Leora Mallach, executive director and co-founder of Beantown Jewish Gardens, wants people to “hug a tree” as part of their Tu BiShvat celebration. Mallach is an environmental educator with an impressive track record of introducing Jewish communities to environmental issues and food justice practices. Among her Jewish bona fides has been a stint at the Teva Learning Center—an environmental educational center—that Mallach described as a “beautiful synthesis of teaching and practicing.” She has gone on to work for the national Jewish environmental movement, supporting environmental and food justice initiatives around North America.

Chocolate industry sourcing is among the food justice issues on which Mallach has worked. “We talk a lot about the chocolate-making process and where it comes from during Hanukkah and Passover,” she said. “Conventional chocolate is a slave labor and child industry. We look at fair-trade certification. What does certification mean and what is the difference when looking at labels in general? What do we know about our food; what can we know about our food?”

Mallach is a consummate educator, and early in our conversation she pointed out that Tu BiShvat is one of the four New Year holidays on the Jewish calendar. While Rosh Hashanah and Passover are the more obvious entries into another year, the First of Elul begins a new year of animal tithing, and Tu BiShvat establishes a date for the tithing of fruit trees. Mallach noted that Jewish law forbids the consumption of fruits from trees that are less than three years old. “Tu BiShvat is essentially the birthday of the trees, and the idea of being able to eat fruit from trees after three years indicates that you’re reaching a higher spiritual level,” she said.

Another relatively modern Tu BiShvat tradition is the Tu BiShvat seder. The seder highlights the introduction of seven species that, according to a verse in Deuteronomy, distinguish ancient Israel’s agriculture. There is also symbolism attached to each species. According to an article on My Jewish Learning, the species and their distinct imagery are:

  • Wheat, which represents chesed, or kindness, because it’s so basic and nourishing
  • Barley, which has a thick casing and is the embodiment of gevura, or restraint
  • Grapes, which signify tiferet, or beauty
  • Figs, which represent netzch, or endurance, for their long ripening
  • Pomegranates, which have a distinctive crown shape that symbolizes hod, or majesty and glory
  • Olive oil, which signifies yesod, or foundation, for the principal role it has in many foods
  • Dates, which denote malchut, or kingdom, for their digestive benefits

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Mallach noted that, like their Passover counterparts, Tu BiShvat seders are “living documents. The seders often highlight the community that is using them.” The seder often has Kabbalistic roots, and creating one is a distinctive spiritual practice. Mallach added that the premise of a seder can include spiritual interconnectedness between life and the cosmic blessings bestowed on us. “The seder goes through a set of different worlds that are known as action, formation, creation and emanation,” she said. “It’s a process of learning and translating through those things.”

Tu BiShvat has traditionally been thought of as the “Jewish Arbor Day,” and has parallels to Earth Day, which was observed beginning in 1970. There’s a long-standing tradition of planting trees on the Jewish holiday. Mallach pointed out that the religious Zionist movement of the late 1890s took the opportunity to develop the idea of reclamation of the holy land and also planted trees on Tu BiShvat. That notion of planting has been expanded in Israel. The first cornerstone for Hebrew University was laid on Tu BiShvat in 1918. The Knesset’s cornerstone was also laid on Tu BiShvat in 1949.

While almond trees are blossoming in Israel on Tu BiShvat, Jews in harsher climates like New England can customize their holiday practice. There is no tithing of fruit trees outside of Israel, and very often there is snow on the ground in Massachusetts. “There is not one right way to eat or to do Jewish practice,” noted Mallach. “Many things can inform our decision-making.”

For example, Beantown Jewish Gardens sponsors a program that focuses on what the trees are doing in New England. The trees are in some sort of hibernation, but as the weather starts to warm up, sap starts to flow. The increased sap flow is when sugar maples are tapped for maple syrup and sugaring. “What we do as an organization is to co-sponsor a program on a Weston farm and observe the sugaring process,” Mallach said. “We learn about our local trees and what is happening in New England. It’s all about adaptation.”

Tu BiShvat falls on the evening of Sunday, Jan. 20, and continues through the day of Jan. 21. Find more resources here.