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Lewyn Addresses America

A little politics, a little urbanism- I also blog 100 percent on urbanism at and

Before we begin our Tu’b’Shevat seder, let me explain a bit about what Tu’b’Shevat is.

Tu’b’Shevat is the 15th of the month of Shevat, the middle of the Jewish month of Shevat.   Why is this date significant?  The rabbis of the Mishna and the Talmud chose it as the new year for the trees.

Why do trees need your own new year? Essentially, for tax purposes.  The Torah says you can’t eat from fruit trees during the first three years of their life.  In the fourth year, you pay a tithe or tax on them, using the fruits in Temple ceremonies.  In deciding what year a tree was (so to speak) born, you use Tu’b’Shevat as your guideline- that is, if the tree was planted after Tu’b’Shevat it was born in the new year, and if it was planted before it was born in the old year, which means you could pay taxes on it a year earlier and start using it a year earlier.

In the 16th century, mystics living in the land of Israel created a special meal for this holiday, the Tu’b’Shevat Seder.   Because this seder is too new to have become required by Jewish law, we have a lot more flexibility in creating a Tu’b’Shevat seder than for most Jewish rituals. However, there are certain elements that are common to nearly all such seders: it is customary to discuss four different worlds (sometimes defined mystically, sometimes defined in other ways).  It is also customary to use four different types of wine, and four different types of fruit.  (For a longer, mystically oriented, Orthodox Seder go here; for an aggressively environmentalist version go here; for a Conservative Zionist verson go here; for the version I based this seder on go here).

Accordingly, I have decided to create an urban planning seder, designed to acknowledge not just the bounty of nature but the interaction of man and nature.  My four worlds are the four different types of environments- some of which have very few trees, some of which have lots of trees.

What I am going to try is to use both the four cups and the four fruits to symbolize a progression from most intense to least intense, but in different ways- the wine cups will start with undeveloped rural land and become more urbanized, and the fruits will go in the other direction.

We begin with the first cup of wine, which traditionally symbolizes winter, when many trees are dead and the earth seems lifeless.  And yet God’s energy infuses this winter with initial life.  From a planning perspective, winter means rural, undeveloped land; there is some life, but not yet any people- and not even many trees either during the winter.  Many urban planners have created something called the Transect, which lists the types of development from most intese to least intense; this cup of wine symbolizes T1 and T2, where land is essentially rural.

In honor of winter, we begin with white wine, and say the blessing over wine:

Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech haolam, borei prei hagefen.  Blessed are you, sovereign of the universe, who has created the fruit of the vine.

Then we begin with the fruits.  First, I’d like to give some language from the Torah about fruit, and about nature.

Reader: For ____ our God is bringing you into a good land.  A land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths springing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land wherein you shall eat without scarceness, you shall not lack anything in it; a land whose stones are iron and out of whose hills you may dig brass. And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless God for the good land,,which is given to you (Deut. 8:7-10).

Now we start with the first fruit, which is traditionally hard on the outside, such as various forms of nuts.  At a theological level, the hard shell can symbolize the protection that the earth gives us.   From a planning perspective, the hardness of nuts sounds a lot to me like the urban core where I live now, which to many people seems hard on the outside.  In the transect, the urban core is T6.  Just as the earth protects us in more obviously natural rural areas, it protects us in T6 as well.  And in the world of religious reality, T6 need not be a purely secular place, it seems to me that in ancient Jerusalem, the Temple was essentially T6, the heart of the city.

Before eating these nuts we say the blessing over all fruit:

Baruch ata adonai, eloheinu melech haolom, borei pri ha-aytz.  Blessed are you, Source of all life, creator of the fruit of the tree.

(Eat a few nuts).

Now we come to the second cup of wine.  This cup is mostly white with a little red mixed in, to symbolize the passing of the seasons and the concept of formation and birth.  From a planning perspective, this may symbolize the initial development of a place; imagine New York in the 1600s, turning from pure nature into a small town where people where starting to live.

(Say blessing again, Drink second cup)

Before we start talking about fruits again, we read a Torah verse mentioning people and agriculture and cities.

