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Feast & Fast

The Art of Food in Europe, 1500 – 1800

Happy Birthday to Trees: The festival of Tu B’Shevat

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The Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat (sometimes spelled Tu Bishvat) occurs on the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which this year falls on February 10. It marks the beginning of a ‘new year’ or ‘birthday’ for trees, as they emerge from their winter sleep and start another fruit-bearing cycle. Traditionally celebrated by eating lots of fruit and holding large feasts, in ancient times Tu B’Shevat indicated the date by which Jewish farmers needed to calculate the year’s tithes (or offerings) of fruit they should bring to the Temple in Jerusalem. This had to be fourth-year fruit, as the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) forbids Jews to eat the fruit of new trees for three years after they are planted (Leviticus 19.23-25).

With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the end of tithing, Tu B’Shevat lost much of its importance, but thanks to the kabbalists (Jewish mystics) of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Safed (a mountaintop city of Galilee in Israel) it gained a new spiritual significance. The kabbalists created a ritual: a seder (ceremonial meal) modelled on the Passover feast, during which diners read selected biblical and rabbinic passages and ate fruits and nuts associated with the land of Israel, paying attention to the different textures, tastes and symbolism of the items they consumed.

Described in a fifty-page pamphlet first printed in Venice in 1728 and entitled Pri Etz Hadar (‘The Fruit of the Goodly Tree’), the kabbalists’ Tu B’Shevat seder is structured around four cups of wine, going from all or mostly white to all or mostly red, to mimic the colour changes of the seasons of the white snow and almond blossoms (in Israel) of late winter, to the red of the anemone blossoms of the summer.

Pineapple-shaped ice cream
Figure 1: Pineapple-shaped ice cream made by Ivan Day, using an eighteenth-century English pewter mould

The first fruits and nuts to be served have inedible coverings and include the pineapple, created in mouth-watering ice cream form for Feast & Fast by Ivan Day (fig. 1), and the pomegranate, which can be seen split open to reveal an inviting profusion of glistening red seeds in Jan Davidsz de Heem’s Still Life (fig. 2). (According to tradition, pomegranates have 613 seeds, corresponding to the number of commandments in the Torah, so the fruit serves as a symbol both of righteousness and abundance.) Fruits with inedible cores - such as apricots, cherries, dates, peaches, plums and olives – follow. The third group are completely edible fruits or those with very small seeds, such as apples, berries, grapes and figs. The eighteenth-century trompe l’oeil (trick the eye) plate of figs on display in the exhibition look particularly luscious (fig. 3).

Still life with fruit
Figure 2: Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-84), detail of a pomegranate, Still life with fruit, Antwerp, Belgium, 1646. Oil on canvas on panel. C.B. Marlay Bequest, 1912. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Trompe l’oeil plate of fruit
Figure 3: Trompe l’oeil plate of fruit (possibly figs), Alcora Factory, Valencia, Spain, c. 1765-85. Tin-glazed earthenware. 3.2 x 23.5 cm. Dr J.W.L. Glaisher Bequest (C.2138-1928). © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The Tu B’Shevat seder did not catch on among Ashkenazim (Jews from Central and Eastern Europe), probably because the harsh winter weather around the time of the festival made fruit hard to come by. In contrast, among Sephardim (Jews from the Iberian Peninsula), who call the holiday ‘Las Frutas’ (The Fruit), the seder gained special prominence. The custom emerged of eating the Shevah Minim or ‘Seven Species’, the five fruits and two grains found in ancient Israel and mentioned in Deuteronomy 8.8: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. It also became customary to sample as many different types of fruit as possible – at least twelve.

In some Jewish communities, creative Tu B’Shevat practices developed. For example, Jews in Kurdistan placed sweet fruits like raisins in rings around trees, and then prayed for a plentiful fruit season. In Persia, Jews climbed onto their neighbours’ roofs and lowered empty baskets down chimneys to have them return laden with fruit.

Today, popular Tu B’Shevat treats include confections like apricot and pistachio balls and marzipan-stuffed dates, and some Turkish Jews prepare a dessert called trigo koço, in which boiled wheat kernels are sweetened with sugar and mixed with ground walnuts and cinnamon. Heralding the prospect of sunnier days ahead, Tu B’Shevat is an extraordinary birthday party for trees that comes bearing food, drink and song – a delicious mixture.


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