Hillel’s R. Buckholtz leads discussion on gift-giving at belated Tu B’Shevat seder

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By Jacob Schaperow, editor-in-chief, @jschap1

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JFarm and CJC: Hillel’s Committee for Jewish Collaboration members pass out fruits at their Tu B’Shevat seder in the Maryland Hillel chapel. Jacob Schaperow/Mitzpeh

Clementines laid on top of blankets decorated the floor inside Maryland Hillel’s second floor chapel in preparation for a Tu B’Shevat seder Monday evening. Before long, about 20 students sat in a circle around them, gathering in the Hillel chapel to celebrate the Jewish equivalent of Arbor Day.

JFarm, the Jewish environmental group at this university, hosted the Tu B’shevat seder for the second year running. CJC, Maryland Hillel’s Committee for Jewish Collaboration co-hosted the event.

Like the Passover seder, the Tu B’Shevat seder is an ordered meal. Rather than discussing how God led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, it is customary on Tu B’Shevat to celebrate ‘the new year of the trees.’ Rabbi Charlie Buckholtz, senior Jewish educator at Hillel, distributed special Tu B’Shevat haggadahs, companion texts for students to follow along during the seder, compiled by Hazon, a nonprofit with a food sustainability focus.

The first source, Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1-2, from the Talmud, introduced the idea of there being four ‘new years’ on the Jewish calendar: a new year for festivals, a new year for tithing of animals, a new year for years and a new year for trees. The Jewish calendar needs a new year for trees to determine the age of trees and for separating their fruits for tithing. Jewish law prohibits harvesting fruit from trees for the first three years of their lives.

Buckholtz focused on the idea of tithing in the Tu B’Shevat seder discussion. He spoke about gifts, gift economies and gift-giving cultures and asked the seder participants about how they personally relate to gift giving. He said that in gift-giving cultures and in Judaism, gifts have the property that they must keep moving.

While the holiday is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, Tu B’Shevat developed rituals associated with it, such as the seder, due to the Jewish mysticism movement, Kabbalah. Mysticism can be seen in the Tu B’Shevat seder from the four cups of wine or grape juice that participants consume, paralleling the Passover tradition. Each cup represents one of four “worlds” reflecting the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual aspects of self, according to the Hazon haggadah.

The meaning and relevance of Tu B’Shevat continue to evolve in the context of the environmental movement today

“Tu B’Shevat is, I think, like a Jewish way of conceptualizing our obligations to the environment, to each other, to being ecologically responsible,” Buckholtz said. “It’s extremely relevant and pressing.”

JFarm co-president Adam Kellner said he hoped next year’s seder could incorporate more spirituality. “Last year’s Tu B’Shevat seder was very much meditation-based and thoughtful-spiritual, and this one was more thoughtful-intellectual, and I guess reflective, and I think there’s a really nice median between the two that we can hit,” he said.

While not as long as a Passover seder, the Tu B’Shevat seder went on for nearly two hours. Because the holiday occurred the first day of the semester, which turned out to be a snow day, JFarm and CJC scheduled the seder for the week after Tu B’Shevat.

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