Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah
Jewish Celebration of Passover
Counting the Omer and Lag Ba’Omer
Every human culture has particular ways of marking time, calendars and festivals—usually, both feasts and fasts. It is human to seek meaningful ways of marking seasonal changes, the cycles of night and day, anxiety about the agricultural crops, as well as important historical events in the life of a community. Since biblical times, theJewish people has developed its own religious-ethnic culture through its festivals. Since returning to the Land of Israel, Jews have renewed the aspects of the festivals that relate most directly to the land and added days to the calendar that mark more contemporary experiences. Many Israeli Jews are not very observant religiously and have developed their own, more secular ways of observing Jewish holidays.
In one respect the Jewish calendar is similar to the calendar of Muslims—it is, basically, a lunar calendar. The months are lunar months. The beginning of a new Jewish month is called Rosh Chodesh and would coincide with the beginning of a new month on the Muslim calendar. Many Jewish festivals occur on the 15th of the lunar month, which is the night of the full moon. But there is also a major difference between the Jewish and Muslim calendars, which reflects the difference between the earlyHebrews and the first Muslims. A lunar year is only 354 days long (12 x 29.5 days.) A solar year, on the other hand, is 365 days, creating a gap of eleven days. Therefore, the same date on the lunar calendar would occur the following year eleven days earlier on the solar calendar. Within a few years, the same date could be in a different season of the year all together. The month of Ramadan, for example, can happen at any season of the year. One can learn from this that the Muslim feasts are not directly related to the seasonal cycle.
The Jewish calendar, on the other hand, is, as indicated, based on the lunar cycle. However, the Jewish calendar includes the concept of a Leap Year (shanah m’uberet) in which the month of Adar occurs twice, Adar Aleph and Adar Bet. This happens seven times in a nineteen-year cycle and is done so that Pesach will always be in the spring. The Jewish calendar is thus intimately linked with the seasons and the agriculture cycle of the Land of Israel. From these facts, we can see that the respective calendars of Islam and Judaism reflect the fact that the early Muslims were shepherds and nomads in the Arabian Desert, while the early Hebrews were farmers.
The first general exposition of the Jewish calendar can be found in the Bible, Book of Leviticus, Chapter 23. Here one sees that there are essentially two units of festivals in the early Jewish calendar. The first unit, verses 5-22, from Pesach to the festival known as Shavuot, represents the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the dry season. The second unit, verses 24-44, from what came to be known as Rosh Hashanah, to the end of the festival of Sukkot-Sh’mini Atzeret, represents the end of the dry season and the beginning of the rainy season. Traditional Jewish liturgy reflects these facts in the prayers for rain in the winter and dew in the summer.
Two important insights emerge: 1) To this day, traditional Jews throughout the Diasporabase their prayers and festivals around the cycle of rain and dryness in the Land of Israel. 2) Some important Jewish celebrations, such as Chanukah or Purim, are missing from this Biblical chapter. Additionally, some of the names by which the festivals are known today are not mentioned in the Bible. This indicates that the Jewish calendar is an evolving feature of Jewish life, historically. The Bible may provide a foundation, but subsequent generations, particularly the rabbis of the Mishnah and theTalmud, not only added interpretations and elaborations of the Biblical text, but also provided real innovations. The process of developing the festivals is an ongoing one, that involves cultural creativity, both “from the top down”—i.e., through the mandate of rabbinic authorities—as well as “from the bottom up”—i.e., folk culture, customs and traditions. Because of these many generations of development, every festival is multi-layered and represents many values: natural, historical, philosophical, psychological, social-communal, and, of course theological and liturgical.
What has characterized the development of almost all the festivals is, in addition to practices that are done in the synagogue, also those that are followed in each and every Jewish home, often around a festive meal. Since, in the first chapter of Genesis, we see repeated a number of times, “And it was evening, and it was morning,” we can learn from this that the Jewish day begins at sundown the evening before. Thus, most celebrations of Shabbat and festivals begin at sundown and continue into the following day.
In the Hebrew language, six out of the seven days of the week do not have names. They are, rather, “the first day,” “the second day,” and so on, up to “the sixth day.” Only the seventh day has a name—Shabbat, the Sabbath. The root of Shabbat is resting, refraining from work. But the traditional Shabbat is much more than simply a day off.
