Shvat Is marked by the holiday of Tu B Shvat/ The "New Year of the Trees" in ancient Israel. We now celebrate by enjoying fruits and nuts in a ceremonial " Seder"that focuses ,(with music and meditation ) on the natural elements and protecting the environment.
Our heroine for this month of Sh'vat is Dona Gracia Nasi, born Beatrice Mendes in early 16th century Portugal.As a young widow, she Inherited a vast shipping fortune which she used to save thousands of Jews from the inquisition. She also provided for them with transportation, housing, schools hospitals and synagogues in Turkey and some European countries.
Dona Gracia. was welcomed in Turkey, after turbulent travel through various European countries. She had the vision of returning to “Eretz Yisrael”,then Palestine long before Hertzl and the. Zionist movement. Her philanthropy and financial skills empowered her to take action towards that dream.
It was her longing that the Jews return to their homeland and raise fruits vegetables, and silk worms. Through her connections to the Sultan of Turkey, she was able to purchase a land grant in Israel that stretched from Tiberius to Sfat in the north.
She was already supporting Kabbalistic scholars and others in that area, sustaining them in fabric trade as her fleet of ships transported goods and spices to the European markets. It was also her intention to settle there, and she built a beautiful home in Tiberius near the hot springs on “Sea of Gallilee”/ Lake Kineret. .
it is not clear if she ever made it to the Holy Land as she died i@ 1569 and there is no record of where or exactly when she passed on. There are beautiful eulogies to her in the spring of that year and later, which celebrate her courage and her devout commitment to Judaism.
A very well researched biography of Dona Gracia, by Andree Aelion Brooks, entitled "The Woman who Defied Kings" was published in 2002 It stimulated much renewed interest in this remarkable woman who used her fortune to influence royalty (loaning money to the crown princes of European counties to free her compatriots)
In 2006, following further research, a hotel was dedicated to her in Tiberias, Israel called "The House of Dona Gracia Nasi". It also serves as a museum; displaying scenes from her life in specially created dioramas.
The government of Israel also issued a stamp in her honor, which is displayed above this message.
Rabbi Leah’s recent Tu B’Shvat ceremony will be available soon. Please check this site in March.
Rabbi Leah is a published author, researcher and teacher. Much of her work has focused on the feminine (both divine and human) in Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Leah: Kabbalah by the Sea