In honor of Tu Bi'Shevat, we are happy to offer this piece from our friends at Isabella Freedman. On behalf of the Ritualwell team, we wish you a joyous and fruitful New Year of the Trees!
Building a relationship with local species through the four elements
1. WATER: Tap maple trees for sap
"In some areas, the sap beging to run inside the trees at this season. The Hebrew word for “sap” (saraf), comes from the word for “fire.” The sap within the trees embodies both the nourishing water and the inner fire of these days." (Rabbi Jill Hammer, Book of Days)
About maple sapping:
If you live in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada, you probably have a sugar maple or two in your backyard. These are the trees that produce sap that can be turned into maple syrup. When sap comes out of the tree, it looks like clear water. Only 2% of it is sugar. To make sap into syrup, the water must be boiled off until its sugar content reaches 67 percent.
What makes the sap rise? How can I collect sap?
When daytime temperatures rise above freezing, pressure develops in the tree, causing the sap to flow. At night when the temperature is below freezing, there is a suction that draws water into the tree. By drilling a hole into the tree, you can collect the sap as it flows out during the warmer daytime hours. The sap will stop flowing when temperatures stop falling below freezing. To purchase sapping supplies and read more about maple sapping, visit http://www.maplemadness.com.
The following ritual and questions were developed by The Velveteen Rabbi (Rachel Barenblatt). You can use them with a maple tree in your yard, or with store-bought maple syrup. As a bonus, you can dip some apples into the sweet maple goodness!
Here are three possible blessings for maple syrup, which one is right: the blessing for fruit of the tree (because sap comes from trees), the blessing for fruit of the earth (because the sap is nourished by the earth, and isn't exactly a "fruit" of the tree) or the blessing we say over things which don't have their own specific blessing?
Discuss, bless and taste!
Blessed are You, Adonay our God, Source of all, creator of the fruit of the tree.
Blessed are You, Adonay our God, Source of all, creator of the fruit of the earth.
Blessed are You, Adonay our God, Source of all, through whose word all things come into being.
The following is a favorite within American folklore (Seneca Stories):
Long ago, maple trees used to give sap that was pure syrup. The people loved the sweet syrup and soon came to lie under the trees in the spring, open their mouths, and get fat and fatter on the syrup. When the Creator saw that his people were not working, he changed the trees by adding water to the sap. Sap then had to be boiled and boiled to get a bit of pure syrup.
2. FIRE: Cedar bark incense
In the time of the Temple, ketoret (incense) played a major role in ritual life. Most contemporary Jewish gatherings enliven the senses during Havdalah, but rarely in other contexts. Tu Bishvat is the perfect time to celebrate sweet smelling trees. Though most people tend to use cinnamon, a tropical species of tree, I recommend connecting to a local species such as the cedar, which is also native to Israel and the Middle East.
By twisting the fibers of cedar bark, you can make luscious smelling incense sticks to be used at your seder, during Havdalah, or anytime you want to spice up a room. I suggest this video for easy instructions.
Blessed are You, Adonay our God, Source of all, creator of the spices of the tree.
3. EARTH: Pine Needle Tea (can also substitute Eastern Hemlock needles)
Preparing a hot cup of tea from loose leaves that you harvest yourself can be nourishing and comforting. Try this recipe with some local needles.
1. Select your needles by picking the newest green ones from the tree. These are nearest the end of each branch, and slightly lighter green than the rest of the needles. Brown needles will not steep into tea.
2. Rinse and finely chop them until you have one half cup.
3. Add your needles to one quart boiling water and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the volume of water is reduced by one third.
4. Allow it to steep for anywhere from 20 minutes to overnight, depending on how strong you like your tea. The result will be a reddish colored tea with a mild taste. Add maple syrup or other sweeteners, as desired.
5. Store in the refrigerator. This tea is high in vitamin c! Strain and then compost or discard the needles before drinking.
4. AIR: Breathing with the Trees
"Once, when Rav Abraham Kook was walking in the fields, lost deep in thought, the young student with him inadvertently plucked a leaf off a branch. Rav Kook was visibly shaken by this act, and turning to his companion he said gently, 'Believe me when I tell you I never simply pluck a leaf or a blade of grass or any living thing, unless I have to.' He explained further, 'Every part of the vegetable world is singing a song and breathing forth a secret of the divine mystery of the Creation.' For the first time the young student understood what it means to show compassion to all creatures." (Wisdom of the Mystics)
Even indoors we are sharing our breath with the trees. Trees “breathe” just like we do except that when they breathe they take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen, which is then breathed in by humans. Carbon dioxide is breathed out by humans and breathed in by the tree; this cycle continues endlessly.
For this ritual, stand alone or with a group alongside or circling a tree. (This can even be done with a lonely street tree in the city.)
1. Sing “Elohay Neshamah” or “Nishmat Kol Chai” from the morning service.
2. Read one or more of the following passages out loud or to yourself.
3. Follow with a breathing exercise, meditating on your relationship with the tree(s) around you.
“The Eternal formed a human from the dust of the Earth. God blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being…The Eternal took and placed the human being in the Garden of Eden, to cultivate it and to protect it.” (Genesis 2:7, 2:15)
“And if you ask me of God, my God. ‘Where is God that in joy we may worship?’ Here on Earth too God lives, not in Heaven alone. A striking fir, a rich furrow, in them you will find God’s likeness. Divine image incarnate in every high mountain. Wherever the breath of life flows, you will find God embodied. And God’s household? All being: the gazelle, the turtle, the shrub, the cloud pregnant with thunder. God in creation is God’s eternal name.” (Saul Tchernikovsky, poet)
Additional resources for Tu B'shevat & Ecological Wisdom in Judaism:
The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons by Jill Hammer
Spirit in Nature: Teaching Judaism and Ecology on the Trail by Matt Biers-Ariel, Deborah Newbrun & Michal Fox Smart
Sarah Chandler is the associate director of ADAMAH, a Jewish experiential educator, a community activist, a spiritual leader and a blogger. She serves as an educator with the Teva Learning Center and the Kohenet Institute. From 2005-09, Sarah served as the director of Jewish Family Life & Learning (JoyFuLL) at West End Synagogue: A Reconstructionist Congregation. She holds a Master of Arts in Jewish Communal and Experiential Education and Hebrew Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary.