Tu B’Shevat – New Year for Trees

February 7-8, 2012
January 25-26, 2013
15th day of the month Shevat

The evolution of this holiday is a bit unusual. In ancient times Tu B’Shevat wasn’t really a “holy day” at all, but more of a tax day. Fruit-bearing trees were taxed differently depending on their age. And fruit could not be taken until after the tree’s third year. The fifteenth day of the month of Shevat was chosen as the “birthday” for all trees in the land of Israel, regardless of when they were planted.

Lone Pine, Monterey
Lone Pine, Monterey, California

Today it is celebrated as more of an Arbor Day for the Jewish people.

The is no one way to celebrate Tu B’Shevat.

In Italy Rabbi Barbara Aiello and her congregation bring green plants to the residents of a local retirement home, to bright up the rooms.
In Modiin, Israel a kindergarten class plants trees.

Many Jewish families around globe have a special “sedar” or meal on Tu B’Shevat. Four types–or colors really–of wine are consumed during the sedar, as well as different types of fruit.

In the Kabbalah tradition the fruits symbolize different levels of the world:

  • 1. assiyah, the level of “action,” is symbolized by fruits with an inedible shell, such as nuts. The inside represents holiness, protected by the outer shell.
  • 2. yezirah, the level of “formation.” This level is represented by fruits with edible outsides and pits on the inside.
  • 3. beriah, the level of “creation,” is symbolized totally edible fruits, such as apples, grapes, figs, and raspberries.
  • 4. atzilut, the purest level is known as “emanation,” and is not symbolized by fruit or anything for that matter, as it cannot be represented by anything concrete.

In modern times Tu B’Shevat has been adopted by the environmental movement, and a sort of Earth Day culture has developed around it. The modern tradition of planting trees goes back to 1884 when settlers in Galilee planted 1500 trees. Today it is common for schoolchildren in Israel to do the same.
Another reason Judaica may have latched onto the holiday tighter in diaspora than originally in Israel, was the representation of the tree and tree’s roots as symbols for the roots of the Jewish people back in the Holy Land, and fruit symbolic of the Jewish family and future yet to be realized. The theme of genealogy and family grew to be of fundamental importance during the eras of exile. Tu B’Shevat’s imagery of trees and land tapped into the scattered people’s longing for a faraway homeland.

The blessing for the fruit is:

Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech Haolam, borei pri ha’eitz.

“Blessed are You Adonai, our God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth the fruit of the tree.”

Tu B’Shevat begins, as all Jewish holidays, at sun-down and continues the next day.


“So this Rabbi and a tax collector walk into a temple…”

Yes, this has all the makings of a great joke, but it’s actually Luke 18:10. Eastern Orthodox Churches recall the story of the Pharisee and the Publican today, the fourth Sunday before Easter. A different section of the New Testament is read each weekend during Lent.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

The first parable of the Triodion (literally, ‘three odes’) stresses humility before oneself and before God…

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men—thieves, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all that I possess.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Father George Morelli compares Lent to “a boot camp refresher course that we take each year so Christ’s teachings can be better lived in us…”

Next weekend churches focus upon the Return of the Prodigal Son and the Commemoration of the Dead.

The following weekend: the Last Judgment and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve.

Luke 18 is also the chapter where Jesus is asked:

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.”

“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.

When Jesus heard this he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

from Priscilla

(World’s Largest Needle in Milan, Italy)

Well, we’ve got the needle. All we need is a man rich enough to clone a foot-tall dwarf camel!

Don’t laugh. You know some billionaire out there is trying right now…

Four Chaplains: This Side of Heaven

“the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven”

February 3

A priest, a rabbi, and two ministers set out to sea to fight the Nazis.

This is not a joke, but the beginning of a sad but inspiring story of four chaplains who are remembered today as, aptly, the Four Chaplains.

George Fox
George Fox

George Fox was the eldest, a 42 year-old WWI veteran who had become a Methodist Minister at age 34. He joined the Army Chaplain Service the same day his teenage son joined the Marines.

