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Questions That Can Be Considered at Tu Bishvat Seders (With Responses)

It is hoped that the questions below will be helpful to people leading Tu Bishvat seders, as a way to increase audience participation. Suggested responses are given following the questions. Please send me suggestions for additional questions and for improved answers. Thanks.

The questions are below, followed by suggested answers:
1. What is the origin of Tu Bishvat?
2. Where is Tu Bishvat mentioned in the Tanach?
3. Why are we considering trees and fruits and nature in the middle of the winter?
4. Why was the 15th of Shvat singled out to be the ‘New Year for Trees?
5. What was the dispute between Hillel and Shammai about the date of Tu B’Shvat?
6. What were the contributions of the kabbalists of S’fat to Tu Bishvat?
7. What are 4 tikkuns associated with Tu Bishvat?
8. Why are 4 cups of wine or grape juice drunk at the Tu Bishvat seder?
9. What is the significance of the changing colors of the successive cups of wine or grape juice?
10. What are the similarities and differences between the Tu Bishvat seder and the Pesach seder?
11. What is the significance of the brachot recited at the Tu Bishvat seder?
12. What are ten benefits that we get from trees?
13. What Jewish names are associated with trees?
14. How is Tu Bishvat celebrated in Israel today?
15. What is the purpose of reciting brachot (blessings)?
16. What readings are associated with trees in the Torah, nevi’im, Talmud, and other Jewish writings throughout history?
17. why is Tu Bishvat becoming more popular today?
18. How are people like “a tree in the field?”
19. What are the four kabbalistic worlds?
20. Which fruits are associated with these 4 kabbalistic worlds?
21. In what order should fruits be eaten?
22. What metaphors compare Jews to trees and fruits?
23. What are vegetarian connections to Tu Bishvat?
24. Why do some consider Tu Bishvat a Jewish Earth Day?
25. Why are some trying to make Tu Bishvat into an “Environmental Shabbat” this year?
26. What are some environmental threats facing Israel?
27. How serious are global warming and other current environmental threats?
28. How should individual Jews and synagogues respond to current environmental threats?
29. What important environmental law is related to trees in wartime?
30. How do modern environmental “plagues” compare to the Biblical 10 plagues?

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Responses to the Questions

1. What is the origin of Tu Bishvat?
Tu Bishvat is first mentioned in the Mishneh (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) as a cut- off date for the tithing of fruits for the Temple priests and for the poor.
2. Where is Tu Bishvat mentioned in the Tanach?
It is not mentioned there at all. It is first mentioned in the Mishneh, as mentioned above.
3. Why are we considering trees and fruits and nature in the middle of the winter?
The kabbalists of Sefat restored the holiday in the 16th century after it had lost its usefulness in 70 CE when the Temple was destroyed and they emphasized the eating of many fruits, especially those from the seven species mentioned in Deuteronomy and other fruits mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures and/or common to Israel.
4. Why was the 15th of Shvat singled out to be the ‘New Year for Trees?”
This is the date when in Israel generally the heavy rain has ended, the ground is starting to warm up, the sap is starting to flow in trees, and the almond trees (Shakadim) are starting to bud.
5. What was the dispute between Hillel and Shammai about the date of Tu Bishvat?
Shammai, who lived in a different part of Israel, thought the New Year for trees should be on Rosh Chodesh Shvat, Hillel, whose view prevailed as usual, thought it should be on the 15th of Shvat, TuB’Shvat..
6. What were the contributions of the kabbalists of S’fat to Tu Bishvat?
They restored the holiday after it fell into disuse after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and tithing for the Temple priests and the poor stopped.
7. What are 4 tikkuns associated with Tu Bishvat?
Tithing as a tikkun to help the poor in the days of the Temple;
eating many fruits with kavannah by the Kabbalists of S’fat, to redeem the Jewish people and the world for the sin of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit;
planting trees by the Jewish pioneers in Israel (Chalutzim) as a tikkun for the destruction in Israel when foreign powers ruled over many centuries;
discussing how to improve the environment and taking actions to reduce environmental treats by modern Jewish environments as a tikkun to reduce climate change, pollution, and other environmental threats.
8. Why do we drink 4 cups of wine or grape juice at the Tu Bishvat seder?
This is because the Tu Bishvat seder is modeled to some extent on the Passover seder.
9. What is the significance of the changing colors of the successive cups of wine or grape juice?
The change in color from white to pink to ruby to red represents the change in seasons from winter to spring to summer to fall.
10. What are the similarities and differences between the Tu Bishvat seder and the Pesach seder?
Both have four cups of wine or grape juice, but, as indicated above, at the Tu Bishvat seder the colors change; Pesach is a holiday of springtime, while the changing colors of the grape juice or wine represent the four seasons; and of course, the foods and readings are very different.
11. What is the significance of the brachot recited at the Tu Bishvat seder?
The Kabbalists of S’fat believed that eating fruits with much kavannah and blessings provided a tikkun (healing) for the eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
12. What are ten benefits that we get from trees?
Benefits include:
fruit
shade
wood
beauty
serenity
oxygen
sink for CO2
reduction of flooding
reduction of erosion
maple syrup
13. What Jewish names are associated with trees?
Baum
Nussbaum
Nissenbaum
Taitelbaum
Goldbaum
Applebaum

14. How is Tu Bishvat celebrated in Israel today?
Planting of trees, especially by school children.
15. What is the purpose of reciting brachot (blessings)?
To keep people from taking things for granted, and encouraging us to look at the world with a sense of “awe, wonder, and radical amazement.”
16. What readings are associated with trees in the Torah, nevi’im, Talmud, and other Jewish writings throughout history?
I have articles about this at the Jewish festivals section about Tu Bishvat, at www.JewishVeg.org/schwartz.
17. Why is Tu Bishvat becoming more popular today?
Many Jews are calling it a Jewish Earth Day and making connections with the environment.


