Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said: If you are holding a sapling in your hand and they tell you the messiah has come, first plant the sapling, then go welcome the messiah.
-Avot deRabbi Natan B 31
In recent years, the custom of holding a Seder Tu BiShvat has become increasingly widespread in all sectors of Israeli society. The 15th of Shvat is actually not a holiday at all, but merely a technical date mentioned in the Mishnah, the cut-off date for calculating the tithes on the fruit of trees. In the 16th century, the kabbalists of Safed found mystical significance in the eating of different fruits and instituted a "seder," an order of eating the fruit of the land. In the Diaspora, the date became a day of remembering our connection with Eretz Yisrael by eating the fruit of Israel which, before air freight and refrigeration, meant dried fruit, especially carob pods (bokser). Early in the 20th century the Jewish National Fund created the custom of planting trees in honor of Tu BiShvat. In the first decades of the state, pretty much all that remained here were planting ceremonies that declined over the years and the custom of eating dried fruit, which is ironic, since we can eat all the fresh fruit of Eretz Yisrael we want while much of the dried fruit is imported.
In the past decade or so, however, the Tu BiShvat seder has become so common that this year, for example, in the week of the holiday there was only one night when I was not invited to one, being held by one institution or another. Perhaps the attraction comes from the lack of any tradition or restriction: there are no rules, not even for the Orthodox. There are no prohibitions on the day. There are no obligations no mitzvot. We can create any ceremony we want; indeed, we must, as there is no tradition to follow except the general idea of eating a series of different fruits, and the custom of drinking four cups of wine in a progression of colors, from white to red. This means that Jews from different communities and backgrounds and ideologies can celebrate Tu BiShvat together, and no one has to compromise. It highlights what we all have in common, instead of forcing us (as most other holidays do) to struggle with what divides us.
However, often, because of this lack of a tradition, the seder is not very interesting or engaging. Various readings on trees, and the environment, are interspersed with songs and the tasting of fruits. But since (unlike Pesach, for example) there is no drama, there are no memories, often the event feels a bit contrived. Our center has been involved for several years in putting together a communal seder for the communities in our region. Hosted by the Orthodox community, Moreshet, and cosponsored with the local community center (and supported by the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation), we have tried various combinations of readings, music, and table-discussions; it has been "nice," a pleasant evening But this year, somehow we finally got it right. We shortened the readings about the fruits. We hired a songleader who helped us put together a haggadah in which all the songs were by Naomi Shemer, Ehud Manor, and Uzi Hitman, three of the all-time great writers/composers of Israeli music, all of whom died in the past year, and all of whose songs share a certain tone of romantic Zionism. And we invited a well-known storyteller/poet, Yossi Alfi, whose presentation was a nostalgic reconstruction, beautifully and entertainingly done, of the mythic Israel of the 50s, when we were all poor, all immigrants, all idealists, all together under siege. Of the 200 people in the room, Orthodox, secular, traditional, reform, from the left to the right (when the Orthodox "county rabbi" referred to me as "Harav" I thought maybe the messiah had come and I'd missed it), I was one of the minority who didn't know all the songs by heart. There was no one who wasn't moved by the memories conjured up by the stories, of the scent of orange blossoms at the airport, of the ingathering of the exiles, of the tribulations of aliyah, of a simpler time (that maybe never existed), of the attempts to build a new culture and a new identity, a new Jew. And somehow, eating dried figs from Turkey, together, and singing songs about rain (it was raining), meant something.
And it occurred to me that Tu BiShvat wouldn't be such a bad time for the messiah to come after all. By the way, the almond trees are blossoming; right on time.