Tu BeShevat—Our Connection to Israel

In the week ahead, many in the Jewish world will celebrate Tu BeShevat. This beautiful holiday, among the newest on the Jewish calendar, has its roots in the Mishna, where the 15th day of the month of Shevat was one of the four days designated as a Jewish New Year. These were:

  • The 1st of Nisan, was, among other things, recognized as the New Year for Jewish kings and as the beginning of the religious calendar for festivals.
  • The 1st of Elul was determined as the New Year for the tithing of cattle.
  • The 1st of Tishrei was set as the beginning of the religious New Year and a day when the world faces judgment.
  • The 15th of Shevat was chosen as the New Year for trees. This date was selected because, according to the Talmud, the winter rains in Israel are over and most tree fruit has begun to ripen. Establishing a uniform date for the “birthday” of trees helped to designate fruits as “orlah” (forbidden to eat because they grew during the first three years after a tree’s planting) and for purposes of tithing.

Over the centuries, Jewish communities developed Tu BeShevat into a holiday that celebrates the earth and its bounty. The Kabbalists of Tzefat created a “Tu BeShevat Seder” patterned after the Passover Seder that features drinking four cups of wine, eating different fruits and nuts and reading poetry and hymns. Others have seen Tu BeShevat as a time to emphasize environmentalism and our duty to safeguard the earth entrusted to us by God.

In the past century, Tu BeShevat has taken on new meaning that is linked to the land of Israel and the reestablishment of the State of Israel, no doubt because Tu BeShevat celebrates the land of Israel and its beauty and bounty. The relationship between Judaism and the physical land of Israel, explicit in the Torah and expressed in our people’s yearning to live in the land of Israel, is a key to Zionist identity. Thus, to celebrate Tu BeShevat in our time is to celebrate the land of Israel itself.

How can we best celebrate Israel? There are myriad ways to do so. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) has long been devoted to building and sustaining the land of Israel by investment in infrastructure projects. JNF is also there to help organize the worldwide Jewish community to respond to crisis and emergency needs for communities around Israel. Investment in Israel Bonds enables the government of Israel to build up communities and resettle immigrants.

We can also celebrate Israel by helping to shape a strong and vibrant society, even from here in the Diaspora. One of the ways we can do that is to be supportive of MERCAZ, the Zionist organization of Conservative Judaism in Israel. MERCAZ runs and supports many programs throughout the year, such as Israel Advocacy Seminars, Zionist and Hebrew education, short and long term study and volunteer programs. MERCAZ provides financial support for USY Pilgrimage, Ramah Seminar, Nativ, the Conservative Yeshiva, and more. Supporting MERCAZ is one way to advocate for and nurture religious pluralism in Israel, considered by many to be a necessary pillar of a healthy and vibrant Israeli society.

MERCAZ needs your attention and support at this particular time. The 37th World Zionist Congress will convene in October 2015, and delegates to the congress are being elected now. You can register to vote for MERCAZ delegates, who in turn will vote at the WZC to allocate necessary funds to the Conservative Movement in Israel. Registration is open now and will run through the end of April. More MERCAZ delegates at the WZC will ensure that our movement can continue to support Masorti congregations in Israel, TALI (Masorti) public schools, and many other Conservative educational and Zionist programs in Israel. Those 18 years of age or older can register now to vote for MERCAZ delegates.

Tu BeShevat reminds us of our vital link to Eretz Yisrael. We who live in the Diaspora can continue to care for and support Israel, both the physical land and a strong, vibrant society. All it takes is a little initiative and desire.

Click here to register for MERCAZ and vote for delegates to the 37th World Zionist Congress.

Miriam Sisterhood is sponsoring a congregational Tu BeShevat Seder this Tuesday, February 4 at 7:00 PM.

Want Some “Kosher for Passover” Challah?

Passover is almost here and with it come the familiar sounds, rituals and tastes of the holiday.  Pesach seems to have its own unique culture.  Most of us have Passover memories of some type, whether recent or spanning generations.  My childhood Pesach memories include the usual- saying the Four Questions as the youngest child, my mother’s cooking and my father’s voice racing through the Haggadah.  In recent years, the years of my own family, my memories include pride at observing the stages of growth in the lives of my children, passionate discussions around the table, and the annual explanation of why we use a boiled potato instead of parsley when we dip karpas in the saltwater.

My memories also include a dessert we enjoyed one year, courtesy of Amy’s brother Peter.  He brought a cake from a fancy New York Kosher for Passover bakery.  This was nothing like the Passover cake or cookies we were used to eating.  It was so cake-like, so authentic, so incredibly good that I couldn’t believe it wasn’t made of chametz.  I remember asking Peter if he was sure that the bakery had hashgacha (rabbinic certifrication) for Passover- he assured me it did.

Once we were finished enjoying this masterpiece, this culinary Passover puzzle, we launched into a discussion of the ethics of eating such a cake on Passover.  After all, isn’t Passover supposed to be the holiday when Jews refrain from eating chametz (leaven)?  Don’t we go through the exercise of selling our chametz in order to fulfill the requirement of not even owning any leaven during the holiday?  Aren’t we supposed to deny ourselves the pleasure of eating a nice piece of pizza or a doughnut in fulfillment of the holiday’s regulations?

Well, the answer came back, isn’t eating a chametz-defying “Passover cake” the same thing as eating Baco-bits (which bear the symbol of “OU”) or putting non-dairy creamer in your coffee?  What’s wrong with getting around the stated law?  People do it all the time.

It’s true.  There’s nothing technically wrong with putting non-dairy cream in your coffee or fake bacon in your salad.  We may have a lot of reasons for doing such things.  There are those who can’t bring themselves to eat actual bacon, but want to know what it tastes like.  There are those who focus only on the letter of the law and not on its spirit.  There are those who want to eat their cake and have it too (even on Passover).

But getting around the rules raises a problematic issue, one that has persisted through Jewish life since Moses brought down the Torah from Mt. Sinai.  We have to contend not only with the letter of the law, but its spirit too.  Unless doing so out of ideological conviction, observing laws for their own sake often leads to an absence of relevance and meaning, and ultimately an absence of observance.  The law must have meaning; we must be able to appreciate its spirit if we are to embrace it with a full heart.

This idea came into focus during last week’s scholar-in-residence Shabbaton with Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS.  On Friday night, Rabbi Nevins spoke about his reasoning for maintaining Conservative Judaism’s prohibition on the use of electricity and electronics on Shabbat.  He discussed a teshuva (legal brief) he had written in which he explained in eloquent detail what scenarios he could envision for permitting the use of electricity and electronics and in what situations they should not be used.  At the end of his presentation, Rabbi Nevins added his own encouragement that people unplug their electronic devices on Shabbat if, for no other reason, we will all feel better for doing so.  He provided sound halakhic reasoning (the letter of the law) and also reasoning that explained the spirit of the law and its relevance.

So before you reach for that Passover dinner roll or “pareve” cheesecake, remember that the letter of the law has to be balanced by the spirit of the law.  Following laws without understanding their relevance and meaning will often lead to an empty feeling.  In that spirit, make sure to squeeze out of all the Passover rituals we are about to observe the rich meaning that lies within them.

Click here to read a great article in the Jewish Week on meaning vs. ritual.