The Great Tu B’shevat Blizzard of 2016

Jews pray for geshem – rain, and for tal – dew, for Israel… each in its season.  Jews do not pray for sheleg – snow…ever… and certainly not on Tu B’shevat.

And SNOW, weather prayed for or not, came to Tu B’shevat this year in the guise of Winter Storm Jonas. Frenzied storm preparations, blizzard warnings, and non-stop news coverage and ground coverage of snow swiftly overwhelmed our lives, eclipsing scheduled Tu B’shevat celebrations up and down the Middle Atlantic States.  Shabbat services were cancelled, Sunday school didn’t meet, seedlings were not planted by pre-school families at local garden centers, and synagogues were unable to hold their Tu B’shevat Seders.

To the uninitiated, Tu B’shevat, ” derives its name from it’s date on the lunar calendar, “TU” =15 in the Hebrew month of Shevat. The 15th of every Hebrew month is the full moon. Our holidays of Sukkot, Purim, and Passover also fall on the full moon. Though not mentioned in the Torah per se, we find in Leviticus 1:23-25 is the following:

“When you come to the land and you plant any tree, you shall treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years it will be forbidden and not eaten. In the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified to praise the Lord.  In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit.”

And so, the 15th of Shevat became a practical means of calculating the “birthday” of trees for tithing. (Example:  I planted 100 trees last February, 100 in July and 100 on the 14th of Shevat. On Tu B’shevat, all 300 trees become “one year old.”)  This is how, in Hebrew Schools around the globe, Tu B’shevat became known as “the birthday of the trees.”

This “birthday of the trees”, its agricultural and legal roots lost in time and purpose, has become a “fluid” and ever-changing holiday; re-shaped in every generation to fit the moment. It gained a “modern” foothold in the16th century when Kabbalists, mystics living up in Sfat, created a Tu B’shevat Seder, a celebration of seasonal rebirth, during which are eaten the Seven Species found in abundance in the Holy Land, as mentioned in Deuteronomy.

The Tu B’shevat Blizzard of 2016 not only left motorists stranded…  it left countless Jewish venues stranded as well… with copious amounts of traditional Tu B’shevat Seder foods: olives, dates, figs, pomegranates, wheat and barley products, grapes, almonds, Fig Newtons, along with gallons of Kosher wine and grape juice.

Ritually, we didn’t hear much about Tu B’shevat from the 16th century until the 1940’s when Tu’bshevat was resurrected as Jews celebrated the rebirth of our national homeland, the newly minted State of Israel. There were swamps to be drained and thousands of trees to be planted. Israel would make the desert bloom. (Remember those JNF tree certificates from Sunday school?).

TBS morphed into Jewish Arbor Day in the 1950s. In the 70’s & 80’s it was Jewish Earth Day, a kind of Tree Hugging festival, vilifying those who destroy forests for profit, and calling attention to water and air pollution. More recently, it has taken on Global Concerns such as genetically modified seeds, use of pesticides in agriculture, organic, locally sourced produce, factory farming, and preserving nature for future generations. At the turn of the millennium, it drew attention to renewable energy, recycling, composting, the disappearance of bees, (global swarming) and, dare I mention it, Global Warming!

It was only a month ago that those who are Christmas observant were waxing nostalgic on the subject of snow. In DC, Maryland and Virginia… there was a collective sigh of regret at the lack of “white stuff” for the holidays. And, everywhere we were bombarded by snow-centric lyrics; Well folks, you got your wish.

In Israel, however, Tu B’shevat song lyrics speak of springtime, pink blooms on almond trees and the chirping of birds.

In the U.S. Tu B’shevat has its own anthem laced with irony; lyrics by Joni Mitchell:

“They took all the trees And put them in a tree museum Then they charged the people A dollar and a half just to see ’em”

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” 

Hey farmer, farmer Put away that DDT now Give me spots on my apples But LEAVE me the birds and the bees” 

This past Sunday night, weather event or not, Tu b’Shevat arrived at sunset, as it does every year, on the 15th of Shevat. After a long and exhausting day of shoveling and tunneling out to our cars, night descended. My husband said, “Come look at the moon!”  Stepping out onto the porch, looking out over our streams and woods, the brilliant full moon illuminated the night, reflecting off water and filtering through forest, the harbinger of springtime (in Israel).  High snowdrifts and hilly terrain surrounding our home shimmered and glistened. The winds stopped.  We were doing what Jews everywhere have done for millennia; gaging the passing of seasons by the shape of the moon. It is a moment of peace, with my husband’s arm around my shoulder.

Going back inside we nosh on a few raisins, a handful of almonds, some wheat thins, a taste of olive oil, an orange, and a little Manischewitz blackberry wine. We put some money in the Jewish National Fund Box and made a mental note to empty the contents of our pushkas (tzedahkah boxes) and write a check to JNF .

Jews pray for rain and Jews pray for dew… and maybe, just maybe, Jews DO, in their hearts, pray for snow. Irving Berlin gave us “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne, “Let it Snow, Let it Snow,” Mel Torme wrote “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, “Silver Bells,” Walter Kent and Kim Gannon, “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” All “nice Jewish boys.” And maybe, just maybe their lyrics and music fashioned the bizarrely romantic way American’s think about snow, if you catch my “drift.”

Sitting here, in my warm office, looking out at the snow, I recall Tu B’shevat in Israel, with its promise of renewal and abundance. As it is written in D’varim, the Book of Deuteronomy:

“And it shall com to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that thou may gather in thy grain and thy wine and thine oil. And I will give grass in thy fields for thy cattle, and thou shalt eat and be satisfied.”

Rabbi Rose Lyn Jacob is from Syria, Va.

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