People who are accustomed to follow the kabbalistic Seder of fruits and wine on Tu B’Shvat organize their (thirty) fruits according to certain criteria. There are three intersecting (and somewhat conflicting) scales of measure.
(The Intrinsic) Scale of Klipa
This scale measures an innate feature of the fruit itself—the amount, placement, and intensity of its klipah (the inedible skins and pits attached to the fruit). In mystical texts, klipa is the skin or shell that surrounds each sliver of soul (be it human, animal, plant or mineral) and marks it out from every other, producing the illusion of multiplicity when really there is only One. We’ll call this the Scale of Klipa. At its lowest end are fruits with inedible skins or shells that must be removed to access the fruit. The next rung up are those with inedible pits or seeds hidden within. And finally at the top of the scale are fruits that are edible through and through. This hierarchy is a rich subject for observation, contemplation and meditation but it does not have halachic import at the Seder.
(The Objective) Scale of Yichus [i.e., Pedigree]
Next is a Scale of Yichus (you might say), which begins with the seven special fruits indigenous to Israel and continues with the fruits that are mentioned explicitly in the Bible and then, finally those named in the Mishna and Talmud. Status on the Scale of Yichus comes from association with holy writ. And since these texts have varying authority, so do the fruits mentioned therein.
When HaShem promised the land of Israel to the Jewish people, He mentioned seven local edibles by name to prove that this was His most prized real estate.
G d is bringing you to a good land—a land with flowing streams, and underground springs gushing out in valley and mountain. It is a land of wheat, barley, grapes, figs and pomegranates—a land of oil-olives and honey-[dates]. It is land where you will not eat rationed bread, and you will not lack anything…(Deut. 7:6-8).
The rabbis teach that when it comes to raw produce these seven are the most distinguished of all foods. Two are grains and five are fruits. Yet even among them a hierarchy exists. The word land occurs twice in this verse, and the closer a fruit appears to the word, land, the higher its status, and there are real privileges associated with its rank. According to Jewish law a pecking order exists among foodstuffs and we human beings must give honor where it is due.
Looking only at the five fruits, grapes are already 3rd in line from the first mention of land, whereas olives appear immediately after the Holyland’s second mention. Consequently the hierarchy of status with regard to fruits is: 1) olives, 2) dates, 3) grapes, 4) figs, 5) pomegranates.
Everyone knows that Jewish law forbids a person from eating before thanking G-d for the specific food that he or she is about to consume. When a person, with fruit in hand, before partaking, thanks G-d for the produce from fruit-bearing trees, all the other fruits at the table are covered by that blessing though only one was the actual focus of the brocha.
Every fruit hopes to be the one that inspires a blessing and gets tasted first. The spark that is its soul, has slowly made its way up through the ranks, enlivening minerals, now plants, soon animals, then humans and eventually (joyfully) tsadikim. It has, and will, spend painful years, centuries and perhaps even millennia in each kingdom. Yet now it has the chance to ascend many rungs in a single leap, boosted by the merit of instigating a blessing and being the one that gets eaten first. This is a privilege the Code of Jewish Law assigns to fruits based on their rank in the Scale of Yichus.
So now, at a Tu b’Shvat seder, surrounded by thirty delectable fruits: How do you decide which to make the focus of your brocha, for only one out of all those thirty gets the privilege? One opinion is that the five fruits mentioned in the verse above are the elite of the fruit kingdom and must be accorded the honor that is their due. Hashem, Himself has set them apart which makes their superior status uncontestable.
Consequently, when faced with an array of fruits, the honor of being the focus of blessing goes to these five distinguished species, and if there are several present, it goes to the one of highest rank. So if olives are present, the blessing is always said on them.
(The Subjective) Scale of Desirability
But the Code of Jewish Law brings a second opinion which gives primacy to the person’s genuine preference.2 The eater should say the blessing over the fruit that he likes best—the one that she honestly wants to eat first. In the Scale of Desirability the fruit’s rank is in the eyes of its beholder. It rises and falls according to the palette of the one who is about to eat it.
From this perspective, eating is an intimate encounter between a person and his food. It doesn’t make sense to force a person to eat olives first, when really he prefers an apple. This opinion weighs the person’s (subjective) wishes over the fruit’s (objective) yichus. The human’s right of self-determination overrides the aristocratic privileges of the fruit.
The Solution of the Pri Eytz Hadar (Guidebook for Tu B’Shvat Sedarim)
For those who follow the first opinion, everyone at the table would say their blessing-of-gratitude-for-fruit-bearing trees over an olive, and then partake of all the other fruits which were covered by that blessing. Fortunate are the olives that land at such a table on Tu B’Shvat.
For those who follow the second opinion, everyone chooses the fruit that they prefer. Yet even here there is some confusion: Does this mean that they should choose their all-time favorite fruit, or the one that in this moment catches their eye? There are opinions in both directions.
The Pri Eytz Hadar suggests the following practice which honors both values. Each person should pick the fruit that is their favorite, the one that they want to honor with their blessing. Then the Seder proceeds according to the Scale of Yichus. Meaning, in terms of fruit, the olives are distributed and verses are read where olives are mentioned. Then, the person who chose olives as their favorite, says a blessing and eats their olive. But no one else eats olives yet. Then dates are distributed, verses are read, the one who chose dates recites the blessing, and that person can now eat not only dates, but all that came before (in this case, olives). Next the grapes are distributed, verses are read, the one who chose grapes recites the blessing and he or she can now eat all that came before. Everyone else has all these previously blessed fruits on their plate but they have not yet tasted them, for they are waiting till their favorite fruit comes up in the Scale of Yichus which proceeds as follows:
1) Olives 2) Dates 3) Grapes 4) Figs 5) Pomegranate 6) Etrog 7) Apple 8) Walnut 9) Almond 9) Carob 10) Pear 11) Quince 12) Peach 13) Etc.
Not all of these fruits have to be claimed as the favorite by someone at the seder since those who choose fruits later on the list may have to wait quite a while before they partake. It is also fine for more than one person to choose each fruit.
Tu B’Shvat is New Year’s Day for fruit-bearing trees. May it be a year of abundant rain, nutritious soil, conscious pruning, right temperatures, successful pollination, disease and pest resistance, and bountiful harvest for the ilanot of the world. And may our Tu B’Shvat fruit-fest remind us that HaShem loves variety, color, vitality, sweetness and savor. And may we take that truth to heart. And may it change us in ways that serve only good.
1SA 211:1 and MB there (based on TB Brochot 40b, opinion of R. Yehuda in Mishna).
2SA 211:2 and MB there (based on TB Brochot 40b, opinion of Sages in Mishna).
3Pri Eytz Hadar, , Seder Tu B’Shvat (Mansour).