A comparison of Genesis 2:1-3 (the first Sabbath) with Exodus 20:7-10 (the Commandment to remember the Sabbath), reveals that the Shabbat is an act oftestimony to God’s Creation of the World, as well as a kind of imitatio dei (emulating God’s example of rest.) For traditionally observant Jews, the Shabbat involves a fairly complex series of restrictions on “work,” defined in the Talmud in ways that far exceed what we today might perceive as work—any kind of creative intervention in the natural world. Thus, a religious Jew can not ride, write, cook, handle money, use electrical appliances, speak on the telephone, and do many other things that intuitively don’t seem to involve all that much physical effort. The framework thus created is one of rest and relaxation, but is also infused with sanctity through prayer, Torah study and both home and synagogue rituals.
Secular Israelis, feeling that Shabbat is often their only real day off, may prefer to spend the day on picnics and family trips, or at the beach, when weather permits. Debates over what public services should or should not be open on Shabbat—especially those involving transportation, culture and entertainment—have occasionally become the focal points for vociferous and even, unfortunately, violent struggles in Israeli public life.
Some religiously observant Jews, encountering difficulties in their rigorous observanceof the minutiae of Jewish law, might even turn to a “goy shel Shabbat.” This is a traditional term for a non-Jew who, not obligated in the strict laws of the Sabbath, may help a Jewish neighbor by, for example, turning the electric lights on and off, as needed. Many Jews, however, do not want to make their observance dependent on someone else working, so they try to find other solutions—for example, the use of a pre-set electronic timer. Pioneers in this type of problem-solving have been the religious kibbutzim (many located in the Bet She’an Valley or the Gilboa area), which, for example, have developed pre-timed milking machines to help with the issue of milking cows on Shabbat.
But, apart from the strict laws of what Jews are not supposed to do on Shabbat, there are all the positive commandments and practices. First, there is the matter of preparing for the special day. Most Jewish families, even the less religious ones, clean their homes, shop and prepare the meals, bathe and put on special clothes. Many attend synagogue services at sunset, then come home to a festive family meal. The synagogue service on Friday evening is especially festive, often with much singing of psalms and liturgical poems. The most famous of these is “L’cha Dodi,” a 16th century work which personifies the Sabbath as a Bride.
For some families, this may be the only night of the week when the entire family sits down to a meal together. The Shabbat is inaugurated in the home with candle lighting, and special blessings are said over the wine (Kiddush) and bread, or challot (HaMotzi.). Traditional Jews bless two loaves of bread at each of the Shabbat meals, as a remembrance of the two portions of manna that fell on the sixth day, in preparation for resting on the Sabbath (see Exodus 16:22). Often, special Shabbat songs (Z’mirot) are sung around the table, and the meal may end with singing a festive Grace After Meals. This type of ritual may be repeated the following day at lunch, and, in some cases, also at a third festive meal Shabbat afternoon (Seudah Shlishit.)
Every Jewish community—the Eastern Europeans, the North Africans, the Yemenites, etc.—has its own Shabbat delicacies. But one type of food is common to all: thecholent or hamin, a delicious stew that cooks in its own juices overnight. Because of the prohibition against cooking on Shabbat, Jewish communities throughout the world used to put all sorts of ingredients in a pot on Friday and leave it to cook in the oven until it would be taken out the following day for the noon meal.
The main religious service of the week is held in the synagogue on Shabbat morning, and at its center is the ritual reading of the weekly Torah portion. Some Jews would then spend the rest of the day reading, resting, visiting friends and family. Others may go to the synagogue and then go to a soccer game. But for all Jews in Israel, Shabbatis a special day—it’s the only day that the newspapers aren’t published, there is no school for the children, there is even special cultural programming on the radio and TV (obviously, this isn’t intended for those religious Jews who observe the Shabbatcompletely and wouldn’t turn on their radio or TV.) The 20th century American Jewish philosopher Abraham J. Heschel characterized the Shabbat as “a weekly exercise in profound living.”
