Here are some talking points regarding Tu B'Shvat for use in classroom, youth group and/or home. Where something works better for a particular age group, this is specified.

Most of these discussions dovetail well either directly or indirectly with peulot/activities in our "Let's Get Busy" section, so be sure to give it a look.

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Creation & Fruit

In Kabbalah, four levels of creation are described. In ascending order these are:

  • Asiya = Doing or action, the plane of physical reality.
  • Yetzira = Formation.
  • Beria = Creation.
  • Azilut = Emanation, a totally spiritual level that thus defies representation.

Seder rituals in the text "Pri Etz Hadar" deal with the first three groupings, each containing ten symbolic fruits. In this framework, edible parts represent holiness, inedible inner parts - like pits - equate to impurity, and shells are protectors of the delicate holiness within. (Parts like seeds and citrus peels would be considered as edible in this set-up.)

The asiya group is characterized by fruits with shells- like coconuts, pomegranates and almonds. The yetzira group has an edible outer part but pits inside- like olives, dates and cherries. The beria group has neither inedible shells nor pits- like apples, carob and lemons.

  • Think up more fruits for each group.
  • You can compare types of fruit to kinds of people and types of actions.
  • You can compare these three fruit groups to relationship levels. Look at our typical circles of interpersonal interactions- i.e. in terms of relative guardedness, privacy, transparency, extents of sharing and commitment… In this respect, you might ask what level of relationship/interaction is represented by a fruit with a shell, one with a pit, one with no shell or pit?

This material is clearly more suited to youth and up.

However, it is certainly worthwhile for younger children to start to be observant about different kinds of fruits and why one might need a hard shell, another a heavy peel and soft seeds, another a softer outside but a hard pit, etc. Grade school and middle school kids can handle some of the personality and other parallels described above too.

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Connection to Our Roots

"And God said, 'Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with seed in it.' And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, seed-bearing plants of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And G-d saw how good this was." [Genesis 1:11-13]

Where you live may be the height of winter snow or sweltering heat, yet Jewish festivals follow the seasons and climate of Israel. This is especially apparent with the timing of Tu B'Shvat, falling as it does somewhere in January or February and calling itself a first harbinger of spring! But things in Israel are actually starting to bloom and wake up then.

Look at Judaism and its people like a tree. Discuss the many ways this "tree" is rooted in Israel. What would be in the trunk, what would various branches represent, leaves, fruits, seeds, etc… You could make a diagram on the board, labeling tree parts as you talk about this.

Also point out how following Israeli nature and agricultural rhythms provides all Jews everywhere with a common reference point and uniting language. Review the Jewish calendar with an eye to familiarizing your group to local Israeli seasonal and weather conditions.

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Language Draws From Nature

"For a human is like a tree in a field" [Deuteronomy 20:19].

From Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): "When our deeds exceed our learning, we are like trees whose branches are few, but whose roots are many, so that even if all the winds of the world blow against them, they would be unable to move them." [Mishnah Avot 3:22]

The Jewish people may be likened to a tree, tenacious through adversities of wind and storm, digging in deep and holding onto the soil, blossoming again in each new cycle of life and growth, flourishing and still producing worthwhile things to share as part of "giving back to" and improving our world (tikun olam).

Language is a marvelous, flexible picture drawn in words. And the preponderance or scarcity of certain words, variants and expressions in any given language may reflect some of the thinking, conditions and experiences of a given culture. Like some languages will have many words for types of snow, or only one or two, right?

The overwhelming importance of trees and what they provide is reflected in how many ways we borrow from tree vocabulary and its vivid imagery.

  • We speak of being strong like an oak, scattered like autumn leaves, putting down roots, branching out…. We search our family tree, refer to Torah as the Tree of Life, use a tree as a symbol for educational institutions and more. We describe ourselves as "prickly on the outside and sweet within" or "tough as a nut". Think up more "borrowings" in our daily speech. And in the visual realm, how many ways have we seen a tree used as a handy symbol?
  • This is useful for all ages (it can get entertaining), but certainly a good angle for younger children:
    What fruit or tree best describes you and/or people close to you?
    And/or - What kind of fruit or tree would you wish to aspire to be more like (a fruit salad of characteristics is also alright). Explain why.
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From Generation To Generation

Carob pods

You can read this short tale of Honi here: . According to the Talmud, it would take 70 years for a carob tree to bear fruit. In actuality, depending on where and how one cultivates it, this might take three to eight years in more ideal conditions. So even given poorer and more natural circumstances, seven decades is a bit of a stretch. But to be fair, a wait of ten years or more is no small matter either (even more so if elderly). To balance this out, note that nature and this tree gives a little "extended-time" gift in exchange: those delicious carob pods we waited extra years for happen to store quite well for extended periods. 

