Master of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone. May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass – among all growing things, and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong.
– Start of a prayer by Rabbi Nachman of Bartslav
Tu b’Shevat seders aren’t new – they’re just new to many of us.
Started in the 16th century by the Kabbalists, the seders are beginning to take hold in the United States, much like sufganiyah is growing in popularity as a new Hanukkah tradition and oranges are popping up on Passover seder plates.
On Feb. 3, Hadassah Rhode Island celebrated Tu b’Shevat, the Jewish new year for trees, with a seder at The Phyllis Siperstein Tamarisk Assisted Living Residence, in Warwick.
Dozens of women gathered at tables that held a seder plate containing black olives, figs, dates, walnuts and dried apricots.
“The seder is a tikkun – a ritual of completing and repairing,” said seder leader Phyllis Solod, of Warwick, reading from a Haggadah partly created by Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser. “By eating the fruits and nuts of the trees with special blessings and awareness, we complete the work of Creation in partnership with God, and we help repair the world.”
The Haggadah explains that the first of the four worlds is Asiyah, “the World of Making,” the world of everyday existence.
“This is the world of flesh and blood. It is symbolized by red wine or juice, which reminds us of the world of hard and cold reality in which we must face difficult challenges and hard choices.”
Together, the women lifted and then drank a cup of red juice.
Winter is symbolized on the seder plate by fruits and nuts with hard exteriors, such as walnuts, pomegranates and almonds. Before the women ate these symbolic foods, the Haggadah instructed them to “take a moment to prepare … to eat with intention. … By eating with kavanah [intention], we make eating an act of appreciation and connection to the natural world. We help heal the world from its forgetfulness.”
The second world is Yetzirah, or spring, “The World of Formation.” It is symbolized by red juice or wine with a dash of white to represent the gradual lengthening of the days.
“As we drink the second cup of juice or wine, may we, like the flowers, blossom into our full creative potential,” the Haggadah says.
As the women ate “the fruits of springtime” – those without protective shells, such as olives and apricots – they took turns reading passages from the Haggadah.
“As we eat the fruits of springtime and the world of our creative spirit, may our hearts be open to our spiritual needs and the needs of others, allowing our warmth to enter the world.”
The third world is B’riah, or summer, “The World of Creation,” and a third cup, of white and red juice mixed together, was lifted.
“In the world of B’riah, we eat soft fruits to remind ourselves to relinquish both our outer shells and the stones we carry inside: Grapes, figs, apples, pears and carob. In our deepest relationships, we try to be like the fruits of B’riah, soft and strong with no inner shell and no outer façade.”
The fourth and final world is Atzilut, or autumn, “The World of Essence,” marked by a cup of white wine or juice.
“As we drink the fourth cup, may we become strong, like healthy trees, with solid roots in the ground and with our arms open to the love all around us,” Solod read. “In this world, we eat no fruit. The world of pure spirit cannot be presented by any fruit. Instead, we are aware of God’s love, compassion and wisdom, which we feel with our hearts, not with our physical senses.”
In concluding, the women read: “On this day, the beginning of your cycle of budding and renewing, may it be your will that your life-giving spirit flow through us and the world as we eat fruit and offers blessings with reflection upon their spiritual meaning.”
As at Passover, the seder is then followed by a festive meal – but at the Hadassah Rhode Island meeting, it was followed by many hearty “amens” and the installation of the 2019 officers.
Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, is a volunteer organization that has worked for more than 100 years to enhance the health and lives of people in Israel, the United States and worldwide.
CYNTHIA BENJAMIN is an editor and writer. She is a member of Congregation B'nai Israel in Woonsocket.