Ascent's Nineteenth Annual Tu B'Shvat Seder

by Chana Katz

SAFED, Israel -- What?! Tu b'Shvat passing quietly in our city -- the city of kabbalah?

Not a chance -- especially at Ascent, the local youth hostel known for throwing one heck of a bash. For 19 years they've held a much-touted Tu b'Shvat "seder" but I never thought of going -- until this year when my curiosity got the best of me.

I was familiar with a Passover seder. But what was a Tu b'Shvat "seder"?

Opting for the program in my native tongue -- English -- it turned out that I had a lot of company -- 36 vibrant (to put it mildly) youths from a Young Judea group in England, on a one-year Israeli work-study program, bounded into the room.

Ascent founder and director Rabbi Shaul Leiter was literally jumping up and down, trying to keep the attention of the youths and their interest piqued long enough to give them a taste not only of the special fruits of Israel on this, the "New Year" of trees, but of the inner dimensions -- the kabbalistic, mystical interpretations of the 15th day of Shvat as well.

Rabbi Shaul Leiter jumping up and down

"What's your name?" Leiter said to one of the youths. "Adam? OK Adam, you be the gauge for the group -- if what I'm saying isn't clear, pull on your earring to signal me -- either earring, either the right one or the left!"

As the group sat eyeing the fruits and mouth-watering homemade cakes marking many of the seven species for which Israel is praised -- wheat, barley, olives, dates, grapes, figs and pomegranates -- Leiter explained the four cups of wine they were about to drink and their correlation to the four spiritual worlds.

By the time we got to the first cup of wine, we had learned about

* Atzilut -- the world of Emanation -- too purely divine to have physical representation.

* Briah -- the world of creation -- far removed from the realm of impurity, represented by those fruits which were wholly edible

* Yetzirah -- the world of Formation -- a world of lesser purity, represented by those fruits of which all was eaten except for a pit inside and

* Asiyah -- the world of action -- our realm, where evil exerts a powerful attraction, represented by those fruits which are enclosed in a totally inedible protective shell.

Somewhere -- in between the musical interlude of a great local musical trio and the British group singing "Am Yisroel Chai," -- we made our way from the cakes to the wine to the fruits and to the nuts.

And in between, Rabbi Yerachmiel Tilles, Ascent's seminar and educational program director, gave us some more food for thought stemming from the teachings of the famous 16th century kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria -- "The Holy Ari."

* Wheat is the basis for our sustenance -- but only after we labor to grow, harvest and prepare it.

* Olives yield the best of its oil only when the fruit is crushed. Olive oil floats on top of all liquids.

* Dates are often a metaphor for the righteous, as the date tree is both lofty and fruit-bearing. And as the date tree is impervious to the changing winds, so too are the Jewish people.

* Grapes can be turned into very different sorts of foods (raisins) and drink (wine); so too, each Jew has the potential to be succesful in some aspect of Torah and mitzvot observance and to be special in his or her own way.

* Figs must be picked as soon as they ripen, for they quickly go bad. Similarly, we must be quick to do mitzvot at hand before the opportunity "spoils."

* Pomegranates, it is said, have exactly 613 pips, equal to the number of the mitzvot in the Torah.

Now that the group had some deep, kabbalistic understanding of the fruits and delectable cakes spread before them, there was yet another lesson that had to be learned before the first drop of cake could enter the lips of what must have been the increasingly-hungry group.

So it was good that Rabbi Leiter still was jumping with enthusiasm in order to teach the group the meaning of each word of the blessing -- bringing down the highest levels of G-dliness to our world..

"Boruch....blessed...comes from the word "breicha" ( Hebrew for swimming pool) -- signifying the flowing waters in the highest levels," began Leiter.

By the time Leiter had finally gotten to the words "Borei minei mezonot" -- the students practically popped the cakes into their mouths -- after all, they worked very hard that night to bring the blessing down to the low level of ingestion into our body -- with all the spiritual nutrients that entailed.

Ahh. Rabbi Leiter's wife Chaya Bracha, made delicious carob cakes, another significant fruit of the land.

Meanwhile, Adam, our "gauge" from England, hadn't pulled on his earring yet to signify any confusion, so Rabbis Leiter, Tilles and Student Program Director Mordechai "Big Mo" Siev continued to explain why we drink four cups of wine at the TuB'Shvat seder.

Mordechai "Big Mo" Siev in action

Except unlike the Passover seder, when we also drink four cups of wine, the cups on Tu b'Shvat start out with white wine and gradually darken until the fourth cup, which is almost all red wine -- all corresponding to the four worlds.

Starting with the cake and then proceeding to the first cup of wine, seder participants were guided to the order of eating the various nuts and fruits spread before them.

Just as the trees on Tu b'Shvat -- the mid-point of winter, begin to receive moisture from the earth, the Ascent staff hoped that this seder would bring us back to our roots (connection to our Source -- faith), and develop a healthy trunk (Torah study and observance) -- and hopefully lead us to bear fruits of our own.

With the cake plates completely empty and the fruit plates pretty depleted too, the Ascent seder for 5762 finally came to an end -- with Chaya Brocha Leiter passing out dried, sweet esrog pieces to the departing group.

I wondered....for this group, and for myself...could Tu b'Shvat really ever pass quietly again.

[Chana Katz, a former South Florida journalist, lives in Tsfat. Her articles on life in Israel have reached publications throughout the world.]

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