The official end of the Shabbat is marked both in the synagogue and in each home with a ceremony called Havdalah (making a distinction). The ceremony, which involves candlelight, wine and spices, expresses our hope that the light, joy and beautiful fragrance of the Sabbath will continue to bless us during the coming week.
The appropriate greeting is Shabbat Shalom, Sabbath peace.
Sources for further Bible study: Exodus 31:12-17, Leviticus 23: 1-3, Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Isaiah 58:13-14, Psalm 92.
Rosh Hashanah literally means “the head of the Year.” However, the association of this name, with the festival celebrated at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Tishrei only dates from Talmudic times. In the Torah, the festival is called both Yom Teruah, “the day of blowing the Shofar,” and Yom HaZikkaron, “the day of remembrance.”
The association of this time of the year with a time of renewal probably goes back toExodus 23:16, when Sukkot, the autumn harvest festival, is identified with “the end of the year,” the intention most likely being the completion of the agricultural cycle. But the creative spirit of the Talmudic Rabbis infused Rosh Hashanah as the New Year with a much deeper meaning—the Day of Judgement, in a process called Teshuvah. That word literally means “response” or “return”, but carries with it a number of other associations, including repentance, renewal and, as some 20th century rabbis and scholars have put it, a kind of re-creation of the Self, in dialogue with God.
There are two Rabbinic traditions as to what actually happened on the first of Tishrei. One says that on that day, God began to create heaven and earth. Part of the liturgyreflects that tradition. But the other ascribes Creation to the 25th of the previous month,Elul. According to this approach, six days later, the first of Tishrei, would mark the creation of Adam, the first human being. That approach puts the life of one human being as equivalent to the whole world and also underscores the universal nature of Rosh Hashanah. The traditional belief holds that all are judged on this day, not just theJewish people.
But for many Jews, Rosh Hashanah is not so much a theological occasion as it is social and familial. Dressed in new clothes, families gather on the first night for a festive meal that includes many sweets, such as apples dipped in honey, expressing the wish for a good and sweet New Year. Many Jews who are not generally synagogue-goers do try to attend at least on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days, or the Days of Awe (Yamim Nora’im in Hebrew.) The highlight of the synagogue service on the mornings of Rosh Hashanah would be the blowing of the ram’s horn. Traditionally, this has a number of symbolic meanings: one is to mark the annual coronation of the Divine King; another is a kind of “wake-up call” for the congregation to repent.
One of the important liturgical themes of this day is Akedat Yitzchak, the Binding ofIsaac, described in Genesis 22, one of the mandated readings for the festival service. At the last minute (verse 13,) a ram was substituted for the human sacrifice. That is the origin of the ram’s horn as a symbol for Rosh Hashanah, the day on which the Binding was supposed to have taken place. Since another reading for the festival is Genesis 21, which describes the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, some contemporary scholars have suggested that one of the major themes for Jewish cheshbon nefesh—introspection, soul-searching, stock-taking—should be with regard to the relationship between the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael. Insh’allah!
The appropriate greeting is Shana Tova—wishing a good year.
Sources for further Bible study: Nehemiah 8
The first ten days of Tishrei, starting with Rosh Hashanah and culminating with Yom Kippur, are known as Aseret Y’mei Teshuva, the ten days of Teshuva. The third day, the day after Rosh Hashanah, is known as Tzom Gedalyah, “the fast of Gedalyah.” Gedalyah was governor of Judah, appointed by the Babylonians after they destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE. He was assassinated by one of his own people (II Kings 25: 23-25.) Traditionally, the fast commemorated this ancient event, marking the end ofJewish self-rule until the return from Babylonian captivity. Recently, some Israeli Jews have associated the fast with the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by a Jewish extremist and have suggested that it might be an appropriate time for a national process of Teshuva to take place.
If the first two days of Tishrei—Rosh Hashanah--were days of judgement, emphasizingGod’s attribute of justice, the tenth day, the Day of Atonement, emphasizes God’s mercy. It is considered to be the most sacred day of the Jewish year. In Israel, this is a day when just about everything shuts down. Even secular Israeli Jews generally refrain from driving on this day and the government-related radio and TV stations do not broadcast for about 30 hours. Since 1973, Yom Kippur has an additional meaning: a memorial for the soldiers who fell in that traumatic war.
