On the Jewish food scene: The foods of Tu B’Shevat by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When I was growing up, I’d never heard of a Tu B’Shevat seder. The only thing we did to commemorate the day was to purchase trees in Israel through the Jewish National Fund. In Hebrew school, we didn’t receive any mystical insights, or eat special fruit – at least, as far as I can remember. That’s not to say that the Tu B’Shevat seder didn’t exist then (it’s said to have been started in the 16th century by mystics living in Safed, Israel), but it hadn’t taken hold in the middle-class American Judaism of which I was a part.

I read three or four different seders for a class during my first year of rabbinical school. The teacher would open each session by asking if we had any questions about the reading. Mine was simple: Since the order of drinking wine was different in one (from white to red in most, but red to white in one), did that mean that there is no set order to the seder? His answer was yes. While most seders offer similar parts, there is not one on which everyone agrees.
That’s partly due to the nature of the commemoration. I use the term commemoration rather than holiday because, while Tu B’Shevat may be called the New Year of the Trees, it was originally more about taxes/tithes than it was a celebration. It simply set the yearly fruit tithes – fruit from trees – that was to be given to the priests. However, the beauty of Judaism is that we can take a discussion related to taxes and make something holy and special out of it.
Since the tithes were offered on trees located in Israel, many people now focus on the food native to that general area, or, at least the seven species listed in Deuteronomy that were offered at the Temple: wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranates, olives and dates. But if you look at enough seders (just Google Tu B’Shevat seders and you’ll find way more than you might expect), you’ll discover the main thing most have in common is that they include different species of fruit and a beverage, usually wine or grape juice. 

As someone who loves fruit, I am thrilled to eat a meal focusing on that. Dried fruit – especially apricots – are sweeter than candy to me. (By the way, I mean plain dried fruits. Please don’t ruin them by dipping them in chocolate.) Although oranges aren’t mentioned in the Torah, they used to be considered the main fruit of Israel, at least when I was young. If you thought about fruit and Israel, Jaffa oranges immediately came to mind. I know that some people think of the sabra fruit from the cactus as the real Israeli fruit since native-born Israelis are called sabras. That’s because, like the fruit, they are prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside. However, I don’t think I ever actually tasted the fruit during either of my trips to Israel. 

During my 10 months in Israel during rabbinical school, I was thrilled to discover that not only were mangos plentiful for eight of the months I was there, they were cheap – way cheaper than I ever found them in the U.S. Also inexpensive was kiwi fruit and I learned a new way to eat it. Rather than peeling them, which was difficult, I cut them in half and scooped out the fruit with a spoon. (That may have been one of the most practical things I learned during my time in Beer Sheva.)

How should you commemorate Tu B’ Shevat this year, which begins on sundown on Wednesday, January 27, and concludes at sundown on Thursday, January 28? Since there is actually no set way to observe, you can decide for yourself. But whether you hold a seder, plant a tree or just eat a piece of fruit, take a moment to appreciate nature and the beauty that is a tree.