Ilana Benson, head of education at Yeshiva University Museum, reflects on the holiday of Tu B’Shevat through a few objects from the Museum’s collection
Keren Kayemet tu B-Shevat Poster, Israel, ca. 1960s.
A few months after Rosh Hashanah, and just days after the “Happy 2016!” signs have fallen and the last pieces of confetti swept from the streets, we find ourselves preparing for the next New Year. The Jewish calendar actually provides for four first days of the “new year” – Rosh Hashanah, the first of Nissan, the first of Elul, and the fifteenth day of Shevat. Similar to the way in which our daily lives follow different calendars – monthly, fiscal, school, etc. – so, too, the Jewish calendar accommodates multiple considerations. By the fifteenth of Shevat (“Tu” is actually the pronunciation of two Hebrew letters, tet and vav with a combined numerical value of 15), it is believed that most of the winter rains have fallen, and that trees will awaken from dormancy to show the first signs of fruit. Tu B’Shevat is especially favored by children, who sing songs and engage in activities - planting trees, eating fruit grown in Israel, etc – that resonate with the holiday – a holiday that often seems incongruous with the actual weather conditions, even in Israel! This 1960’s poster, from Yeshiva University Museum’s collection, shows lively children singing a planters’ song as they happily march with their saplings ready to be placed in the ground. At the very left, another tree stands out – the blossoming almond tree. The same blossoms dot the Hebrew letters silhouetted against the ground, which spell the name of the holiday. The almond tree came to be associated with the holiday because it blossoms earlier than all others – a sign that even though the winter winds still blow, warm weather is on the way.
In the postcard below, from about 1918, the blossoming almond trees in the foreground seem to be reaching their branches out for spring, while the taller trees in the background sway in the wind and the caretaker is dressed for the chill in the air.
Postcard: Almond trees. Published by Moshe Ordmann, Tel Aviv, ca. 1918
In Jewish history and lore, almonds are imbued with special, even magical, powers. As proof that Aaron was appointed High Priest of the Children of Israel, his staff miraculously produced both blossoms and ripe almonds (Numbers 17:23). In the needlepoint tapestry pictured here, his forefather, Jacob, meets Joseph and Pharaoh in Egypt after having sent gifts of spices and almonds from the land of Canaan in order to gain favor with them.
Joseph presenting his father to Pharaoh, needlepoint, late 19th century
So, on this Tu B’Shevat, let us marvel at trees and their gifts of fruit. And, if you’d really like to indulge, reach into a tin from Bartons like this one from our collection for a few classic treats with magical powers of their own – chocolate almond kisses!
Container for Barton's Almond Kisses,
tin, New York, ca. 1950s-1960s