The 25-hour fast actually begins with a feast on the eve of the festival, held in the afternoon and known as the Seudah Mafseket. When the fast begins, all of the prohibitions that would normally apply on a Sabbath apply to Yom Kippur, with 5 additional prohibitions: no eating or drinking, bathing, applying fragrant oils, wearing leather shoes and having sexual relations. There are at least four approaches to the meaning of these prohibitions, called in Biblical language “afflicting the soul” (Leviticus 23:27.) One approach says that by not engaging in these normal, everyday activities, we can concentrate better on our Teshuva and prayers. A second approach, based on one of the Biblical readings for the day, Isaiah 57:14-58:14, describes the fast as a day of identification with the poor and the hungry and an exploration of our responsibilities towards those less fortunate than ourselves. The mystics say that by removing ourselves from the workaday world, we become as angels. But the fourth approach, very different from that of the mystics, maintains that precisely by denying ourselves these “earthy” actions, we are most sharply confronting our humanness. In fact, Yom Kippur is seen as a day for reckoning with our own mortality. Many people have the custom on this day of dressing in simple, white garments, thought to represent the shrouds in which they will be buried. A communal confession is also receited, as if worshippers are preparing for their end.
The evening of Yom Kippur is known as Kol Nidre night, in recognition of the singing of the very famous prayer by which the festival is inaugurated. Technically, Kol Nidre isn’t even a prayer at all, but rather a legal formula absolving us of vows we have made in the previous year and been unable to keep and those we will take upon ourselves for the future. The central importance of Kol Nidre (literally, “all the vows”) seems to lie less in the actual words and much more in the haunting melody to which they are traditionally sung.
Many Jews, even those who throughout the year, are not that religiously observant, spend most of the day in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. On a regular weekday, there are three services—evening, morning and afternoon; on the New Moon, Sabbath and festivals, four, but on Yom Kippur, five services over the course of the evening and the next day. The morning liturgy includes a section that recalls the ritual of the High Priestin the Temple in ancient times. During the afternoon service, one of the highlights is reading the book of Jonah, which describes the process of Teshuva of the people of Nineveh, underscoring the universal nature of the concept. (This book is read by manyChristians during Lent.)
The intensity of the prayer builds up to the last moment of the day, when a final blast of the Shofar is blown and the congregation cries out, “Next year in Jerusalem.” In some communities, this is the occasion for spirited dancing, albeit on a (very) empty stomach. The congregants go home for a hearty break-the-fast meal and then begin (or, if they have already begun, continue) to erect and decorate the booth or Sukkah in which they will “dwell” for seven days in the next festival of Tishrei, Sukkot.
The greeting for Yom Kippur is a bit complicated. Although it would not be inappropriate to say Shana Tova or even Chag Sameach, there is a particular greeting especially for this day: G’mar Chattima Tova. This greeting is based on an ancient legend that says that on the High Holy Days, the Almighty sits in heaven, with three books in front of Him. The completely righteous are inscribed immediately for life, while the completely wicked are inscribed immediately for death and destruction. Most people are somewhere in between those two extremes. The book of ones fate is inscribed on Rosh Hashanah but not sealed until Yom Kippur. Ones fate will be determined by his actions during the ten-day period. If one engages in Teshuva, prayer and charity, a negative decree can be averted. So, when one says G’mar Chattima Tova, one is wishing that the person being greeted should be signed and sealed for a good life. Interestingly, even avowed atheists and certainly many people who might reject the somewhat simple theology of that legend would still use the greeting as a tradition.
Sources for further Bible study: Leviticus 16, Isaiah 57:14-58:14, Jonah
Since ancient times, Sukkot has been the most joyous of all the Jewish festivals. It begins on the 15th day of the seventh month, and the first night is generally the first full moon on or after the autumnal equinox. The first reason for joy is the autumn harvest, but upon that basis have been added more layers of meaning.
Sukkot is a time rich with symbols. Perhaps the most obvious is the Sukkah, the booth in which the ancient Hebrews were commanded to “dwell” for seven days. The Biblical text (again, Leviticus 23, verses 42-43) states that the reason for this practice is “that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt….” Again and again, one sees how theExodus from Egypt is the central, defining event in the history of Israel the people.
