The holiday of Chamisha Asar b’Shevat or Tu b’Shevat is not mentioned in the Torah but makes its first appearance in the Talmud, where it is called Rosh Hashanah l’Ilan (New Year of the Tree).
Jewish literature of the sixth to 11th centuries identifies Tu b’Shevat as the day on which the fate of the trees and fruit is decided. The holiday gets its name from when it occurs. “Tu” is an acronym for the Hebrew letter tet, which in the Hebrew system of counting is nine, and the letter vav, which is six, thus adding up to 15, the day on which the holiday falls in the month of Shevat.
The date was chosen when the rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai (from the time of the Second Temple) argued about the dates. Hillel said it fell on the 15th of Shevat; Shammai said it began on the first. Hillel’s opinion prevailed because it was thought that, by the later date, the winter rains in Israel were almost over.
Tu b’Shevat links Jews to the land of Eretz Yisrael. In the time of the Second Temple, on the 15th of Shevat, Jewish farmers would estimate their obligatory tithes for tax collectors, as well as other contributions that Jewish law required. In effect, Tu b’Shevat was the beginning of the new fiscal year.
Part of the celebration is a seder with certain foods.
In her book The Jewish Holiday Cookbook, Gloria Kaufer Greene mentions that the drinking of four cups of wine at the seder symbolizes the changing of seasons. She suggests that the first cup is chilled, dry, white wine, to symbolize winter. The second cup of wine is pale, perhaps a rosé, and signifies spring and the early thaw. The third cup of wine is deeply coloured, like a dark rose, and represents the late spring and the blossoming trees. The fourth cup of wine is rich and red and stands for the fertility of summer.
In between drinking, one eats fruit in order of “ascending spirituality.” After the first cup of wine, one eats fruit with inedible coverings, like almonds, avocado, banana or melon, to represent the body covering the soul. After the second cup, one eats fruit with pits, such as plum, prune, date, apricot, olive or carob, to symbolize the heart being protected. After the third cup of wine, one eats fruit that can be eaten in its entirety, such as berry, apple, pear or fig, because they are closest to the pure spiritual creation.
In Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the late Rabbi Gil Marks lists different ethnic dishes for the holiday, including borleves, Hungarian wine soup; salata latsheen, Moroccan orange salad; dimlama, Bulgarian vegetable and fruit stew; savo, Bukharian baked rice and fruit; gersht un shveml, Ashkenazi barley with mushrooms, fruit strudels and fruit kugels; and schnitzelkloese, German fried dumplings with fruit. Food customs associated with Tu b’Shevat are fruits and nuts connected to Eretz Yisrael, such as the seven species mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:7-8 – barley, wheat, figs, dates, grapes, olives and pomegranates.
Here are a couple of my fruit recipes. The first is one that a friend gave me about 40 years ago.
CREAMY FRUIT SALAD
2-3 cut up apples
1-2 peeled, cut-up oranges
2-3 cut-up bananas
1/4 cup coconut
1/4 cup chopped nuts
3/8 cup sour cream or 3/4 cup lemon yogurt
1 1/2 tbsp sugar or whipped cream
1/8 cup orange juice
3/8 cup vanilla yogurt
Combine apples, orange and bananas in a bowl. Add coconut and nuts. Combine sour cream or lemon yogurt, sugar or whipped cream, orange juice and vanilla yogurt. Pour over fruit and refrigerate.
I have altered this recipe at times and use pareve whipping cream to make it pareve, leaving out the sour cream/yogurt.
HOT SPICED FRUIT
6 peaches, pears or apricots, halved
1/2 cup red wine
2 tbsp sugar
1/8 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp grated orange peel
Combine wine, sugar, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and orange peel in a saucepan. Add fruit and cook 15-20 minutes. Drain and reserve liquid. Chill fruit. Serve with vanilla ice cream. Spoon sauce on top.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.