A Guide to Creating Secular Jewish Observances for the Ritually Impaired

by Linda Gritz
Olive treeI dislike the word “ritual” — which is odd, since I chair the ritual committee of Boston Workmen’s Circle. For me, the word conjures up images of unchanging, unthinking religious practices. Yet even secular Jews may find value and comfort in the ancient wisdom, deep resonance, and social significance of Jewish rituals — by adapting their best aspects, turning them into thoughtful and meaningful exercises, and challenging ourselves to review and revise our rituals each year to keep them from becoming rote and stale.
Some ask, why not celebrate the Jewish holidays the way they have always been celebrated?
I say, because they weren’t always celebrated just one way. Jews have a long tradition of adapting rituals to current circumstances, from our nomadic days to our agricultural society to Temple-based worship to rabbinic Judaism. Secular ritualists are just the latest in a long line of those seeking to add depth to our understanding and appreciation of our Jewish heritage.
Others ask, why celebrate these holidays at all, rather than declaring them treyf (taboo) for secular Jewish atheists?
I say, because religion, though often centered around a belief in God, is also centered around ethical values. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water: We can find and transmit some truths of lasting value in our millennia-old traditions.
If this doesn’t resonate with you, then read the rest of this article to give your head-shaking and tongue – tsking muscles some exercise. On the other hand, if you’re intrigued by this idea, then read on to hear how we do it in Boston.
Choose a holiday
Jewish observances in our Workmen’s Circle community calendar already include Rosh Hashone, Yom Kippur, Sukes, Khanike, Purim, Peysakh, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Night of the Martyred Soviet Yiddish Writers, and Shabes. For many in our community, these observances are the primary connection to Jewish cultural identity in an otherwise assimilated daily life in America. Our community gatherings are enriching and inspiring, and actively remind us of our rich Jewish heritage and its relevance to our lives today.
Amy Pett, a member of our ritual committee, recently suggested that we add Tu B’Shvat to our holiday calendar (February 9th this year). My entire knowledge of Tu B’Shvat consisted of a vague notion that it was a tree holiday in the middle of winter. But celebrating trees seemed like a worthy subject, and gathering during the Boston winter doldrums was appealing, so we took it on.
Form a committee
It’s possible to do it all yourself, but it’s lots more fun and certainly more stimulating to work with others to develop the ritual. Of course, that also means being flexible and open to different ideas. Amy had been to a Tu B’Shvat seder called “Trees of Reconciliation,” sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace. Its major themes were the tree-planting tradition in Israel juxtaposed against the destruction of olive trees in Palestine. Amy initially suggested that we do this seder and raise money to replant olive trees in Palestine. Then we broadened our observance to encompass other themes that naturally fit the holiday, including protection of the environment and celebration of nature. Rounding out our committee was Miriam Habib, who is particularly interested in environmental conservation.
Read, read, read! 

Here are some of the interesting tidbits gleaned from source materials from the library, the Internet, my bookshelves, and the bookshelves of my friends and family:
As with many of our holidays, Tu B’Shvat has pagan origins in the worship of Asherah, the ancient Semitic mother goddess, whose spirit resided in trees. (There are forty references to Asherah in the Bible.) There was a special festival in honor of Asherah halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, which usually occurred during the Hebrew month of Shevat. Tu B’Shvat means the fifteenth day of Shevat, with Tu representing the Hebrew letters tes and vov. These two letters also represent the numbers 9 and 6 in gematria (Jewish numerology; see the box below).
In Temple days, Tu B’Shvat was literally the trees’ birthday for accounting purposes, so it could be determined when the tree’s fruit could be harvested and which fruit would be tithed as a Temple offering.
The idea of a Tu B’Shvat seder was developed by 16th-century kabbalists (Jewish mystics). While it would be strange to hear that modern mystics had transformed April 15th, U.S. Income Tax Day, into a festival of spirituality, Rabbi Arthur Waskow notes, that is essentially what the kabbalists did with Tu B’Shvat: They took the economy-based New Year for Trees and turned it into the New Year for the Tree of Life.
Similarly to a Passover seder, the Tu B’Shvat seder includes four questions, four cups of wine, and ritual foods. It has been adapted during modern times, initially by Zionists celebrating the planting of trees in Israel, and more recently as an opportunity to highlight environmental issues. Now it’s our turn.
Write, write, write! 
To create our Tu B’Shvat seder in Boston, we liberally borrowed (giving full credit in the written hagode) and added our own spin here and there, while sifting and shaping the raw materials into a flowing, logical sequence:

  • Our four questions explain the holiday and delve into our other major themes: What is Tu B’Shvat? What does it have to with olive trees in Palestine? What does it have to do with the environment? What lessons and actions can we take from our Tu B’Shvat celebration?
  • Four traditional cups of wine: The first is white for winter, the second is white blended with a little red, the third is red blended with a little white, and the fourth is red. Each cup of wine is successively more red to suggest the progression from winter to spring, from potential to growth.