The rabbis in the Talmud debate whether what is meant is actual booths, or a symbol of the Pillars of Cloud and Fire by which the Lord guided us through our wanderings in the desert. The Sukkah thus symbolizes Divine Providence. Paradoxically, perhaps, it also symbolizes the frailty of human existence. At the harvest—precisely the time when the farmer is inclined to be most sanguine and boastful—we are commanded to leave our permanent, sturdy homes and move into temporary dwellings to keep us ever-mindful ofGod’s bounty and the gift of life. Some people actually sleep in the Sukkah; others merely have their meals there.
Sukkot is a time of much entertaining and fellowship. Probably because of the usually good weather at this time of the year, many families use the opportunity of Chol HaMoed Sukkot for travelling throughout the country. There are many festivals, marches and other events held during this week. Many Israelis make a special visit toJerusalem during this week, in an echo of the ancient pilgrimage.
The second set of symbols is the Arba Minim, “the Four Species,” delineated in Leviticus 23: 40, the palm branch and the citron, the myrtle and the willow. For each of the seven days (except Shabbat), as part of the morning prayer service, one takes these four in hand and waves them in six directions: east, south, west and north, up and down, again to indicate God’s Providence over the whole of our existence. Many explanations have been given for the symbolism of the Four Species. One of the best known is that each is compared to a different kind of person. The citron, which has both taste and fragrance, represents people who have both learning and good deeds. The palm branch has taste, but no fragrance, and is compared to a person who has learning, without deeds. The myrtle has fragrance, but no taste, like a person of deeds without learning. The willow has neither, and there are people with neither deeds nor learning. But only by taking all of them together do we create a real community. If one lives near an area in which there are many religious Jews, one will see that for the week before Sukkot, a special shuk is set up for the purchase of these items. Often, Sukkahdecorations are sold there, as well.
In synagogues, for every morning of the seven days (except Shabbat) the congregants form a processional around the synagogue, carrying their set of Four Species and singing. These processionals are named for the prayers that are chanted to accompany them—hoshanot (like the English word “hosannas.”) The actual meaning of Hoshana is “O Lord, we beseech thee to save us.” The seventh day is called Hoshana Rabba (“the Great Hosanna”.) On that day, the congregation marches around the synagogue seven times. Rabbinic lore has it that although, as we mentioned earlier, ones fate is signed and sealed on Yom Kippur, the book isn’t really put away until Hoshana Rabba, so that one has a chance to continue the process of Teshuva and atonement a bit longer.
Perhaps paradoxically, the Biblical book associated with Sukkot is Ecclesiastes. Thus, on the most joyous festival of the year, the community reads a somewhat somber and even, at times, sardonic work. That may be part of the reason for reading this book—to achieve some sense of balance. This balance is hinted at in the third chapter of Ecclesiastes which begins, “ To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; …a time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance; …A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace.” There may be a connection between this theme of balance and the fact that on Sukkot, day and night are of equal length. There may even be a connection with the Zodiac sign for the month of Tishrei, Libra, the scales. But the main connection with Libra may be God’s weighing and balancing of our good and bad deeds, in the process of Teshuva and atonement.
Sources for further Bible study: Ecclesiastes, Zechariah 14
Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah
In the Torah, it states, “…on the eighth day shall be a holy convocation unto you…” No special meaning is given to this day, other than a festive way of concluding the Sukkotholiday. As the Halacha (Jewish religious law) developed, in some ways Shemini Atzeret was simply the end of Sukkot, while in other ways, it was a separate festival. The synagogue service included a prayer for rain. On the seven days of Sukkot, seventy sacrificial bullocks were offered, for the welfare of the seventy nations of the world; on Shemini Atzeret, one sacrifice was offered, for the welfare of the Jewish people. (To some extent, this can be seen as another example of the theme of balance—in this case, between the universal and the particular.) But still, we may be wondering what the nature of this festival is.
