Four Worlds, Four People: Tu Bishvat Seder With Meaning

As a Jewish communal professional working with graduate students, the timeline of my year revolves around a combination of academic calendars, Jewish holidays and exam schedules. In September, many students reach their capacity for newness; between new roommates, new academic challenges and the Jewish New Year, students often experience a lot of turmoil along with the excitement. January once again provides a clean slate of new beginnings, but with a lot less pressure: new semester, the secular New Year, and, in Judaism, Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the trees.

Trees, Earth, and Torah helpful when putting together a Tu Bishvat seder.

It’s against that backdrop that I’ve celebrated the holiday of Tu Bishvat with the Jewish graduate student and young professional community in Philadelphia. On a cold Wednesday night in January, about 30 young adults came together for a seder co-sponsored by Hillel’s Jewish Graduate Student Network (of which I was the director) and the Collaborative. Both organizations sponsor many events of all sizes and styles that cater to local Jews in their 20s and 30s, and both are huge supporters of the work that 18Doors is doing, since interfaith relationships are so central to the lives of many of the people attending our events.

Unlike the Passover seders or Rosh Hashanah dinners I organize each year, the people who attended the Tu Bishvat seder didn’t feel a sense of obligation to be there. I didn’t know anyone who grew up with a sense of guilt or familial responsibility surrounding the birthday of the trees, and in that regard, Tu Bishvat provides the young adult community with a powerful tool to reengage in Jewish learning and Jewish exploration and to take ownership over a Jewish ritual that may be a totally new experience. The people who came did so because they were interested in what Judaism has to say about the environment, in being part of a community, and in trying out something new. Probably knowing about the four cups of wine associated with the seder didn’t hurt either.

The Tu Bishvat seder is organized according to mystical principles, and because it’s not a tradition required by halachah (Jewish law), it’s an opportunity to play with traditional ideas and bring a freedom and a lightness to a tangible Jewish experience. My favorite Tu Bishvat topic is the connection between the “four worlds” around which the kabbalists (spiritual practitioners) organized the seder, and four different personality types. The twenty- and thirty-somethings attending this seder (and, indeed, I would argue, most twenty- and thirty-somethings in any urban American environment) are involved in a process of personal growth and exploration. Relating the physical experience of eating with the emotional experience of self-examination is a powerful tool, and doing so in a Jewish context gives our tradition relevance and modernity.

Compilation of our favorites

These “worlds” (with translations from the Hazon Haggadah) are asiyah (action), yetzirah (formation), b’riyah (formation), and atzilut (spirit), and they correspond to certain types of foods eaten during the seder. Asiyah foods are inedible or hard on the outside, yet soft and edible inside. Yetzirah foods are soft and edible outside, but they have an inedible pit inside. B’riyah foods are edible throughout, and atzilut is such a high spiritual realm that it doesn’t concern food at all. For a young adult who may be faced with daunting choices about career, relationships, and values, relating these foods to different people’s personality types and to different aspects of their own personalities can be delicious and innovative but also deeply revelatory.

What if your new roommate has an asiyah personality, and she is all tough exterior when you first meet, but she has a warm and welcoming inner persona that you have to peel away to discover? What if your co-worker is like yetzirah, gushing all over your performance one day but holding a grudge in her hard innards for a perceived slight you don’t even remember? What if your significant other is b’riyah, pliable and accessible throughout with no protective barrier to protect him from injury? What about those people you encounter who are atzilut, so far outside the physical world that you can’t figure out how to reach them, how to interact, how to get through? Which aspects of these characteristics do you display with your friends, with your families, at home, at work? Which ones do you admire in others? Which do you hope to cultivate in yourself?

Questions like these elevate the seder even beyond a celebration of the environment, even beyond one that already has the potential to be deeply transformative, by making the ritual deeply personal. I wish I could attribute who taught me to look at Tu Bishvat this way, but I don’t remember when I first encountered this approach. What I do know is that it has become ingrained in my way of looking at people and the world. In difficult interpersonal circumstances, I find insight and take comfort in being able to say, “That’s just her yetzirah personality coming through.” Then I go grab a plum or a peach or an olive and think a little more fully about what I’m eating, how I’m acting, and who’s around me.

In addition to this way of looking at the four worlds, in planning the seder I also turned to the Hazon Haggadah and to a beautiful anthology called Trees, Earth, and Torah, both of which I highly recommend to anyone thinking of celebrating Tu Bishvat in any way at all or just looking for some inspiring reading material. Through these resources, some discussion, a bit of singing, and a lot of eating and drinking, participants left feeling like spring might yet come back to the East Coast.

Miriam Steinberg-Egeth

Miriam Steinberg-Egeth is passionate about bringing people together, fostering a cohesive Jewish community and helping individuals find their Jewish paths. She serves in multiple professional roles in the Philadelphia Jewish community, including as the creator and writer of Miriam’s Advice Well for the Jewish Exponent. Miriam lives in Center City Philadelphia with her husband and two children.