Reader: Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field.  Blessed shall you be in the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your land, and the fruit of your cattle, and the young of your flock.  Blessed shall you be in your basket and your kneading trough.  Blessed shall you be when you come in and blessed shall you be when you go out (Deut. 28:36).

Now we come to the second fruit.  This fruit is soft with a pit in the center.  This fruit can symbolize the life-sustaining power emanating from the hard rock at the center of the earth, or the spiritual strength within us.  From an urban perspective, it symbolizes what the transect calls T5, an urban but somewhat more low-key neighborhood:  a place that is still part of the city and is full of buildings (and thus has an element of hardness) but where you start to see more trees and low-rise housing, a place that is a little less of a business district and a little more of a neighborhood.  I think of the commercial and high-rise streets of such a neighborhood as the pit, and the residential streets as the soft fruit. So for example, in New York’s Upper West Side, the hard, peach pit of the neighborhood is the major commercial streets like Amsterdam and Broadway that are full of buildings T6 – but these streets intersect with the soft streets, the numbered residential streets that have more trees.

(Say blessing again, eat second fruit)

Then we come to the third cup of wine. The third cup is mostly red with a little white mixed in, symbolizing the change of seasons into spring.  From an urban perspective, the village is becoming a city, with buildings becoming taller at the center, and tree-lined residential streets cropping up in all directions- I think of New York in the 1800s, or Atlanta at the dawn of the 20th century.

(Say blessing again, drink 3rd cup)

Now we read a Torah passage about the birth of life:

Reader: Then God formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into the nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living soul (Gen. 2:7).

Now we come to the third fruit.  This fruit is soft throughout and is completely edible.  From a theological perspective, this might symbolize our own ties with the earth and with God, which are everywhere like the fruit’s softness.

From an urban perspective, this is T4- the streetcar-created suburbs of generations past, general urbanism like BrooklynHeights and Park Slope and Boston’s Brookline and Jacksonville’s Riverside.  These places somehow seem softer and more relaxed to me; yes, they are parts of big cities, but the tree-lined streets are the public face of the neighborhood in a way that they aren’t in Manhattan.

(Say blessing again, eat 3rd fruit).

Now we come to the fourth and last cup of wine, which is all red.  A mystical seder would treat this as the mystical concept of fire and the idea that within all living things dwells a cup of God.  A naturalist perspective treats it as the heat of summer.

From an urbanist perspective, I think of the evolution of my small city into a major metropolitan area, which to me is like a fire.  Like a fire, the city, if mismanaged, can become an all-consuming, scary place- whether through violence as in Detroit, or through pollution as in the automobile-choked sprawl of Los Angeles. But going back to Jerusalem, the city can be the place of purity and holiness as well.   Just as the burning bush that Moses looked it did not consume itself, the fire need not consume us.

(Say blessing, drink 4th cup).

Now we read a Torah passage about fire:

Reader: And the angel of God appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush and Moses looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire and the bush was not consumed (Exodus 3:2).

Now we go to the fourth and last fruit.  This has a tough skin on the outside but sweet fruit within.  From a theological perspective, this can symbolize the mystery of the world and the study of Torah.  We constantly seek to uncover its secrets and are nourished by its fruits.  From an urbanist perspective, this symbolizes T3, or the suburbs.  The suburbs can be very tough places if mismanaged; they can become just as car-choked and ugly as any big city, and in the United States usually are.   On the other hand, a walkable, tree-lined suburban neighborhood, a place like Great Neck or Cedarhurst or Orlando’s Winter Park, can be a pretty beautiful place.

(Say blessing, eat fruit).

finally, we say the blessing after eating fruit (borei nefashot

A common environmentalist theme is that we are all benefactors of the good earth that is ours and therefore responsible to preserve it. Secularists may think that this has nothing to do with religion, but believers see the land as a gift from God the Creator and view themselves as partners with the Creator in the work of creation.

Precisely because we are partners in the work of creation, the built environment is just as much part of creation as the natural environment.  And thus, we are responsible for preserving and improving what we build, just as we are responsible for what nature provides directly. That is part of what Tu’Bishvat should mean to us today, and why all of this matters.

And with this we end our Tu’b’Shevat seder.  Whether we are in city or country, urban core or suburb, may we minimize the toughness of our lives and maximize the sweetness.

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