Our hagode offers some poetic lines with each cup, such as: “We are grateful for the sun, the earth, and rain that ripens fruit on the vines, as we weave the branches of our lives into traditions old and new.”

  • Ritual foods: The kabbalists ate different foods to represent what they called the “four processes of creation” — asiya (action), yetsira (formation), beria (creation), atsilut (emanation).  For our secular seder, we adapted these ideas to our own needs.

Asiya is represented by fruit with tough shells on the outside for solid protection, such as pomegranates and oranges. Fruits that are strong on the outside and sweet on the inside can represent our own sweat and efforts to build a better world.
Yetsira is represented by fruit with pits to protect the heart of the fruit, such as dates and olives. The pits, far from being a useless by-product, can represent our planting of seeds and our sharing of values with others and with the next generation.
Beria is represented by fruits with no shells or pits, such as figs. Such fruits, which have no protection inside or out, can represent peace, which is also fragile and requires great care and attention.
Atsilut was an ethereal force to the kabbalists, but can be embodied, perhaps, by the scent of a fragrant fruit (citrus, for example), which delights and benefits the soul.
Our hagode also sprinkles in bits of rabbinic wisdom, such as:

  • Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai: “If you are planting a sapling and you are told the Messiah is here, finish planting the sapling and then go greet the Messiah” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan).
  • Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaryah: “One whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds is like a tree with many branches but few roots: the wind comes and plucks it up and overturns it . . . But one whose good deeds exceed his wisdom is like a tree with few branches but many roots: even if all the winds in the world come and blow upon it, it cannot be uprooted. May our learning lead to good deeds which improve our world” (Avot de-Rabbi Natan).
  • A Talmudic story is told about Honi, who saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asks, “How long will it take this tree to bear fruit?” The man replies, “Seventy years. I myself found fully grown carob trees in the world when I was born; as my forebears planted for me, so I am planting for my children” (Taanit 23a).

We also welcome wisdom from other traditions:

  • Bill Vaughn: “Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them.”
  • Rabindranath Tagore: “Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.”
  • John Muir: “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.”
• Mahmoud Darwish: “If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears.”

Sing, sing, sing!

For me, the sure path to an uplifting, even spiritual, experience is singing in a community. As Pete Seeger says, “When one person taps out a beat while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope in the world.”
Possible songs for Tu B’Shvat include the Yiddish songs “Di Verbe” (“The Willow”), about a big wise willow tree that knows all, and “Zing Shtil” (“Sing Quietly”), about finding a lovely melody in our hearts, in the fields, hidden deep in the woods. Appropriate Hebrew songs include Lo Yisa Goy (“And everyone ’neath their vine and fig tree shall live in peace and unafraid”) and Tu-Tu-Tu-Tu-Tu-Tu-B’Shvat. There’s also Harry Belafonte’s “Turn The World Around,” Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” (“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”), and Pat Humphries’ “Peace Salaam Shalom.”
Gather the community to celebrate 

We sent out a call for volunteers to help publicize the event, set up chairs and decorations, and organize the food (potlucks are always a hit around here). Volunteering is always a two-way street, with the volunteer doing a mitsve (a good deed) and getting a strengthened sense of community in return, including the inner feelings of satisfaction and well-being that come with doing good works and contributing to something larger than yourself.
Our plan is to sit in a circle and take turns going around the room reading our brand-new Tu B’Shvat Hagode aloud.  We will ask participants to share a favorite memory or story about trees. We will read, sing, eat, learn, enjoy, connect, and raise some tsedoke (charity) for a couple of good causes. We will celebrate one more holiday in the annual cycle in our community, and perhaps be inspired to action.
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The Gematria of Tu B’Shvat 

Tu B’Shvat” means the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat. Jewish numbers are represented by Hebrew letters: alef = 1, beyz = 2, giml = 3, etc.  Once we hit 10 (yud), we continue to use yud to get to the next set of numbers: yud (10) plus alef (1) = 11, yud (10) plus beyz (2) = 12, etc. When we get to 15, however, yudhey (10 plus 5) starts to spell out the “name of God” (YHWH), which is prohibited in Jewish tradition. The problem is cleverly circumvented by creating 15 out of 9 plus 6, or tesvov, or Tu. Such numerology is also related to why the word khay (life) and the number 18 are interconnected in Jewish culture, because khay is spelled khesyud (8 plus 10).
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Linda Gritz chairs the ritual committee in Boston Workmen’s Circle, always looking for ways to express our secular progressive values rooted in yidishkayt.