Four Worlds of the Tu B’Shevat Seder

by Idelle Hammond-Sass

TreesClappingWatercolorOn Saturday evening January 23, AARC visiting rabbi Michael Strassfeld led about 60 people on a ritual journey through the mystical four worlds of the Kabbalists, exploring the different qualities of each world and our relationship to them. The Tu B’Shevat seder, modeled loosely after the Passover seder, was created by the mystics of S’fad in the 16th century, but the original holiday itself grew out of ancient tithing, and later was associated with planting trees in Israel and caring for the land.

Seder-01-23-2016

In an earlier study session, Rabbi Michael led an exploration of Jewish teachings about the environment.  The Tu B’Shevat seder is more mystical, a product of rabbinic imagination. Each mystical “world” is associated with a category of fruit, its season, an aspect of self, and an intention–and accompanied by a glass of wine. The Haggadah for the Tu B’Shevat seder, put together by Rabbi Michael and AARC co-chair Margo Schlanger, was rich with readings and illustrations that deepened our understanding. And, yes, like Passover, it is structured on fours: four worlds, four glasses of wine, four seasons.

This ancient New Year of the Trees or “Rosh Hashanah L’ilanot” was also associated with the mystical feminine aspect of God, or Shechinah. We added Miriam’s cup to our seder, and said a blessing for Miriam’s well, for without fresh water, the trees and plants cannot flourish. The cup was dedicated to the people of Flint, whose water has been polluted.

Our room was set with a U shaped arrangement of tables beautifully set with platters of fruits and seeds (carefully following the no nuts rule of the JCC) that illustrate the four worlds. The platters were piled high with figs, bananas, grapes, apple, pomegranate, pears as well as olives, dates, apricots, raspberries: Fruits with pits, hard shells and soft, dried and fresh.

Tu B'Shevat Seder Plate

Tu B’Shevat Seder Plate

The beauty of the ritual pairs a mystical sphere or world with a fruit that symbolizes it, as well as mirrors our own spiritual state. For instance in the physical realm of Assiyah (winter, white wine) we ate fruit with protective outer shells, such as banana, pomegranate, or oranges. When we peel away our protection, and can be vulnerable, we can share the sweetness inside. If you are unfamiliar with the Kabbalah, this is a sweet way to become familiar with the four worlds of Assiyah (Physical), Yetzirah (Formation), B’riyah (thought), and Atzilut (Spirit).

A delicious and plentiful dinner was organized by Rena Basch and catered by El Harissa Café. (Khallid explained our menu, featuring a Tunisian egg Tangine, Lablabi, Mama Houria, a carrot dip, with a lovely salad with figs and pomegranate seeds, and poached pears with Michigan fruit sauce.)

This event was co-sponsored by Jewish Alliance for Food Land and Justice with an impact grant through the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor. The seder helped us reach our goals of bringing together people from the wider community and celebrating the deep roots we share in the Tree of Life.  AARC was joined by Rabbi Alana Alpert and members of Congregation T’chiyah of Oak Park, fellows from Hazon Detroit, and many others from the Ann Arbor community.  Like all ARRC events, we could not have done this without volunteers, and a big thank you to all who planned and worked so hard–Margo Schlanger, Clare Kinberg, Carole Caplan and Rena Basch.

For more information on Tu B’Shevat there are many good resources on the web at Hazon.org, and Ritual Well, to name a couple.  The Jewish Alliance for Food, Land and Justice Facebook page is active–come visit!