Living as a vegan in a non-vegan world has its perks. Waking up to a delicious smoothie, coconut creamer in my coffee, and lunch plans with a colleague who doesn’t care where her salad comes from. On New Year’s Eve I made whole wheat sourdough cinnamon buns that my friends gobbled up. And yet, when it comes to “tradition,” especially in religious spaces, unless we are planning the menu and hosting a plant-based meal, it is rare to find vegan holiday foods at the center of the table. The good news is, the next Jewish holiday on the calendar is the perfect time of year to join ignite a passion for plant based foods among your non vegan friends.
Enter Tu Bishvat, the Jewish birthday of trees. Fruit bearing trees, to be more specific. In modern times, this means we gather to enjoy a variety of fruit and nuts, front and center. No, I don’t mean the soggy fruit salad they served the vegans at that wedding last month or those way too salty airplane peanuts. I’m talking about a decadent feast of exotic fruit, and crunchy nuts straight from the shell. Did I mention there is also four cups of wine?
But first, a mini history lesson:
The name of the holiday, “Tu BiShvat” is literally the date on the calendar, the 15th of the month of Shevat. (It’s like saying “July 4th”). When we are low energy and longing for those bright summer days, most of us would prefer to curl up on the couch with takeout and disconnect. And yet, the Jewish calendar says to us: get out of your house, get together with friends, and eat some fruit! Literally!
This ancient holiday wasn’t originally designed to include actually eating anything. This makes sense because even in the middle east, most fruits do not ripen around this time of year. Rather, it was actually the annual tax day that helped farmers determine the fiscal year of their temple offerings. In the first three years of a tree’s life, any ripened fruit was donated to the priests in the Temple. If the tree had ripened fruit on or after Tu Bishvat in the 4th year, then the owner of the tree was finally able to consume it.
Imagine yourself counting the days for a perfect fig to ripen…and then harvesting it and eating it fresh… yuuuummmmmmmm…
Okay – back to modern times. Well, sort of. We have the late 16th century kabbalists (people who study and practice Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism) to thank for the custom of a ritual that elevates fruit and nuts as the exquisite nourishing foods they are. While studying some of the original laws about fruit trees in the land of Israel, they had an inspiration. Since their community of Tzfat (in northern Israel) no longer needed to tithe fruit trees to the priests in the Jerusalem temple, perhaps there was another way to honor fruit trees. Using the model of a Passover Seder as their guide, they designed a four-course meal of wine, fruit, and nuts.
In the 21st century, hosting a gathering focused on fruit and nuts is a fabulous way to show off how delicious, filling, and decadent vegan foods can be. Bonus: it’s also gluten free! Here’s an overview of how it works:
- First course: nuts with the shells (walnuts, almonds, pistachios), and fruits with peels (oranges, pomegranates, avocado, cacao), plus red wine or grape juice
- Second course: Other fruits with inedible pits (e.g. peaches, plums, olives), plus red with a splash of white
- Third course: Other fruits with edible seeds (e.g. blueberries), plus white wine with a splash of red.
- Fourth course: Sweet smelling plants (such as mint or lavender), plus white wine or grape juice.
Each course of wine, fruit, and nuts enables us to reach another level of spiritual perfection. Through discussion, meditation, readings, and reflections, the Tu Bishvat seder is an opportunity to connect to trees, the earth, and each other. This year it begins at sunset on January 30 and ends at nightfall on January 31.
Hosting a gathering for Tu Bishvat this year? Invite others in your area and let us know how it goes in the comments.
Tips for celebrating Tu Bishvat:
- Don’t have time for a seder? No worries, it is considered a modern holiday and the seder is just one way to bring alive the deeper meaning of the holiday. Host an informal gathering and ask guests to each bring their favorite type of fruit. Yes chocolate is a fruit!
- Seder Basics – Check out this one page version of the components of the seder. For a more elaborate one with stories, readings, discussion questions, check out this seder and sourcebook from Hazon.
- Vegan cocktail night – Everyone loves a unique cocktail, especially when there is a pomegranate juice involved. Here are a few recipes to get you started.
· Learn more about Tu Bishvat history and customs at MyJewishLearning.com