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Make Tu b’Shevat relevant: Look to the past, pay it forward

by Devorah Brous

January 10, 2014 | 11:47 am

Tu b’Shevat is my favorite holiday. It gets us out of the synagogue and into the garden. I believe the power of this celebration is rooted in its key teachings: taking time to really see nature, to express our gratitude for it and to share its bounty.  

Tu b’Shevat is an invitation to gather around a sacred table to explore the nexus between food and Judaism, and to re-envision the abundance of the garden. Today’s food movement would have us trace back to the source where the fruit we bless was actually grown. Our tradition would also have us harken back to the source, to plant a tree, to experience a Tu b’Shevat seder.

For the seder, kabbalists taught us to distinguish between different types of fruits/nuts and to reflect on which ones have hard or soft outer skins/shells, and which ones have hard or soft inner seeds/pits. When we gather on Tu b’Shevat, it’s an opportunity to ask questions we usually don’t have the time to consider: Where did this fruit come from? Who might have planted this tree? Was its seed grown in a laboratory (like GMO apples), or in a conventionally farmed orchard (requiring heavy inputs of fertilizers and pesticides that kill off the soil microbiology — yielding nutrient-deficient fruits)? Was the fruit irradiated? Was it picked before ripe, waxed to travel long distances many weeks earlier? Were the people who grew and packed and shipped the food paid a living wage? Is this Tu b’Shevat fruit worthy of a blessing?

We are also invited to pay attention to the trees that surround our homes, our streets and our shuls. Is this a fruiting tree? How big is its yield compared to last year? When the fruits ripen, are they left to rot on the tree? Are the trees fed or forgotten? After the Tu b’Shevat celebration, are the fruit/nut scraps composted? Asking these questions can lead us toward the ritual act of planting more trees.

We’ve come to associate planting trees to combat desertification and forest the Holy Land as “the” way to celebrate Tu b’Shevat. Yet, planting fruit trees here in our neighborhoods, at our congregations and in food deserts around the city, could be another way to celebrate. Trees are abundant producers of nutritious crops. It’s astounding how much bounty can stem from so little stewardship other than adding compost and pruning yearly. Expressing gratitude and saying the blessings over trees is not only for the fresh fruit and nuts we eat, but also the humble way of acknowledging the incredible largess of produce that can help feed our community for decades to come — with next to no effort on our part.  

The extraordinary work of the Food Forward organization has shown the city of Los Angeles how vitally needed the fruit on our trees is in feeding the hungry. By practicing the ancient Jewish mitzvah of gleaning, or leket, nearly 2 million pounds of fruit has been recovered in Los Angeles in the past few years alone. Straight out of Deuteronomy, leket, the gleaning of fallen and forgotten fruit, is one of a handful of our agrarian laws that informed farmers how to share their bounty, and today govern our understandings of justice, equity and charitable giving. 

During the era of the Mishnah, the Rabbis marked Tu b’Shevat as a sacred tax day for the trees. Tu b’Shevat was the cutoff date between one agricultural year and the next. This helped Jewish farmers determine how much fruit to offer in gratitude, as they were required to practice ma’aser and bring one-tenth of all produce to the Temple. This mattered for an agrarian society. Farmers were required to set aside a portion of their harvest for the poor and landless. The underlying message of Tu b’Shevat: Bounty is not ours alone — we are compelled to share the fruits of the tree.

Netiya (an interfaith food justice network in Los Angeles is calling for L.A. congregations to revitalize the practice of ma’aser, and to tithe one-tenth of their land to plant orchards and grow food, and to tithe one-tenth of the harvest to address hunger in our city. This Tu b’Shevat, Netiya is launching our Buy a Book, Plant a Tree! Campaign; partner with us to plant trees on unused land at L.A. congregations by buying our children’s e-book, “Back to the Source.”

As city dwellers who don’t farm for our sustenance, it is vital we honor our connection to what feeds us. There is no better time than Tu b’Shevat to go back to the source, to express gratitude for the incredibly intricate processes that yield the bounty that sustains us all and to celebrate that abundance by giving whatever you are able to give: 10 percent more of your time, 10 percent of your fruit (your harvest or your income) or 10 percent of your land to grow your community.


Devorah Brous is the founding executive director of Netiya.

Netiya (an interfaith food justice network in LA) is calling for LA congregations to revitalize the practice of ma’aser, and to tithe 1/10 of their land to plant orchards and grow food, and to tithe 1/10 of the harvest to address hunger in our city. This Tu B’Shvat, Netiya is launching our Buy a Book, Plant a Tree! campaign - partner with us to plant trees on unused land at LA congregations by buying our children’s e-book, “Back to the Source,” at www.netiya.org.

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