Tu B’Shevat: Rethinking the Rituals of Eating

This past week, I attended my first Tu B’Shevat Seder in many, many years.  Though most people, Jews and non-Jews alike, are pretty familiar with the Passover Seder, not all are as well acquainted with its tastier, happier cousin, the Tu B’Shevat Seder.  Tu B’Shevat is described as the new year of the trees, and its celebration marked the opening of what was hoped to be an abundant agricultural season in ancient Israel.  In the 16th century, Kabbalistic mystics of the city of Tzfat created a Seder, similar to the one used for Passover.  (Imagine the flowy, chanting, new age spiritual seekers of today perched on mountaintop in 16th century Palestine trying to discover the divine emanations of God and you’ll have a pretty close approximation of who these people were.)

dried-fruitPart botany lesson, part ritual, part ceremonial meal, and part spiritual exploration, the Tu B’Shevat Seder celebrates God’s presence in the natural world, as well as the relationship between humans and the earth.  Like the Passover Seder, there is an order to it, in which participants progress through readings and rituals, drink cups of wine, and eat symbolic foods.  Also like its cousin, it is loosely based around the number four:  the four mystical spheres, each representing a different facet of the relationship between us and the earth, and the four cups of wine, each a different color to represent the four seasons.  Oddly, though little in Jewish thought is completely straightforward, we only eat from three categories of fruit:  with an inedible exterior, with an inedible interior (hard pit), and completely edible fruit.  (Seems to me there should be a fourth category with inedible seeds, but no one asked me.)

I attended many Tu B’Shevat Seders as a kid, usually during Sunday morning religious school.  Long folding tables were set up in a U-shape around the room, and marked at regular intervals with plates of dried fruit and nuts and bottles of both red and white grape juice.  Kids entered the social hall with the look of perpetual boredom that afflicted most religious school students of my generation, lifted only slightly by the shared acknowledgement that any activity that involved food and got them out of class was preferable to its alternative. I mostly recall it devolving into lots of misbehaving, intermittently interrupted by eating, drinking and singing songs about the “tree of life” and the almond trees in Israel.

Though the holiday marks the onset of spring, the blooming of plants and trees, and the arrival of fresh fruit in Israel, in central New Jersey where I grew up, it was still the dead of winter.  The only fresh fruit to be found was the sour, rock-hard variety shipped from South America, which didn’t exactly represent the bio-diversity of the Promised Land. Hence the dried fruit, which was discriminately picked over, reserving the apricots and raisins for eating, discarding the dates and figs. The almonds, recognized neither for their superfood nutritional value, nor as the symbolic harbinger of spring in Israel, were never actually consumed either.  Rather they served as small bits of organic ammunition to be lobbed across tables when the teachers weren’t looking.  The two varieties of grape juice, to be combined into four different shades, ranging from white to dark purple, with gradients in between, were poured and mixed with great enthusiasm, resulting in multiple spills and runs to the kitchen for more paper towels.

Clearly this was not an ideal activity for religious school kids; it was neither meaningful, nor particularly memorable (at least not in a good way).  These days, as interest in ecology and environmentalism is gaining popularity, there have been renewed efforts to celebrate the holiday.  In most religious school settings, the focus has shifted from the mystical to the practical, with a stronger emphasis on recycling, planting trees, and protecting the earth.

There have even been stronger efforts to involve the adult population, as well.  But let’s face it, in today’s Reform Jewish communities, few adults are going to be lured out on a snowy night in February by plates of dried fruit, bottles of grape juice, and some crazy out-there discussion of the mystical spheres of God and the earth either.  (Unless perhaps they had been promised a babysitter and a night off, as I had.)  So, in its more current iteration at our synagogue, the traditional offerings have been replaced with more palatable options:  cheese, chocolate and copious amounts of wine.

Is this even “kosher”? Okay, wine comes from grapes and totally makes sense, and one could even argue that chocolate has is basis in the botanical world.  But cheese??  Maybe the kind from grass-fed cows, but even that is a stretch.