Alex Goode
Alex Goode

Alex Goode, a Brooklyn-born Rabbi in Pennsylvania, studied at Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College before earning a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. He joined the Army Chaplains in 1942, leaving behind his wife and 3 year-old daughter

Clark Poling
Clark Poling

Clark Poling, was born in Ohio and grew up in Massachusetts and Poughkeepsie. He studied in Michigan and at Rutgers before getting his B.D. at Yale’s Divinity School. The young Dutch Reformed Pastor told his father, a WWI Chaplain, that he didn’t want to sit the war out in the shelter of the church. His father told him that in WWI chaplains had the highest mortality rate of all. “You just can’t carry a gun to kill anyone yourself.”

John Washington
John Washington

The fourth chaplain was Father John Washington. As an Irish Catholic Priest, he was the only unmarried, childless chaplain of the four. He grew up in a poor immigrant family and was even in a gang as a youth, but received a calling from God, and was ordained in 1935. The bespectacled Washington joined Fox, Goode, and Poling at the Harvard Chaplain School, and the four developed a strong friendship.

USAT Dorchester

In January, 1943 they boarded the U.S.A.T. Dorchester bound for Europe. With over 900 passengers, mostly soldiers and few civilians, the ship was 150 miles from Greenland when it entered the waters known as “torpedo junction”. During the voyage, the four worked together to ease the fears of the men. Priest, Minister, and Rabbi offered prayers to soldiers of all faiths, not just their own.

The evening of February 2, the Captain instructed the soldiers to wear their life vests. Most however didn’t take the warning to heart. On February 3, the Dorchester was struck by a German torpedo, killing about 100 men instantly.

The ship began sinking in minutes. In the chaos, most lifeboats floated away or capsized. The four chaplains directed the men, urged hope, established a sense of order, and helped men into the lifeboats. When the lifeboats were gone, the four chaplains handed out life vests to the men.

When the life vests were gone, the four chaplains, without hesitation, each removed their own, and gave them out to the men, thus ensuring their own demise.

The Four Chaplains sunk with the Dorchester, along with over 600 men. Survivors recalled the last thing they saw on the ship was the four chaplains aboard the sinking ship, still encouraging the men with prayer and song…

“Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

“Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad.” [Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.]

The 8,000 chaplains of the U.S. military during World War II earned 2,453 high medals. Though none could receive the Medal of Honor because of its special qualifications, a medal was created as its equal specifically for the Four Chaplains.

John Ladd, a survivor of the Dorchester, recalled the actions of the four chaplains atop the sinking ship as “the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”

For this reason, February 3 is celebrated as Four Chaplains Day among military members and interfaith groups across the United States. The Sunday nearest is remembered as Four Chaplains Sunday.



February 3

Once a year in Japan, the land of order and politeness, it is considered perfectly acceptable behavior for children to hurl beans and peanuts at their classmates without reprimand.

That day is today, Setsubun, or Lunar New Year, and understandably, kids more than anyone carry on the tradition. Though Setsubun lacks the weight it commanded back in the 8th century, many Japanese do not let this day pass without tossing at least a few legumes inside and outside for good luck.

Mame Maki, the aforementioned bean-throwing activity, is meant to ward off evil spirits for the coming year. People scatter beans on the ground or toss them at imaginary Oni (roughly, demons or ogres) while yelling:

“Oni wa Soto, Fuku wa Uchi!”

(It looks and sounds worse than it is.) It’s pronounced Foo-koo, so watch your tongue, and it translates to:

“Get out, Demon/Ogre! Come in, Good Luck/Happiness!”

Mame Maki bears resemblance to the tradition at Western weddings of throwing rice grains to represent fertility.

don't try this at home
(re-enactment: don't try this at home)

Like American children on Halloween, Japanese schoolchildren wear Oni masks to represent the demons while their peers gleefully pelt them with beans and nuts, as an American schoolteacher in Japan describes here.

Traditionally soybeans have been the projectile of choice, but recently peanuts have been picking up steam. Both are sold in stores in small packets.

Another tradition is to eat the number of beans of your age today, plus one for the coming year.

This evening families eat a special thick sushi called futomaki, or hutomaki.

What you need to make: Ingredients

What you do to make: Directions

And they eat while facing a “lucky” direction–which differs each year.

Other ways to ward off the demon include piercing the head of a sardine with a holly branch and hanging it in a doorway.


Also, celebrities born under the current year’s zodiac sign (ie. 12 year-olds, 24, 36, 48…) can be seen on TV performing Mame Maki pubicly.