18. How are people like “a tree in the field?”
Both grow, recover from difficult times and bear “fruit.”
19. What are the four kabbalistic worlds?
Asiyah (world of action) fruits with an outer skin or shell
Yetzirah (world of formation) fruits with an inner pit
B’riyah (world of creation) fruits with no outer shell or pit
Atzilut (world of emanation) fruits with a nice smell, like the esrog
20. Which fruits are associated with these 4 kabbalistic worlds?
Please refer to the response to the above question.
21. In what order should fruits be eaten?
According to some, foods from the seven species should be eaten first, with the ones nearest the word ‘eretz’ first.
22. What metaphors compare Jews to trees and fruits?
Here is one of many examples:
No part of the date palm is wasted: The fruit is eaten, the embryonic branches (lulav) are used for the Four Species of Sukkot, the mature fronds can cover a sukka, the fibers between the branches can make strong ropes, the leaves can be woven into mats and baskets, the trunks can be used for rafters. Similarly, no one is worthless in Israel: some are scholars, some do good deeds, and some work for social justice. (Midrash Numbers Rabba 3.1)
23. What are vegetarian and vegan connections to Tu Bishvat?
All the traditional foods at Tu Bishvat seders are vegan foods.
24. Why do some consider Tu Bishvat a Jewish Earth Day?
Tu Bishvat is associated with nature, trees, fruits, orchards, and feels, and all the traditional foods have minimum environmental impacts.
25. Why are some trying to make Tu Bishvat into an “Environmental Shabbat” this year?
In 2017, Tu Bishvat falls on a Shabbat.
26. What are some environmental threats facing Israel?
Air pollution
Water pollution
Climate change
Expanding deserts
Lack of open space
Shrinking Dead Sea
27. How serious are global warming and other current environmental threats?
The world is rapidly heading toward a climate catastrophe, severe food, water, and energy scarcities, and other environmental disasters. This is a strong consensus of almost all climate scientists and science academies worldwide.
The warmest year for the world since temperature records have been kept in 1880 was in 2016, and that broke records set in the two previous years, so that there have been three consecutive years of record breaking temperatures. Every decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the previous decade. All 17 of the warmest years worldwide have occurred since 1998.
These increasing temperatures are having major climate-related effects. Polar ice caps and glaciers worldwide are melting faster than the worst-case predictions of climate experts. There has been a recent significant increase in the number and severity of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods. There have been so many severe climate events in California recently that their governor Jerry Brown declared, “humanity is on a collision course with nature.” Military experts see climate change having a potential multiplier effect for instability, terrorism, and war as tens of millions of desperate, hungry refugees flea from severe climate events.
Everything possible should be done to avert a climate catastrophe and other environmental disasters, because if we don’t, nothing else will matter. Saving the global environment should become a central concern for civilization today, and tikkun olam (the healing of the world) should become a major focus for all of Jewish life today.
Time is running out for efforts to avert the potential catastrophes. Climate experts believe that we may be very close to a tipping point, when climate change will spiral out of control with disastrous consequences. While many climate experts think that 350 parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric CO2 is a threshold value for avoiding a climate catastrophe, we reached 400 ppm in 2014 and are experiencing an increase of two to three ppm per year. While climatologists think that an increase of over 2 degrees Celsius would be disastrous, climate experts project that we are on track to have an increase of at least 4 degrees Celsius, unless major changes soon occur.
28. How should individual Jews and synagogues respond to current environmental threats?
Make it a priority
Recycle
Reduce consumption of meat and other animal products
Write letters to editors
29. What important environmental law is related to trees in wartime?
“not destroy”
The prohibition not to waste or destroy unnecessarily anything of value (bal tashchit – “thou shalt not destroy”) is based on concern for fruit-bearing trees, as indicated in the following Torah statement:

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you under siege? Only trees that you know to not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing siege works against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been destroyed. (Deuteronomy 20:19-20)

This prohibition against destroying fruit-bearing trees in time of warfare was extended by the Jewish sages. It is forbidden to cut down even a barren tree or to waste anything if no useful purpose is accomplished. (Sefer Ha-Chinuch 530)
The sages of the Talmud made a general prohibition against waste: “Whoever breaks vessels or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs up a fountain, or destroys food violates the prohibition of bal tashchit” [Kiddushin 32a)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 19th century philosopher and author, states that bal tashchit is the first and most general call of God: We are to “regard things as God’s property and use them with a sense of responsibility for wise human purposes. Destroy nothing! Waste nothing!” He indicates further that destruction includes using more things (or things of greater value) than are necessary to obtain one’s aim. (Horeb; Chapter 56)
30. How do modern environmental “plagues” compare to the Biblical 10 plagues?
you.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28)

Today’s environmental threats can be compared in many ways to the Biblical ten plagues, which appear in the Torah portions read on the Shabbats immediately preceding Tu Bishvat. When we consider the threats to our land, water, and air, pesticides and other chemical pollutants, resource scarcities, threats to our climate, etc., we can easily enumerate ten modern “plagues.” Unfortunately, like the ancient Pharaoh, our hearts have been hardened, by the greed, materialism, and wastefulness that are at the root of these threats. And, in contrast to the biblical plagues, modern plagues are all occurring simultaneously, and there is no modern Goshen as a refuge, where most of these plagues did not occur.
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