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Tu B'Shvat, or the 15th of Shvat (which is designated ט'ו in the Hebrew calendar), has an interesting history. It began as a fiscal date in the time of the Holy Temple, when the age of trees was determined by whether they were planted before or after the 15th of Shvat. The tree was considered to be one year of age on Tu B’Shvat. The fruit from trees is not to be eaten during the first three years, and the fruit in the fourth year is designated for God, brought to the Temple as Hillulim. The fifth year of age is counted as the trees’ first fruits. When the Temple was destroyed, this fiscal function was obsolete, but the date remained understood in the Talmud as Rosh HaShanah La Ilanot, the New Year of Trees or the Birthday of Trees. Undoubtedly, there were household observances celebrating fruits and grains of Israel throughout the centuries.
A formal "seder" found its early origins in the 16th century, in the Kabbalistic circles of Northern Israel, in Tzvat and elsewhere. Noting the subtle changes in color of the Israeli flowers, Crocuses Cyclamen and the Rose of Sharon, in the months of late summer to early winter, the Kabbalists composed a seder, drinking white wine and darkening it to red, as they contemplated and meditated, with various sacred text, regarding fruits and trees. A central symbol of Kabbalah is thinking of the God/cosmos relationship as a type of upside-down tree with the roots being the upper Sefirot, or Emanations of God, branching down in various levels and directions, which find their more manifest expression in the lower realms of the earthly plane. The main branches may have been conceived as the lower "Emanations" the "divine sparks" hidden everywhere, to be uncovered by the righteous–the leaves.
The significance of Tu B’Shvat morphed once again at the beginning of the modern Zionist movement. Improving the land involved fortifying its natural setting, draining swamps, and “turning desert into forest.” Eucalyptus trees were planted in the north to drain the swamps and to create the conditions that would allow for farming and settlement. The JNF was established to help fortify the forests. Schools of agronomy were founded and famed Jewish botanists helped patent specially modified fruits and vegetables to thrive better in semi-arid conditions. Work on drip irrigation made farming possible in arid climates of the Negev. Still today, Tu B’Shvat is marked in Israeli schools by children planting trees and sprouting seedlings. The emphasis on cultivating the natural resources of Israel has yielded the record setting pace of forestation. Indeed, Israel is one of only a handful of countries that have a net gain of forested lands over the last century.
In even more recent times, the danger of climate change and growth of the ecological and environment movement has also influenced the flavor of Tu B’Shvat. New seder formats have been developed emphasizing Judaism's viewpoint of “protecting as well as tilling the garden,” the instruction that Adam and Eve received. Our relationship to the four elements–earth, water, air and sun–corresponding to the four cups of wine, are explored and studied. The Seder has now become an opportunity to fortify spiritually what we already accept rationally: that man has a responsibility to guard these precious resources and to not exhaust them. And that our decisions, on a personal, political and spiritual level, have an impact on “building up” or “tearing down” the garden; that the planet is our responsibility and that as the rabbis teach, if we ruin it, not even God will repair it.
Name That Tune
I am often asked, at a Kiddush or Oneg, “where did that tune come from?” This question arises with many congregational tunes, and with some tunes more than others. Many tunes have been so well ingrained in not only liberal (Conservative and Reform) Judaism, but the western Jewish world as a whole–tunes like Maotzur and Adir Hu– that they are considered “Mi Sinai,” or from Sinai; thought of jokingly as so old and well accepted that Moses himself must have taught them to the Jewish people at the foot of Sinai.
There are also the tunes that are just so widely accepted and entrenched within our weekly davening that they might as well be classified as “Mi Sinai” as well. For example, Michakeyl Chayim from the Amidah has a very recognizable tune, and it is generally accepted throughout the Conservative Movement that if a cantor does not use this tune, he or she better have a very good reason. The melody was written by Chazan Max Wholberg sometime in the middle of the 20th century and was published in his book The Next Generation. His intention was to write simple tunes in order to teach t’filah to children. He never expected this tune to take off as it did. Today, it is used widely throughout the Ashkenazi world in Orthodox and liberal congregations alike.
Another widely accepted tune within the world of Conservative and Reform Judaism is that of the Aleinu. This prayer is actually split into 3 tunes. The beginning section is widely attributed to the composer Sabel. However, once we get to sh’hu noteh shamayim, that is where the fun begins. I’m sure many of you, even while reading this, can hear this tune in your heads. I have to apologize; there is no deep and exciting source of this tune. Its origins actually reside within the mouths of your children and grandchildren. The “Itsy Bitsy Spider” crawls up his waterspout every Shabbat morning. Or those of you of the 1940s generation may recall the Johnny Horton song, The day they sank the Bismarck. Finally, everyone’s favorite part at the ending, bayom ha hu y’hiyeh adoshem ehad, invokes The Farmer and the Dell, and is credited to Rabbi Israel Goldfarb of Shalom Aleichem fame.
So next Shabbat, as we’re singing along, consider where these tunes have come from, and even ask yourself when chanting other melodies, “I wonder where this tune comes from?” Read More
It is a new year, a time of new beginnings! I hope that everyone had a lovely Chanukkah. As everyone knows, Cantor Nussbaum is now retired. He and Avrille are making arrangements to move closer to their family in New Jersey. He is extremely appreciative of the love and support he has received.
A lot has been happening over the last couple of months, so I would like to give an update of where we stand. We have hired Eliza Zipper as Religious School principal. She is a graduate of the Davidson School at Jewish Theological Seminary and has many years of experience as a Jewish educator and youth leader. She brings a great deal of energy and excitement about Jewish education. We look forward to working with her.
Also in the Religious School, we have hired Rabbi David Shain as the Hay Prayer and Hebrew Skills teacher. Those of you who have spent time at Gurwin may be familiar with Rabbi Shain, who has served there as a mashgiach (kashrut supervisor) and their Shabbat Rabbi. Rabbi Shain is very personable and knowledgeable. I am confident that our Hay students are in good hands.
Turning our attention to B’nai Mitzvah preparation, we have hired Dr. Paul Kaplan, a former long-term congregant, to tutor our B’nai Mitzvah students. Dr. Kaplan is a retired college professor with decades of teaching experience. In addition, in his own words, he has prepared “a thousand students” for their Bar and Bat mitzvah including at least one member of our Board of Directors. We are lucky to have him on board.
Finally, the Cantor Search committee has been meeting regularly since mid-November. With input from the Board and committees, a job description for our Cantor position has been developed. We have submitted our job posting to the Cantor Assembly Placement Office and we have begun to receive applications. It is still very early in the process, but we are on course and schedule. Look for future updates as things develop.
Shalom, chaverim! See you in shul! Read More