Thursday, January 28, 2021

Tu BiShvat

Fruits for our Tu Bishevat dinner: olives, raisins, dates, figs, prunes, avocado, apple orange, grapes,  a pomegranate, and tomatoes.
We included both new and old-world species. Our Israeli placemats depict grapes and pomegranates.

The minor Jewish festival of Tu BiShevat began on the evening of January 27 this year, which is the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat in the Hebrew calendar. Like many Jewish festivals, Tu BiShevat reflects seasonal agricultural in ancient Israel; specifically it's the "New Year of the Trees" -- that is, the time when trees bloom and when seedlings should be planted. This agricultural new year was distinct from the fall New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which marks the start of the new calendar year and is also a time of reflection about renewing one's spiritual and moral commitments. This is different! 

”Tu Bishvat” by Israeli Artist Ze’ev Raban (1890-1970) 
(From The Jerusalem Post)

In modern life, the holiday of Tu BiShevat has become a holiday of environmental awareness as well as celebrating fruit and vegetable produce and being a time to start new endeavors. We once attended an Israeli celebration of this holiday, which is secular, but is based on the medieval Jewish and Kabbalist traditions. A platter of fresh and dried fruits and nuts grown in Israel was the main refreshment at the party we attended. Israeli farmers and kibbutz residents for 150 years have planted trees to celebrate the holiday, a custom that they restored from Biblical tradition.

Tu BiShevat customs varied throughout the diaspora, where Jewish communities lived in many climates with varied produce available at that time of year. In northern Europe, where the holiday falls in the coldest part of winter, most of the fruit used in the ritual was dried fruit with maybe a rare and expensive orange in addition to raisins, almonds, dried apricots, and prunes. Religious ritual was founded on the belief that "every piece of fruit–which can be considered the parent generation–holds the seed of the next generation, in other words, the potential for new life. If, when we eat the fruit, which releases the seed, we do so in a holy way–with proper blessing and gratitude–then we are helping God to renew nature, and the flow of life continues." (source) Thus diaspora tradition involved eating a large selection of fruits (as many as 15) and drinking wine along with reciting prescribed prayers. 

From the "seven species"-- pomegranate molasses,
wine, olive oil, dates, figs, and bread (made of wheat/barley).

Thanks to being locked down in my home this year, I've decided to think about what this holiday can mean to me. For example, I'm thinking of the early list of produce in the Biblical tradition: the "seven species" recognized as ritually and practically important to ancient Jewish life, and often associated with the holiday. The "seven species" were wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates, which could be eaten alone or used to produce several key foods: bread, wine, olive oil, and date honey, an important sweetener before the introduction of sugar cane.  Modern celebrations add other Israeli produce like carob (also mentioned in the Bible), citrus fruits, apricots, almonds, and other nuts. I find it fascinating that all seven of the Biblical products are still with us, and I have them on hand in one form or another.

Thinking about the Biblical list of traditional produce also makes me think of how cultures on every continent have celebrated important fruits and vegetables, which continue to play an important role in worldwide cuisine and nutrition today. 

  • In North America before European arrival, the "three sisters" -- corn, beans, and squash -- were traditionally listed as a key part of the diet. These and many other cultivated New World species (like tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and chocolate) have become important culinary elements throughout the world. 
  • In China, a long tradition celebrated "five grains" as a staple of cuisine and diet. The list varied during the thousands of years of Chinese history -- rice, millet, wheat, barley, soy and adzuki beans, sesame, and sorghum appeared on the list at different times. 
  • Another example of key produce items: enslaved Africans brought several important foods on their terrible tragic voyages, and then introduced them to American agriculture. These included rice, okra, black-eyed peas, watermelon, and others. The African contribution to American and worldwide agriculture is often overlooked, and I've just been learning about it.
jwc 2
Fruit for Tu B' Shevat -- also a dish of bright green olives,
From a celebration I attended in 2013. (link)
Michigan in January is no time to plant trees! But while dreaming of warmer places, and hoping we'll get there soon, we are celebrating like our ancestors -- enjoying fruits, nuts, vegetables, and other produce. And I am thinking about the great assortment of foods from every continent that we can enjoy in our modern world, almost independent of the season. 

Ready to eat: besides the many fruits, we had a glass of wine, a dish of mushrooms, and some bread and butter.

Blog post © 2021 mae sander.


Jeanie said...

You're right -- no time to plant trees! I don't think I could dig down a centimeter in the garden! But oh, what a beautiful table of lovely and meaningful foods. I'm not familiar with this holiday but I love the meaning of it and the depth of thought you share about his with it. I learned something new today -- and I like that.

Jeff the Chef said...

Thanks for this post, Mae! Nearly everything in it was new to me!

Angie's Recipes said...

Lots of fruits :-) I love your dinner plates!

Iris Flavia said...

I wish more people value food and it´s history.

Debra Eliotseats said...

Thank you for sharing this. Being from Oklahoma, I am familiar with the "Three Sisters" and have tried to echo that tradition in my own garden at times. You are always a wealth of knowledge, Mae.

My name is Erika. said...

I have never heard of Tu BiShevat. I really enjoyed reading about it and different customs depending on where people are. Thanks for sharing this Mae. I enjoyed this post.

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

Thank you for such an informative post. Those tomatoes look so good.

Valerie-Jael said...

This is one of my favourite feasts. Valerie

premtalianad said...

Thanks for sharing this article, i love your writing style

premtalianad said...

i like your food collection

DVArtist said...

This is a great post. Love the settings.

David M. Gascoigne, said...

Now that looks like a feast I would love to join!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Thanks so much for highlighting this holiday! When I was little, I always said "tube -is -vat" or something. But I also said "aspagarus" so I guess it was a pattern. Makes me want to go out and get figs and dates! We are lucky enough to have access to pomegranate arils this season; Costco carries them from Israel, and they are the best! Would be a great addition to the other fruits and nuts!

Divers and Sundry said...

I'm familiar with a few of the Jewish holidays but not this one. Thanks! The food looks delicious -all that lovely fruit! Your table is an inviting scene.