for the heavens, it is a symbol of Torah, the human being, and the Sefirot (the divine order).

In various traditions, we learn that trees are sentient and offer praise to God continuously (Gen., Rabbah 13:2; Perek Shirah). The cosmic trees in the center of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (all things, which stands for the universal order we we know, the unredeemed world) and the Tree of Life (understood by Judaism to be the Torah and the source of immortality and the ideal divine order God wants us to restore to creation) are not the only trees of power. All trees in Eden have the power to heal and give off a scent that comforts a soothes the soul - symbolic of the centrality of trees to human well-being even to this day. At the conclusion of most services, quoting the Proverbs, we praise the Torah for it tree-like capacity to nurture, sustain, and protect us ("...It is a Tree of Life for all who cling to it...").

Not surprisingly, then, we find that the mystics of Safed developed a mystical seder in honor of the holiday. This lovely service, involving wine and the eating of various fruits, urges us at a time of torpor and dreariness toward re-sensitizing us to the essential rhythms of the earth and the pulse of divine stirrings.


Anonymous Robert Hagedorn said...

But what IS the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Do a search: The First Scandal Adam and Eve.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

As I noted (Gershom Scholem affirms this) it is the cosmic order as we known it today.

7:57 PM  
Blogger Maggid said...

Just wanted to Thank You!
Love Your Blog.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The mystical world consists of channels that help us to meet our essence. A mystical experience encourages us to discover our unique sensibility. It connects us to the universe and defines our role in the world. It is in this sense a step that allows us to recognize our mission, this deep desire inside that makes us want to become what we truly are. In response to your second question: It is not the external circumstances that determine how we live our experiences, but our level of consciousness. "Different people can live their experience very differently under identical circumstances depending on their ability to be aware of the deeper meaning of what appears in their lives." (Alex Mero)

8:12 PM  

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