How is this justified?  Well, let’s start with the basics.  First, it really is all symbolic anyway, right?  Secondly, getting people to actually come to a Seder, even a non-traditional one, is certainly better than none at all.  But mostly, I believe it is, at its core, about linking food and ritual behavior together, in a way that makes it more meaningful and memorable—at least more so than what I recall from my childhood.

The links between food, drink and ritual behavior have long been studied by sociologists and anthropologists.  In recent years, the subject has been taken up by psychologists as well.  A series of experiments, the results of which were published in the online journal Psychological Science, and then described in a 2013 New York Times article, tested the ways in which ritualized gestures can enhance consumption of various foods.

In the first study, researchers created awkward and completely irrelevant rituals for the participants to engage in, prior to consuming particular foods.  Interestingly, these bizarre rituals still had the desired effect of boosting anticipation and increasing enjoyment of the food.  In a subsequent study, researchers had participants watch someone else perform the ritual behavior to see if it had the same impact on the observer.  As it turns out, it did not improve the participants’ experience to simply watch others perform the ritual action—it was necessary for each to perform the action his/herself.  And in one of the last studies, researchers were looking to see whether performing a ritual prior to eating helped focus our interest on the food—something the researchers refer to as “involvement”.  Indeed, this was the case; those who performed a ritual were more “involved” in their food experience.

These results were certainly interesting to psychologists, food marketers, and nutritionists, all looking to use this information to transform our diets and consumption behaviors.  Changing the way we engage with our food can help us to savor it more, potentially eat less, and maybe even convince us (and our stubborn toddlers) to eat things we might not otherwise.  However, I think that the results are noteworthy for religious and community leaders as well.

For starters, the important thing is not whether we are eating chocolate and cheese or dried fruit and nuts, but rather how we are eating it.  By engaging in the ritual action, participating in the Seder, and stopping to appreciate the flavors and textures, we enjoy the food more, take more pleasure in the experience, and have greater anticipation of our next Seder a year from now.

Secondly, we’ve probably all heard it said a hundred times, but Judaism (and pretty much any religious practice) is not a spectator sport.  It is important to realize that engagement and each individual’s participation in ritual is absolutely necessary in order to fully appreciate the experience, and leave us wanting more.  Listening to the rabbi or teachers talk at us, perform the ritual behaviors for us, and simply tell us when to stick a piece of fruit in our mouth is not going to have the desired impact.  It is far more important that we are wooed into participating, even with cheese and chocolate if necessary, than to have us sit back and watch.  Loosening everyone up with a few glasses of wine probably doesn’t hurt either (though this is regrettably not recommended for religious school Seders)!

And lastly, increasing our “involvement” with ritual foods, can only have a positive impact on our spiritual experience of the Seder, and other ceremonial meals.  Any action that causes us to stop and think about what we are eating, where it comes from, what it symbolizes, or how it affects us physically or emotionally is a good thing.  This is true even if we discover, through this intense focus, that we don’t like the taste or how it makes us feel after eating it; we learn to be more discriminating and conscientious about what we ingest.

This year’s Tu B’Shevat Seder was definitely unlike any Seder I had been to before.  Not only did I feel more connected to the experience, I genuinely enjoyed it.  Was it because of the ritual before eating? Was it just because I really like chocolate and cheese?  Or was it because there were no almonds being thrown across the table?  Probably a little of each. Do I anticipate doing it again next year? Absolutely.

2 thoughts on “Tu B’Shevat: Rethinking the Rituals of Eating

  1. This made me think about all the rituals we associate with eating — I can’t eat without a napkin in my lap — and whether all of them heighten our awareness and enjoyment. Makes me wonder if the act of “saying Grace,” however we do it, has the same impact. Frankly, I know that simply moving from the kitchen to the dining room has an impact. Makes us eat slower, eat not for sustenance but for meaning and pleasure.


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