A Rabbinic Midrash, in attempting to give some meaning to the celebration, relates the following story: “Once a king had a friend. The king invited the friend to the palace for several weeks of merry-making and revelry. When the end of the period was nearing, the king said to his friend, ‘Let’s have one more party tonight, to conclude this wonderful time we’ve had together.’” The story is an allegory in which the king is God, the friend is the Jewish people and the palace is the month of Tishrei, in which we are close to God and spend much time in His Presence. We have many festive opportunities to celebrate with Him. So in this sense, Shemini Atzeret has no further meaning than a way to wrap up the holiday season.
When we were celebrating it for one day only, this combination of the prayer for rain and the conclusion of the holiday season may indeed have been enough. But with theexile into Babylonia, Diaspora Jews began celebrating most of the festivals for an additional day. (This was never the case with Yom Kippur, which—thankfully—remained a one-day fast throughout the world.) The reason for this extra day is that the calendarwas determined through the sighting of the New Moon by the authorities in Jerusalem. Sanctity of time was made dependent on sanctity of place. The rabbinical court in Jerusalem would then send out messengers to the Diaspora communities to inform them of the determination of the new month. Since it sometimes took days for them to arrive at their destinations, it was decided that the local Jewish community would add an extra day to the festival because of some doubt as to when the actual time was.
In modern times, we have scientifically determined calendars, and no longer need to rely on messengers. Therefore, some of the liberal Jewish movements have dispensed with the second day in the Diaspora. The more traditional movements have retained it, partly in order to differentiate between practice in Israel and abroad.
If we think back to the community in Babylonia, they would have added a second day to Shemini Atzeret and then truly, the day would not have had much meaning. But at the same time, another process was taking place within the synagogue. Initially, the Five Books of the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy--- were read in the synagogue in a triennial cycle (some liberal synagogues have gone back to this practice in our own day.) Then, the Rabbis declared that the entire Torahwould be read in a one-year cycle, with a particular portion being allotted each week. This became known as the Parshat Hashavua, the Portion of the Week. In the Diaspora, the second day of Shemini Atzeret became known as Simchat Torah,Rejoicing with the Torah. This was the day when in the synagogue the very last chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy would be read. But then in order to maintain the continuity of Torah, the first chapter of Genesis was read immediately thereafter. Thus, no time would elapse without Torah.
Jewish popular or folk culture then took over and made this day into a kind of three-ring circus. In the synagogue, all of the Torah scrolls are taken out of the Holy Ark and paraded around seven times, called Hakafot (“circling”)both in the evening and then again the next morning. Each of the seven times is concluded with singing and dancing, which sometimes becomes a bit wild. Simchat Torah is an occasion for drinking, humor and even friendly pranks on the part of the children, who are often given special flags and sweets. Except for Purim, this is the most frivolous day of the Jewish year.
In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are combined into one day. Now, the day has so much meaning and so many rituals and customs that in some synagogues, the morning service may last up to six or seven hours! And, in a rather strange development, a new custom has arisen, at the end of the festival, of Hakafot Shniyot,“Second Circling.” (Although, technically, this is really the third time, not the second.) These are public celebrations, not inside synagogues, featuring dancing with the Torah scrolls. Since the festival is officially over, musical instruments can be used to accompany the dancing. Often public officials and other dignitaries, as well as representatives of different communities, new immigrants, etc. participate in these festivities. They have no religious significance.
So, the spiritual journey which began in Elul, continued with the process of Teshuva(return, repentance, renewal), God’s judgement and mercy,and the joy of Sukkot, culminates in a celebration of the Jew’s unending commitment to Torah.
Chanukah begins on the 25th of the month of Kislev and continues for eight days, intoTevet. Like Purim, it is a festival of Rabbinic origin. Thus, while there are certain religious commandments obligatory on those days (on Chanukah, most prominently, the lighting of candles,) there are no prohibitions on work, travel, and so on. In Israel, the schools are closed, but most people will work on these days.
