T”U B’Shevat Seder at Sof: Learning as We Go


Each year shortly after we enter the month of Shevat, the e-call for contributions to the T”U B’Shevat seder goes out. It’s the annual sign-up ritual when Sofers send in their top 3 choices for a contribution to the seder, and then receive a response directing them which item to bring, and how much. On the day of the seder, there’s the annual chair-moving ceremony, as we ask seder attendees to carry enough seats in from the sanctuary so that everyone has a seat at the seder tables, now bedecked with local greenery and laden with plates full of fruits, nuts, barley, and large bottles of red and white grape juice. And then there’s the seder text itself, printed out on approximately 30 strips of paper that we re-use each year, and read consecutively by seder participants, some of whom now have a favorite reading. Along with the seder text is the now-familiar structure of the seder, with its four distinct cups of white/dark grape juice representing the changing seasons, and the many wonderful types of fruits, nuts, and herbs representing the four worlds of Assiyah, Yetzirah, Beriah, and Atzilut. The seder is a product of the very best of Sof: our capacity to come together as a kehillah, with each Sofer making a contribution that creates a joyful, Jewish gathering. Yet, something is missing, and, no, it’s not the lox and bagels.

Ah, you guessed it! YES, it’s learning! If there’s one thing we come to Sof for, it’s Jewish learning. Learning Hebrew, learning Talmud, learning Torah cantillation, learning to lead a service, learning when we share our perspectives at Torah study, or our opinions at a book group discussion – learning, and perhaps a good argument now and then, are the key ingredients to seasoning our Jewish endeavors. So, nu? Why should the T”U B’Shevat seder be any different?
In this spirit of learning that enriches our lives, here are two treasured teachings, shared with me by Sofers, that enriched my learning in conjunction with this year’s seder.

1. For years, I have listed oranges (and other citrus) as a fruit that is associated with the world of Asiyah, represented by fruits that are inedible outside and edible inside. This listing is not uncommon in published T”U B’Shevat Haggadot (see, for example, http://hazon.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Haggadah.pdf). I was much surprised and delighted to learn from R. Daniel Lev that Chabad follows quite a different tradition. Here’s his share:
“Rabbi Chaim Vital (the main disciple of the Ari) explained that there are 30 fruits which parallel the ten sefirot as they are manifest in each of the three lower [of the four] spiritual worlds Beriah, Yetzirah and Asiyah.
• Beriah is far removed from the realm of impurity, and is represented by those fruits which are wholly edible: fruits with soft cores (such as apples and pears) and with cookable skins (like lemons and oranges) are considered totally edible, even if those parts are undesirable.”

2. The other teaching comes from Alice Flitter, who, in response to a comment I had made about how we had included grapes on the table in the early years of the seder, but then stopped doing so since they are “fruit of the vine,” shared that grapes are indeed quite appropriate as they are one of the seven species of fruits from the Land of Israel, all of which have a rightful place on the T”U B’Shevat seder table. (Here’s the list from Deuteronomy 8:8: wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranates, olive (oil), and date (honey).)

So Sofers, hold onto your fruit-laden Carmen Miranda hats, because next year, we’ll have oranges on the same plate as apples, and grapes as a joyful addition to the bounty that we appreciate and savor during our T”U B’Shevat seder!