Setsubun means “division of the season.” There are four setsubun, throughout the year but the one celebrating the changing of winter into spring has always been the most auspicious. Similar to the Indian Makar Sankranti festivals and Celtic Imbolc, which both mark the coming of Spring.

Prior to 1873 Japan used a luni-solar calendar of 355 days. Every few years an inter-calaria month of 30 days was added to keep the lunar calendar in line with the solar.

After Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873, the spring festival began to wane, as Japan began celebrating New Year’s with the rest of the Gregorian world on January 1.

Setsubun used to be celebrated on the second full moon after the solstice. It now occurs every February 3.

Setsubun Protest 2010: Luck in! Peace in! Military bases out!

Candlemas & Presentation of Christ

February 2

February 2 marks the sacred day in ancient Jerusalem when Jesus’s woodchuck poked its head out of the ground and declared six more weeks of Imbolc.

Wait, no, so is Groundhog Day the modern equivalent of the Purification of Mary? Is Candlemas a pagan holiday? And how often is Puxasawquantalahacwney Phil the Prognosticating Groundhog right?

According to Christian tradition, Candlemas (February 2nd) falls 40 days after Christmas, and marks the day Mary and Joseph took their 40 day-old baby Jesus to the temple for presentation and purification, as the Jewish laws of the time commanded:

A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremoniously unclean for 7 days…

Then the woman must wait 33 days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over.” – Leviticus 12

Count ’em. 33 +7 = 40. Of course, this assumes Jesus was born on December 25, but that’s another story.

Luke 2:22 describes Mary’s purification ceremony:

When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord…”

where the devout Simeon beheld the 5 week-old baby and proclaimed:

“Mine eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”

The first recorded commemoration of the event comes from the famous globe-trotting 4th century nun Etheria (also Egeria) on her trek to Jerusalem. She writes:

The 40th day after the Epiphany is undoubtedly celebrated here with the very highest honor, for on the day there is a procession, in which all take part…and all things are done in their order with the greatest joy, just as at Easter. All the priests preach, and after them the bishop, always taking for their subject the part of the Gospel where Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple on the 40th day, and Symeon and Anna the prophetess…saw Him..and of that offering which His parents made.”

Note that according to Etheria the ceremony was known only as “40th day after the Epiphany,” not “40th day after the birth.” And it was celebrated on February 14 rather than February 2nd.

The changing of the date and the emphasis on “Purification of the Virgin” came when the holiday was celebrated in Rome.

The Romans considered February the “month of purification,” named after Februus, the god of death and purification. The Lupercalia in the middle of the month, dedicated to the founder of Rome, was a holiday of purification. (The middle of the months were the most auspicious days for the Romans. Originally the full moon marked the middle, or “Ides” of the month while the new moon marked the beginning and end of each month.)

Egeria’s 4th century description of Jerusalem’s annual celebration gives creed to the theory that the Presentation/Purification was not “invented” to stem other pagan holidays; however, its popularization and transformation in the West into Candlemas may have been a response to the pagan festivals of Europe.


Candlemas represents the day the priest would bless the candles to be used throughout the year. Originally…

“Roman Christians borrowed the practice of using candles in the religious services from the Romans, and in AD 494 Pope Gelasius I set the day of the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary at the time of the popular Lupercalia.”

All Around the Year, Jack Santino

Scott Richert writes:

“Originally, the feast was celebrated on February 14, the 40th day after Epiphany (January 6), because Christmas wasn’t yet celebrated as its own feast, and so the Nativity, Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, and the feast celebrating Christ’s first miracle at the wedding in Cana were all celebrated on the same day. By the last quarter of the fourth century, however, the Church at Rome had begun to celebrate the Nativity on December 25, so the Feast of the Presentation was moved to February 2, 40 days later.”

On February 2 though the festival now competed with the Celtic Imbolc (or Oimelc) on February 1 and 2. A candle would be lit in every window to honor the Mother Goddess Brigit who was associated with fire.

In the 1970s the Catholic Church changed the name to the “Presentation of Christ in the Temple,” reducing the emphasis on Mary’s purification.