Like other festivals, the meanings of Chanukah are multi-layered. Historically, the festival commemorates the successful revolt of the Hasmonean family, led by Judah the Maccabee, against a foreign occupying power, the Syrian-Greeks, led by Antiochus Epiphanes. The foreign conquerors desecrated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and ordered many decrees against Jewish practices. Following their decrees threatened the survival of Jewish faith. The revolt also involved an element of an internal struggle within the Jewish community, against certain trends of assimilation and emulation of Greek culture. The fighting lasted for about three years, and on the 25th of Kislev, 164 BCE, the forces known as “the Maccabees” liberated Jerusalem and made their way into the defiled Temple. According to a traditional legend, when they wanted to rekindle the ritual candelabrum that stood in the Temple, they found a small cruse of oil that would last only one day. It would take eight days to travel to where they could get more oil and then bring it back to Jerusalem. (This is the time of the olive harvest, so oil would be available.) Miraculously, the small cruse of oil actually lasted for the full eight days until more oil was brought from the village.
That miracle of the cruse of oil became a symbol for the power of a small nation to survive and overcome its enemies. The name of the festival, which literally means “dedication,” refers to the re-dedication of the Temple during this period. It is celebrated as the Festival of Lights, for eight days of joy and thanksgiving to God.
Many different groups within the Jewish people approach the festival of Chanukah with more contemporary interpretations. The secular Zionists emphasized the military victories and some of the youth movements or even Army units to this day organize hikes “in the footsteps of the Maccabees.” Liberal Jews see in Chanukah an early expression of religious freedom and the right to be different, or even to overthrow a foreign power. Some Orthodox Jews interpret the light of Chanukah as a metaphor forTorah study, noting that this Hebrew word for “dedication” has the same root aschinuch, “education.”
One of the paradoxical aspects of Chanukah is that traditional Jewish culture did, in fact, absorb a great deal of Greek influence. The rabbinical court was called theSanhedrin, a Greek word, and Greek concepts and philosophical methods were incorporated in the Talmud. Most modern Jews certainly value two institutions of Greek origin—democracy and theater.
Perhaps the most ironic example is that one of the ancient Greek practices that was found to be most problematic by the Rabbis was the athletic contests, highlighted by the Olympics Games. Since the athletes usually competed in the nude, Jews who wished to participate sometimes had special procedures performed on their genitals to reverse the circumcision, so that they would not be recognized as Jews. But today, the worldwide Jewish Olympics are called the “Maccabiah.” Would Judah the Maccabee approve? What is the dividing line between acculturation and assimilation? How open can Jews be to foreign influences without losing their sense of identity?
These are all questions that arise on Chanukah. But for most Jews, both religious and secular, Chanukah is one of their favorite festivals, without all of this educational-ideological “baggage.” What draws them to the festival most likely are the candle-lighting ceremonies, with the family gathered around a candelabrum known as achanukiyah. Each night for eight nights, candles are lit, in ascending order: one the first night, two the second night, etc. up until eight the last night. The ceremonies are accompanied with blessings, songs, games for the children, special delicacies, and, traditionally, the distribution of coins. Recently, especially in Western communities, the practice has arisen of giving Chanukah gifts, probably under the influence of Christmasgift giving. The delicacies vary from community to community—in Israel, jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot; inEurope,potato pancakes; in North Africa, fried, salty s’fins. What is common to all of these foods is that they are all made with oil, in memory of the miracle.
Interestingly, like the other Jewish festivals, Chanukah, too, has a seasonal connection. It is a festival of light at the darkest time of the solar year (near the winter solstice) as well as the darkest time of the lunar month (from the 25th of one month to the 3rd of the next one—in other words, no moonlight.) Many societies have feasts of light at this time of the year. In pagan cultures from Egypt to Persia, this period of the year is associated with the birth of the sun god or goddess. We believe in the one God, Creator of all, so we celebrate the natural order He established: in the winter, we have the shortest days of the year until that stage of the process ends and once again, the light returns. The victory of light over darkness thus becomes a symbol for hope, faith and our prayer for a better world.
Although one can always “get by” with Chag Sameach, “happy holiday”, the appropriate greeting for Chanukah is chag urim sameach, “a joyous festival of light.”
Sources for further Bible study: The Books of the Maccabees are not included in the Jewish Biblical canon. They are part of the Apocryphal literature. However, these books do appear in many Christian editions of the Scriptures.
