It is a “minor” holiday with major implications. Tu B’Shvat, the New Year of trees, begins at sundown on Tuesday, February 3, and is one of four New Years in our tradition. Why we celebrate this agricultural festival in the dead of winter makes an interesting story.
There is no mention of Tu B’Shvat in the Torah, but when did that ever stop us from celebrating? (Remember, Rosh Hashanah is not mentioned either.) Throughout the Bible, however, reverence for fruit trees is evident as the symbol of God’s bounty.
According to Leviticus, one may not eat fruit from trees during their first three years. In Israel in ancient times, the end of the rainy season closed the fiscal year for calculating taxes or tithes (bikkurim, or “first fruits”) offered to the priests after the trees had turned four years old. Only after the following Tu B’Shvat were farmers allowed to consume or sell the produce of their trees. With the destruction of the Temple and the exile, the holiday lost relevance as our ancestors found themselves with none of their own fruit to tithe. Centuries later Talmudic rabbis established the 15th day (Tu) of the month of Shvat as the official “birthday” of trees in order to calculate their age, both for determining the time of tithing as well as the time of harvest. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 brought mystical significance to the holiday through the kabbalists in Safed.
Early Zionists celebrated Tu B’Shvat as a sort of Arbor Day for planting trees and forests and revitalizing the earth. Beginning in the 1970s, with the environmental movement, the holiday became a Jewish Earth Day, in appreciation of the gifts we have been given along with the impetus to give back to the earth by rebuilding our fragile planet and protecting our precious resources. Trees have special significance in Jewish thought as symbols of our relationship to the natural environment that supports us.
A Midrash teaches: “When God created the first man, he took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, ‘See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world, for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.’” Note that the Midrash delineates trees in the Garden of Eden, not the Garden of Eden itself, because it is trees that turn a barren earth into our life support system.
Even in times of war, we are prohibited from destroying fruit-bearing trees. “You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?”
An 18th century commentary notes that so important are trees to our existence that the sages established a special blessing to be recited upon seeing blossoming fruit-producing trees, although no comparable blessing exists in our liturgy for any other natural wonder of creation.
It is customary on Tu B’Shvat to plant trees and to eat from the Seven Species described in the Bible as abundant in the land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes (including wine), figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (honey). By extension many include other gifts of the earth, vegetables and other fruits. Couscous with vegetables from “Jewish Soul Food From Minsk to Marrakesh” (Schocken Books, $35) by Janna Gur is perfect for the holiday, showcasing a mélange of vegetables on a bed of couscous, grains of durum wheat, one of the seven species.
Gur, the founder and editor of Al Hashulchan (“On the Table”), a leading Israeli food and wine magazine, and author of “The Book of New Israeli Food,” has in her new book reimagined recipes that have been handed down through the generations across many lands that are in danger of extinction. “What is it that makes us adopt and adapt a certain recipe and abandon another?” she writes. “Surely, there’s the relative ease of preparation and the availability of ingredients, but there’s something else – the ‘soul’ of the dish, that elusive quality that makes us relish it and want to make it ours.”
It is also customary on this day to eat a new fruit. In keeping with the spirit of the holiday, I’ve chosen one in season now, the Asian pear, with a scrumptious recipe from “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce” (Wiley, $29.95) by Orange County’s own Cathy Thomas, award-winning writer of the Orange County Register and author of “50 Best Plants on the Planet.”
Couscous with Vegetables
For the vegetables
3/4 cup dried chickpeas, soaked overnight in water
3 carrots, cut into large chunks
3 potatoes, peeled and quartered
2 onions, quartered
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 large zucchini, cut into large chunks
1 pound butternut squash or pumpkin, cut into large chunks
1 small green cabbage, core removed, quartered
2 stalks celery with leaves, halved crosswise
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
For the couscous
1 pound instant couscous
2 1/2 cups boiling water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
10 saffron threads, diluted in 1/4 cup boiling water until water turns orange (optional)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 Drain chickpeas; put in large pot. Add 6 cups water, cover, and cook over medium-low heat 45 minutes or until almost tender. Add carrots, potatoes, onions and olive oil; cook 20 minutes.
2 Add zucchini, squash, cabbage, celery, salt, pepper, and turmeric; cook 15 minutes or until zucchini and squash are fork tender. Adjust seasoning.
3 Mix couscous with boiling water in large bowl (if using saffron, reduce water to 2 1/4 cups). Add salt, pepper, and diluted saffron, if using. Let stand 10 minutes until grains swell. Add olive oil; fluff couscous with fork. Steam in double boiler or heat, covered in microwave.
4 To serve, mound couscous in deep dish. Using slotted spoon, arrange vegetables around or atop couscous. Ladle enough liquid just to add moisture to grains. Serve at once.
Source: “Jewish Soul Food From Minsk to Marrakesh” by Janna Gur
Asian Pear Turnovers
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
2 Asian pears, peeled, cored, coarsely chopped
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, defrosted according to package directions
4 tablespoons raspberry jam
1 Preheat oven to 400°F.
2 Melt butter in saucepan on medium-high heat. Add sugars and spices; stir to combine. Add Asian pears, and simmer until tender, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
3 Cut defrosted, cold pastry into quarters. On lightly floured surface, roll each quarter into 6-inch squares. Place 1 tablespoon jam in center of each square. Place equal amount of Asian pear mixture in center of each square. Moisten edges of pastry with cold water. Fold one corner of each square to opposite comer to form triangle. Press to seal, and pinch edges together.
4 Place on baking sheet. Bake in middle of preheated oven 20-25 minutes, or until puffed and nicely browned.
Source: “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce” by Cathy Thomas