Friday, January 14, 2022
Until Rabbi Isaac Luria fixed what would later become the Tu Bi-Shevat seder, the day was most likely acknowledged simply according to the Mishnah (tractate Rosh Hashanah), namely as the day designated for calculating the agricultural cycle of trees for the purpose of tithing. Then, in 16th-century Safed, one of the great modern Kabbalists, Rabbi Luria (also known as the Arizal), innovated a seder on this winter day, paralleling that of Passover in the spring. Each fruit from the Holy Land was ascribed significance, and four cups of wine were to be drunk in a way reflecting the cyclical nature of the physical and spiritual worlds.
This celebration of the world in its physical and spiritual manifestations is particularly reflective of Lurianic Kabbalah, which is invested in intricately charting the relationship between these two forces. Trees, specifically, have a prominent place in Kabbalistic schema; they symbolize a connecting entity between “heaven” – as they grow up toward the sky – and “earth,” where they are rooted. As many who study Kabbalah know, some of the Arizal’s most important contributions to Kabbalah included those of his teachings compiled in the book Ets Haim (Tree of Life) by his primary disciple, Rabbi Haim Vital. The Kabbalistic Tu Bi-Shevat seder was formalized in a book called Pri Ets Hadar (Fruit of the Goodly Tree). Tree imagery features significantly once again in Kabbalistic works known as Ilanot (Tree scrolls). These maps depict the sephirot (emanations of God) and outline how the spiritual world interacts with the physical realm.
Hemdat Yamim, originally published in 1731 marks the first appearance of the Tu Bi-Shevat Seder
Pri Ets Hadar, the complete Tu bi-Shevat Seder from Hemdat Yamim, was first published on its own in 1728.
Jewish mysticism also foregrounds a love of the land, especially the Land of Israel. In its tiered model, while the spiritual realm is highest and the physical realm is at the bottom, the Land of Israel holds a special middle ground as a physical space imbued with holiness, combining both the elements of the physical and spiritual. Ashkenazi and Sephardi mystics would journey to the Holy Land to experience but once in their lifetimes the opportunity to study Torah, visit holy sites, and partake of the blessings of Erets Yisrael.
One such pilgrim was a man named Moses Basola. A banker and scholar living in Italy, Basola decided to set sail for Erets Yisrael in the year 1521 at the age of 41. Over his two-year journey, he created a manuscript to be used by others wishing to make a similar pilgrimage. This work, later called Shivhe Yerushalayim (Praises of Jerusalem), was passed along as an anonymous work and first printed in 1785. The account goes into great detail about Basola’s travels, with recommendations of where to sleep aboard the ship and how a Jew can prepare his kosher food. While the bulk of his itinerary revolved around his visits to the gravesites of biblical and rabbinic figures, Basola took the time to explore important cities such as Safed and Jerusalem, describing the hospitality, economy, and appearance of these noble cities. Interestingly, Basola reserves emphatic and lofty praise for this special land, but his account simultaneously offers realistic descriptions of both the beautiful and plentiful cities that are not in Erets Yisrael’s borders as well as the various difficulties he encounters throughout his holy pilgrimage.
In the introduction to his manuscript, Basola writes “A person must understand how much they must strive, pray, and beseech, so that maybe they will merit burial in the holy land, where the faith of Israel hangs.” He goes on to extol the virtues of the “land good and expansive, that which God seeks out always,” and cites the verse from Deuteronomy 8:8 “a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” As mentioned above, these seven species of the land feature heavily in Tu Bi-Shevat celebrations, as established by Rabbi Isaac Luria. Basola went on to explore the Holy Land, praying, investigating, and taking detailed notes to smooth the way for those who would come after him.
Shivhe Yerushalyim, 1784
Basola’s journey ended in 1523, but that was not his final trip to the Holy Land. After Basola returned to Italy and received his rabbinic ordination in 1535, he went on to serve as the head of the Ancona Yeshiva for many years and served the community with dedication. He took a great interest in Kabbalah, forming close relationships not only with great Jewish leaders like Rabbi Aryeh Judah of Modena, but with Christian Kabbalists as well, such as Guillaume Postel, translator of the Zohar into Latin. Then, in 1560, at the age of 80, Basola embarked on his second and final journey to Erets Yisrael, to settle in the city of Safed, preceding Rabbi Isaac Luria by just a few years. In Safed, Basola was greeted warmly by the great sages, among whom he lived for only a few months before he died.
Basola landed in Tripoli in 1521, and on his southward trip to Safed, the first destination in the Land of Israel, he was waylaid by a serious injury. Basola failed to notice a large tree branch – it struck him in the head and he fell unconscious to the ground. He was bandaged up and taken the 12 miles to Safed on a camel where he recovered over the next few days. In Safed he describes “a city filled with everything good; excellent victuals, grain, wines, and olive oil in great quantities, everything one could hope to purchase.”