Ideas for creating an informative & transformative Tu B’Shvat Seder.

As the Tu B’Shvat holiday quickly approaches, I am scrambling to prepare my 6th grade class to lead the annual Tu B’Shvat Seder. This involves a combination of general study on Jewish attitudes towards trees, as well as teaching many specifics such as what blessings to say on each fruit and how to group fruits according to their ‘type.’ As this will be my sixth year leading this seder, I have developed a seder structure that works well for our particular situation.

Rather than having a ‘sit-down’ seder (similar to a Pesach seder), the Tu B’Shvat seder this year will be taking the structure of multiple ‘learning stations’. In this type of a seder, I divide my students into 4 or 5 groups that then teach a specific lesson to each of the classes that attend the event. The classes move from station to station, spending several minutes at each station learning about a particular type of fruit and its connection to Judaism. Through the course of the day, my students will teach about 100 fellow students about the Tu B’Shvat holiday. I have transitioned to this type of seder because the ‘sit-down’ seders of years past presented many more logistical issues. With a ‘learning station’ format, there is no need to set out chairs for participants, and the number of tables is drastically reduced as well. The ‘sit-down’ model also presented challenges of keeping participants quiet and calm enough to be able to hear the leaders. With a ‘learning station’ format, the leaders are addressing a small group in a more intimate setting, and can therefore tailor their presentation to meet the needs of the group they are teaching. There is however a downside to this type of seder structure, in that the seder leaders need to repeat their shpiel multiple times, rather than just once for the entire group. While this repetition might get dull for the leaders, it has the advantage that by the end of the day, the leaders will have had a chance to perfect their presentation.

Now, what is the best way to group a ‘learning station’ seder? Kabbalists typically divide fruits into 4 types, corresponding to 4 levels of the spiritual world. The first is fruits with a hard outer shell, like coconuts and pomegranates. This group of fruits represents the World of Asiyah, or the World of Action. The second group is fruits with a hard inner pit, like dates, olives, peaches, plums and apricots. This group represents the World of Yetzirah, or the World of Formation. The third group is fruits that are wholly edible, like grapes and figs. This represents the World of Beriah, or the World of Creation. The fourth group (funny enough) is considered to be “eating nothing at all”, representing the World of Atzilut, or the World of Emanation. This group symbolizes the aspect of the divine that is beyond the material world and purely spiritual. This fourth group can by represented by a candle (where fire represents the pure spirituality), or by smelling a fruit but not eating it (the sense of smell being more closely associated with the spiritual world than the sense of taste). There is typically 4 cups of juice or wine served at a Tu B’Shvat seder, which also corresponds to these same groups outlined above. The wines should range in color from light to dark, moving from the lightest to the darkest as the seder unfolds.

Despite these traditions, the seder my class will be leading this year will have at least 6 or 7 stations. In addition to the 4 groupings outlined above, we usually have 1 station for ‘new’ or ‘exotic’ fruits to be sampled. It is common practice to eat a new fruit (or a fruit you have not yet eaten that year) during the seder, in order to be able to say the “Shehechiyanu” prayer over a new food. Additionally, I like to include some sort of wheat or barley products into the seder, as these are two of the seven species used to describe the Land of Israel in Deuteronomy 8:8. The wheat and barley usually takes the form of cookies at a separate table, where the “Mizonot” prayer is said before eating. Lastly, there is a table set up for the 4 types of wine (or juice in this case). 2 small cups of juice are given to each participant – 1 white grape juice and 1 red grape juice. After saying the prayer over the juice, a sip of the white juice is drunk. Then a little red juice is poured into the white juice, thus making it a light pink color and another sip is taken. Then some more red juice is poured into the pink juice, making it a darker shade of red. After this glass is finished, the students then drink the remaining red grape juice left in their cup. In this way, four differently colored cups of juice are drunk without wasting either paper cups or excess juice. The students also enjoy the process of mixing the juices together.

This is the basic structure of the Tu B’Shvat seder I am planning for this year. I have developed this structure over many years, and find that it works well for my particular circumstances. Of course, every seder is unique and therefore this structure can be used or modified as needed to meet the demands of your individual circumstances. Any seder that involves learning, praying and eating of fruits is considered a Mitzvah. The structure that the leaders choose for the seder should be one that allows the participants the most opportunities for these mitzvot.

While I have been organizing Tu B’Shvat seders for many years, there are still some questions I have regarding the holiday that are as-of-yet unanswered. For instance, why is there no Kabbalist designated group of fruits for those that have both a hard outer shell and a hard inner pit, like mangos and avocados? Which grouping should these types of fruits be considered as? Also, fruits like oranges, lemons and grapefruits are often considered to fall into the first grouping of fruits with a hard outer shell. However, these fruit peels are edible (and quite delicious when candied) and therefore I feel this designation is off target. What is the best way to include wheat and barley into a Tu B’Shvat seder when the focus of the holiday is mostly on trees rather than grains, and should they be included at all? Should bananas be included, even though the blessing for them is “borei pri ha’adamah” rather than “borei pri ha’etz”? Also, do any readers of this blog have any ideas for games that can be played using fruits, in order to make the seder even more fun and participatory?

Tu B’Shvat seders are a fun and tasty way to teach children about the Jewish values of care for the earth and connection to the land of Israel. Tu B’Shvat is a participatory and tactile holiday that is both educational and nutritional. As such, it is the ideal holiday for teaching lessons on Jewish environmentalism and food ethics. It is the only holiday instated by the Kabbalist rabbis and therefore has deep mystical importance in terms of “tikkun” or repair of the world. In this case, the “tikkun” is made through a re-enactment of the original sin of Adam and Eve, the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. By replacing this act of prohibited eating (lack of self-control) with the act of conscious & holy eating (eating of permitted foods at the appropriate time with proper intention) we can repair the sin of Adam and Eve and thus bring about global healing. Thus, Tu B’Shvat becomes not only a lesson in environmentalism, but a lesson in Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. The Tu B’Shvat seder is therefore much more than a didactic exercise, it can be the very vehicle of transformation. May we all merit such a transformative Tu B’Shvat seder experience!

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