But in Latin American and some European countries the holiday still refers to the Virgin Mary:

Peru, Bolivia: Fiesta de la Virgen de la Candelaria
Brazil: Festa de Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes Porto Allegre
Germany: Maria Lichtmess

Wilson’s Almanac February 1

Wilson’s Almanac February 2


the 1st of February belongs to Brigid…

February 1 or 2

Brigid was a Celtic goddess whose festival was celebrated on February 1st and 2nd. Brigid’s Day, or Imbolc, heralded the middle of Winter and anticipated the coming of Spring. It was a festival of purification. (The word February itself comes from the Latin Februus, the god of purification and the dead.)

The Catholic church has been at odds with Brigid’s legacy for most of its existence. The bishops of Ireland found the goddess’s pagan following to be too deeply embedded in local tradition to be stomped out. Even the newly-converted Irish Christians refused to stop worshipping their exalted patroness. The Church decreed, If you can’t win ’em, join ’em. Brigid became Saint Brigid.

Over the centuries two Brigids emerged. One Brigid was transformed into Mary’s “midwife” at the birth of Jesus. (The position of Jesus’s mother was taken.)

In the other the she became the daughter of a Druid father ( and in some stories of a Christian mother from Portugal kidnapped by pirates!) and was named after the Celtic goddess. She lived from 451 to 525. She was known for her generosity as a young woman, and devoted herself to God, deflecting proposal after proposal from eligible suitors. She was baptized by St. Patrick himself and became a devout nun and Abbess, eventually founding the Abbey at Kildare in the 5th century.

St. Brigid of Kildare

In the Celtic tradition the Abbey at Kildare is believed to have preceded the so-called Saint herself. It was an ancient shrine to the Goddess before Christianity ever reached the Emerald Isle. There priestesses kept alight an eternal flame at the shrine until the 1220s when a Bishop, angered by the Abbess’s ‘no men allowed’ policy and the Druidic rituals, ordered the sacred flame to be put out.

The last insult to Brigid was her expulsion from the list of Saints in the 1960s. During Vatican II she was decanonized due to insufficient proof of her existence, after volumes of creative embellishment written about the supposed nun’s life and deeds over the centuries.

Brigid is affiliated with wisdom, healing, metal-work or craftmanship, flames and fire, and childbirth, even though she was a virgin in the Christian tradition.

In The Goddess Path: Myths, Invocations & Rituals Patricia Monaghan writes:

When we face the possible end of a relationship, when our bills are higher than the tiny resources we have, when we are emotionally drained by negative working conditions–it is all too easy to cling to what we have known previously…Brigid tells us otherwise…transformation is the only way to survive.

Likewise Imbolc is the transformation of winter into spring.

…the day on which you assume a new name; the day on which you pledge to make specific changes in your life. [Imbolc] could be thought of as a kind of goddess-specific New Year’s Eve.

In writing of St. Brigid, the Catholic Patroness of Ireland, (1907) Joseph Knowles notes:

St. Brigid received from her people a worship which history accords no other saint…She was the light that shone over their Island to direct the footsteps of the daughters of Erin in the paths of virtue and sanctity. In speaking of her they discarded the prefix Saint, and called her, in homely, yet reverent fashion, “Mo Brighe”–or “My Bride.

Note how Knowles reverses the carry-over from Brigid’s pre-Christian goddesship.

In the British Isles Brigid’s Feast and Imbolc merged with Candlemas. Both involves the ancient druidic lighting ceremony and purification rites, originally meant to honor Brigid. Some calendars list February 1 as Imbolc, others February 2. Most likely the celebration began on the evening of February 1 and concluded the following day, as was the tradition of the time.

On Brigid’s Day, Selena Fox, author of Lore and Riutals recommends:

“Do a self purification rite with Elemental tools–

cleanse your body with salt (Earth)

your thoughts with incense (Air)

your will with a candle flame (Fire)

your emotions with water (Water)

and your spiritual body with a healing crystal (Spirit)

Bless candles that you will be using for rituals throughout the year.

Invoke Brigid for creative inspiration.

Take a Nature walk and look for the first signs of Spring.”

One ritual of Brigid’s Day was to plant or hang straw cross from the previous year’s harvest around the outside of the house and in the rafters in honor of the goddess of flame, to protect the house from fire. “An odd gesture,” writes Patricia Monaghan, “for a collection of old straw ornaments in the attic seems to encourage, rather than prevent, house fires.