Talk about how planting a carob tree can be taken as an example of patience, altruism, "giving back" and thinking ahead for future generations, both on a "local" level and in broader ecological terms.

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Such Amazing Gifts

"For the Eternal your G-d is bringing you into a good land with streams and springs and lakes issuing from plain and hill, a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey." [Deuteronomy 8:7-8] ("Honey" also refers to dates, as a sort of honey can be made from them too). The Bible viewed this as "The List" of top-notch praiseworthy products of the Holy Land.

  • What other products, gifts and important ideas have come out of Israel in the past as well as today? Think of what our drip irrigation developments have brought about, for example. Have your students check out "Israeli innovations" (like in Google) in the fields of agriculture, biology, environmental reclamation, energy and resource conservation, etc…. (we happen to be a pretty lively, creative country).
  • What other gifts from trees to the world might we come up with? This could become a mighty long list :) ! Discuss not only fruit but oxygen, homes and nourishment for animals, shade, wood, paper, fuel, land reclamation/soil enrichment and protection, climate change, musical instruments, books, clothing, protective roles like as windbreaker, shade, humidity….
    If your younger children get a little stuck at first, try miming out a few ideas. Kids can volunteer more ideas or likewise mime them out for everyone to guess.
  • What would it be like to live in some scenario with no tech, where you are thrown more directly to depend upon the resources around you (like those marooned or apocalyptic type themes in so many books, TV series and movies)? One of the first of many things you are going to be doing is looking at those trees rather differently and more appreciatively for a whole slew of needs, right?
  • Describe some of the ecological transformations (both good and bad) in Israel and/or more locally and/or more broadly in the world through the past 20 (or 50 or 100) years.
  • Talk about being careful and forward-thinking: what does sustainability mean? What are renewable resources? Discuss expanding the scope of recycling options. What kind of thinking would you have to apply if we had a colony on the moon or in a large space station? That may help us to think a bit differently even here on Earth too.
  • When you look at possible options in the "what do I want to be when I grow up?" department, so many job paths involve the environment either directly as a career path or indirectly in terms of associated needs and concerns, right? So there's yet another discussion angle for you!
  • Tu B'Shvat is a time of reawakening, of renewed coming potential. Thoughts turn to the new growing cycle, blooming, nurturing to fruit. If your students are older, you might mention orla in this respect [see "Overview"] as part of Jewish concern for caring for one's trees and environment properly. And we could parallel that with nurturing each other well too, for that matter.
  • Read from writings involving trees - for example, look over Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree". You can also ask your students to bring books and poems involving trees from home, as well as maybe a show-and-tell of art objects they may have involving trees and fruit.
  • Of course, this is also an opportune time to look over what's doing in environmental efforts so far in your class, synagogue or home. Exchange experiences and tips. Brainstorm together how to move one more practical notch upwards in everyone's "reduce, recycle and creatively re-purpose" practices. Let's remember that Judaism places more weight on actual deeds.

*There is a midrash where Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said that if you are about to plant a seedling when it's announced that the Mashiach/Messiah has arrived, finish planting first before greeting him/her. From this we see that we all have a personal role and responsibility in bringing about that "olam haba" (the next better world).

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The Message of Diversity

Nature offers a lesson we should take to heart:

It requires diversity for the survival of the whole.

That in turn means that when a species of flora or fauna is endangered or obliterated by thoughtless outside factors, the impact can set off a chain reaction that upsets ecological balances in profound ways. Poor planning is another variation on the theme - like if a natural resource (even if "renewable") were to be over-harvested, or if one planted only one kind of crop all the time, or if there were only have one kind of tree running around, etc.- this is not a sustainable situation either.

  • What kind of current examples can we find of over-environmental stress, overreliance on a single resource, or concentration on one "need" at the expense of another?

  • What happens when we lack diversity in an environment?

  • What happens when we lack diversity in a society?:
    The same extensive diversity and dynamic interactions present by necessity in nature are also requirements for a healthy human society, in both biological and functional terms. Diversity or its lack affects quality of life, flexibility and survivability as a whole, something that we should appreciate more. That should seem obvious, yet all the intolerances, conflicts and prejudices rife in our world demonstrate the opposite. Who we each are and may become, what we need, how we interweave and help fill each other's gaps, what betters us as an interactive whole requires diversity in its parts.

    That also means that there's still some shortfall when one thinks only in terms of mere "tolerance". Diversity is not simply something to tolerate, but rather what strengthens and sustains us, something to respect and support.

    Discuss examples of how being varied and different in our individual ways helps us as a whole. Even on the simplest and youngest level, it makes sense that you can't draw a rainbow with only one color crayon. You can't make a healthy or satisfying diet out of only one kind of food. You wouldn't want to have only one kind of person as a friend, or one kind of toy to play with… We are literally built for diversity, need it and actually depend on it in everything, individually and as a world.