Tu b'Shevat is coming! This year it falls on January 19-20. In my role as executive director of Canfei Nesharim: Sustainable Living Inspired by Torah, I've been organizing and hosting Tu b'Shevat seders all around the world over the last ten years, including interesting model seders at different times and places: in August in Vermont (CAJE), for example, and in December in California (Hazon Food Conference).
The Tu b'Shevat Seder is a fun experience for children and adults, and can be adapted to different timeframes and levels of Jewish/environmental backgrounds. Because it's light and includes delicious food, it's a great way to introduce the environmental topic to Jewish communities that may just be starting the environmental conversation. Similarly, it's a non-confrontational way to explore Jewish tradition for those who may not be familiar with it.
There are several different models for a Tu b’Shevat Seder. To allow for a relatively short seder, Canfei Nesharim has used the “Four Worlds” model. This model includes four different worlds corresponding to kabbalastic levels of physicality. The four worlds incorporate four cups of wine, seasons of the year, and different types types of fruit. Canfei Nesharim has included aspects of nature for which we are grateful, and actions that can make a difference for that aspect of nature.
Thinking of planning a seder? I've described some instructions below for how to organize a successful program. Canfei Nesharim also offers program ideas for children, teens, and communities; printable study materials and speaker notes to enhance your Tu b'Shevat programming; and eco-reminders to help your community bring the message home. Check it all out as part of Canfei Nesharim's 9th Annual Tu b'Shevat Learning and Action Campaign
Things to keep in mind when planning a seder:
Who will your audience be?
A seder can be organized for children, adults, or families, but a mixture of those audiences will make it much more difficult to focus your message. For example, a seder for adults can explore deep environmental and Jewish messages and action suggestions. A seder with children may include some of these messages as a much simpler level, along with projects and stories to keep the children's attention. In a family seder, the programming is mainly targeted to the kids, but the adults learn through the children.
Depending on how much you elaborate on each world, a four-world seder will usually take about two hours. Need to run a seder in less time? See timeline and detailed instructions provided in Canfei Nesharim's handy printout, How to Run a Tu b'Shevat Seder in an Hour
The most time consuming part of the seder is the food preparations beforehand.
Ensure that you have enough fruit of the three different categories (fruit with inedible shells/peels such as nuts, oranges, bananas; fruit with inedible cores such as peaches, plums and dates; and fruits that are entirely edible such as grapes and berries).
You will also need enough wine or grape juice (you will need twice as much white as red).
You will also need spices to smell in the fourth world – the simplest option is clove sticks, but any spice will do (including bringing a spice from your own kitchen to pass around).
It is VERY helpful to prepare fruit plates the night before, so that you don’t feel rushed at the beginning of the seder. It will be especially helpful if the fruit can be organized by category (see above) and put on plates the night before – this way, you can just bring out the relevant plates at the beginning of each world.
There are three blessings said during the Tu b’Shevat seder: the blessing on wine for the first cup, the blessing on fruit for the first fruit, and the blessing on spice (Borei Minei Bsamim is appropriate for spice mixtures; for single fresh spices, consult a rav) in the 4th world.
Since we do not say the wine or fruit blessing after it has been said in the first world, you may prefer to introduce wine and fruit with a pasuk. Suggested pasukim are included in the seder for this purpose. If the seder is to be part of a formal meal with bread, it’s important to begin with the first world wine and fruit BEFORE washing for bread, or you will miss your chance to say the first blessings.
Printable honor cards are available here.
How the Seder is Run:
The seder should begin with a brief introduction explaining the four worlds and the fact that we are going up in holiness over the next hour, beginning with the lowest world and ending with the highest spiritual world. The types of fruits and wine that we drink in each world represent different seasons and spiritual levels.
For each world, it’s helpful to begin with a brief introduction to set the mood. Begin by pouring the cup of wine, having someone read the blessing or pasuk (it’s helpful to make this an “honor” for someone who is a leader in the community or who supports Torah-environmental work), and have everyone drink the cup together. You can either proceed directly to the blessing/pasuk and fruit, or you can have a short talk between the two, then conclude with the fruit. At the end of each world, it’s helpful to have the audience talk amongst themselves. If you like, you can give them a topic.
For each world, you will want to have someone plan to speak briefly (5 minutes). The person can speak about something relevant to that world, such as the season, the level of spirituality, the aspect of nature, why they are grateful for that aspect of nature, or the suggested action. Speaker Notes are available here.