Brigid and her Cross

(Brigid’s Cross)

On Imbolc 1993 the Brigidine Sisters of Ireland relit the Kildare flame.

Brigid resources:

Brigid: the Goddess Who Wouldn’t Die

Brigid: the Survival of a Goddess

St. Brigid

Brigit or St. Brigid?

Brigid of the Celts

Brigit the Exalted One


Brigid’s Day Celebration

Brigid’s Day Foods

Imbolic Customs and Lore

Saraswati: Original Supermom

5th day of the month of Magh

January 28, 2012

“India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe’s languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all”.

Will Durant, The Case For India

In many religions throughout history women have been associated with wisdom and knowledge, which doesn’t explain why men have generally run the place, but may explain the state into which they’re run it.

The Greek goddess of wisdom was Athena. In the Gnostic tradition that honor belonged to Sophia, Mother of Creation, who is the root of our word sophistication. In Judaism it was Eve, not Adam, who ate first from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And in Christianity all the virtues, including Prudence are personified as women.

But in Hinduism, which influenced all of the above, the goddess of wisdom, arts, and learning is Saraswati. Saraswati is among other things the consort of Brahma, the god of creation.


In typical supermom style, Saraswati has four arms, all of which are full. Each arm symbolizes one of the four components of the human personality with regards to learning: mind, intellect, alertness and ego. She gracefully juggles a sacred manuscript in one hand, a rosary in another, and with the other two she plays music of life and love on a stringed instrument known as a veena. She is usually pictured sitting atop a lotus flower, with a peacock or a swan by her feet.

On the fifth day of the fortnight after the new moon of Magh, Hindus celebrate Vasant Panchami, to worship the Goddess Saraswati. It falls in late January or early February.

On this day young schoolchildren learn their first words, in honor of the goddess of learning, knowledge and speech.

Saraswati is invoked as a muse by artists conducting creative endeavors. In olden times Saraswati was invoked prior to a play by theater managers who prayed for the quick and articulate tongues of their actors.

“India has two million gods, and worships them all. In religion all other countries are paupers; India is the only millionaire.”

Mark Twain

Could it Happen Again?: Holocaust Remembrance

January 27

Today the UK and Germany remember the Holocaust of World War II when 6 million Jews were killed in concentration camps across Europe, along with untold numbers of Roma, communists, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped, and political prisoners.

January 27th marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. It is estimated that as many Jews were slaughtered at this one camp than remain on the entire European Continent today.

To this day the Jewish population has never reached its pre-1939 numbers.

Berlin Holocaust Museum Memorial
Berlin Holocaust Museum

It’s easy to be tolerant in times of prosperity.

In better times Hitler may not have appealed to the Germans. But in times of scarce resources the search for a scapegoat as a possible way out was too appealing. The illusion Hitler sold was that Jews were responsible for the recession. The reality was that the seizure of Jewish assets and property meant “free money” for the rest of the nation. It was an offer too good for the Germans to pass up, even if it meant the “dehumanizing” of a minority.

Could it happen in America?

It would take a major catastrophe.

In the days after 9/11, though not widely reported in American media, hate crimes were committed against Muslims for no reason other than their religion. A Sikh man in Arizona was killed simply because he looked Muslim.

The nation waited for the speech in which the President made it clear to the public that Muslims in America are Americans, entitled to the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And that violence against anyone based on their religion is contrary to the American way of life.

The speech never came. In the crusade against evil, preventing hate crime was not on the top of the agenda.

The weapons of hate aimed at one minority today can and will be used more effectively against others tomorrow, whether they be Jewish, Muslim, Hispanic, Mormon, Catholic, Socialist, or Scientologist…<

As a pastor in Germany once wrote:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

[Note: in the Washington DC inscription at the Holocaust Museum, the “Communist” line is not included.]

Former Indonesian President Suharto, the genocidal architect responsible for the killing of 183,000 East Timorese, a quarter of East Timor’s population, died earlier today [2008].

His obituary reads: Suharto Leaves Legacy of Stability in Region. In some places ethnic cleansing still falls under stability.
And “Never Again” is an ongoing struggle.

What is Holocaust Memorial Day?


In Pictures: Holocaust Memorial Day

[published January 28, 2008]