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Minor Jewish holiday increases in popularity: Minor Jewish holiday one of four New Year celebrations
Robin Caudell, The Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, N.Y.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Feb. 6--PLATTSBURGH -- Rosh Hashanah is only one of four Jewish New Year celebrations.

Nissan 1 (March through April) is the New Year of Kings and Festivals. Shevat 15 (February) is the New Year of Trees. Elul 1 (August) is the New Year for the Tithing of Animals. Tishri 1, Rosh Hashanah, (September through October) is the New Year for Years.

Tu B'Shevat (Tu from "tet vav," the Hebrew numeral for 15; b' (of); and Shevat (the month), is a minor Jewish holiday that focuses on ecology and connections to the natural world.

"Many of the holidays in the Jewish calendar are connected to the land and agricultural processes in one way or another," said Rabbi Andrew Goodman of Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh. "Before the Industrial Revolution, most people were connected to the land. In Judaism, it is really part of the ritual. It's important. Trees are emblematic of anything that lives and grows and gives food."

WINTER TO SPRING

In the Talmud, Tu B'Shevat is mentioned, but it is given a more mystical and deeper spiritual element in the Zohar, "The Book of Splendor," the primary book of the Kabbalah.

In Israel, the almond trees are flowering. Almonds along with dried fruits such as dates, figs, raisins and carob are eaten at a Tu B'Shevat seder. Other activities include the planting of trees.

"The Passover seder was in existence for much longer. Tu B'Shevat draws a lot from the Passover seder," the rabbi said.

Four glasses of wine are drunk as part of the ritual. The first glass is white wine. The second glass is white wine with a little bit of red wine mixed in. The third glass is mostly red wine with a touch of white. The last glass is only red.

"It's symbolic of going from winter to spring and the maturation of produce. Wine is a symbol of joy. It's one way to partake of the produce."

In addition, three different kinds of fruit are consumed -- fruits with a rind and flesh you can eat like a banana or an orange, fruits with pit like an avocado, mango, cherry or peach. The last category is fruits eaten in their entirety like figs.

Traditionally, seven species of foods were eaten: olives, barley, wheat, honey, dates, figs and pomegranates.

ADAM AND EVE

"There has always been an obligation to the land," said Goodman, whose congregation will celebrate its Tu B'Shevat seder Sunday afternoon. "You can see as far back as Adam and Eve even, the emphasis the Bible placed on land. We are obligated to take care of it and not just for our own needs. We are dependent on it."

In Judaism, Orlah was a biblical prohibition against eating fruit during a tree's first three years. During the fourth year, Neta Reva'i commanded that the fruit crops were taken to the temple in Jerusalem as a tithe.

"If you harvest (a tree) too early, the fruit won't be good," the rabbi said. "The tree needs time get on its own. It's not sustainable. Adam and Eve were commanded to take care of the Earth. Noah and his sons were commanded to take care of the Earth. The Bible is built around an agrarian society. We were dependent on the foods that come from the Earth. We are obligated to take care of it."

In the last couple of decades, Tu B'Shevat has been recognized as a Jewish Arbor Day.

"It's gained a lot of momentum with more hippie communities and those in the green and renewable resources movements.

"Though we are not an agrarian society anymore, we are appreciative of where our food comes from and our obligation to take care of the Earth. Because if we don't, we won't be able to eat in the future."

BODY AND SOUL

This minor holiday resonates with modern Jews.

"We're so disconnected from our food," Goodman said. "We don't appreciate the fact that we can have tomatoes 12 months of the year. We don't appreciate what it takes to raise meat and vegetables. We take it for granted. We lack nutritional education. Obesity is a problem. We don't know how to eat well in a healthy, holy and spiritual way."

Food nurtures body and soul. Without it, humans cannot survive.

"It's really a holy experience," the rabbi continued. "If we distance ourselves from that experience, we do ourselves a disservice. We take for granted something that is really special and amazing. If we are not sustainable, we will not have food the future. Being deliberate and thoughtful about what you are eating and how you are eating keeps the focus on how food is being raised."

Goodman cites the recent brouhaha in the kosher-meat industry.

"Just like any system, it's easy to be perverted even in the realm of kosher," he said. "It's easy to be immoral. I think all this is a perfect storm and that Jewish thought will start resonating."

E-mail Robin Caudell at: rcaudell@pressrepublican.com

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