In the eleventh month of the year, Shevat, there is a very minor festival, the meaning of which was enhanced in the State of Israel in the 20th century. The origin of the date—again, the full moon, as Tu means “the 15th day”—is Mishnaic. The fifteenth of Shevatis considered “the New Year of trees.” This is actually a very technical point, connected with computing the “age” of trees for tithing purposes. It is considered to mark the time when most of the winter rains are over, and we’re beginning to look forward to the spring. One of the popular songs sung on this day is “The almond tree is in blossom…” But throughout the centuries, Jews all over the world celebrated Tu Bishevat by eating dried fruit from the Land of Israel and remembering their special connection to the land. The mystics, from the 16th century on, developed a special kind of Seder service for Tu Bishevat (see: Pesach)
The early Zionist pioneers in the 20th century added another feature to the day: they went out into the fields and planted trees. Today, it is celebrated as a minor feast, mostly by schoolchildren, many of whom do go out and plant saplings on this day. It is now part of a whole week of celebration, sponsored in Israel by the Society for the Protection of Nature, to encourage ecological awareness.
Adar is the twelfth month of the Jewish calendar. The Talmud says that from the beginning of this month, “we increase our joy.” The joy of Adar is because of the festival of Purim, celebrated on the 14th of the month, except in Jerusalem, where it is celebrated on the 15th. Every now and then, when the 15th of Adar falls on a Shabbat, the Jerusalemites celebrate three days of Purim, on the 14th, 15th and 16th!
This is only one of the many strange features of this most unusual festival. Another is that on Purim, it is a religious commandment to become intoxicated to the point where one can no longer distinguish between “Blessed be Mordecai” and “Cursed be Haman.” And for almost a week before, one may see children (and sometime even adults!) dressed in costumes, while on the day itself it is not only permitted but mandated to poke fun at the things most sacred to us.
On the surface, Purim commemorates the peculiar sequence of events described in the Book of Esther. In ancient Persia, a megalomaniac leader (Haman) convinced a foolish king (Ahasuerus) to allow a massacre of all the Jews. Through the intervention of the king’s adviser, Mordecai, and his beautiful niece, Esther, who had been chosen queen in a beauty pageant, the evil was averted, or, more correctly, the Jewish community was granted permission to defend itself. The story progresses through palace intrigues, as well as a series of banquets and parties. At the end of the book, Mordecai and Esther declare a festival for the Jewish people to celebrate their salvation from destruction, by giving gifts to the poor and packages of food to friends. This is the only book in the Hebrew Bible in which the name of God isn’t mentioned, even once. (In many Christian editions of the Bible, that are additional chapters in the Book of Esther, originally written in Greek, in which the name of God does appear, but, as mentioned, they are missing in the Hebrew.)
Jewish commentaries on the Book of Esther have suggested that it is only on the surface that the story appears to lack a divine dimension. Thus, it emulates ones own perceived reality, which sometimes also appears to be godless; God’s intervention in the world is discernible when one probes below the surface and add the prism of faith.
The story can be analyzed as a paradigm for the Jewish experience in the Diaspora:assimilation, anti-Semitism, relations with the authorities, responses of the community to distress, self-defense. Since one of the important responses in times of trouble is Jewish solidarity (“Go, gather together all the Jews…” Esther 4: 16), the commandments mentioned above—gifts to the poor and portions of food (Esther 9:22)—are commandments which promote social solidarity.
One of the major customs on Purim is dressing up in costume. On a certain level, the festival is really about identity—personal, as well as group—and the relationship with the Other. One of the ways to relate to the Other is, quite literally, by getting into his shoes. Or, perhaps by confronting the Other within us.
A well-known Rabbinic dictum, not originally mentioned in connection with Purim,maintains: “A person’s character is evident through his anger, his cup of drink and his pocket. Some say also his playing/laughing.” Unfortunately, the alliterative nature of the Hebrew is lost in translation, but still, we can take this statement and apply it to Purim.We’ll go in reverse order: Purim is the quintessential occasion for Jewish humor, and the origins of the modern Hebrew and Yiddish theater lie in the satiric Purimshpiel(Purim play.) The “pocket” of the Jew is evident in the outpouring of charity and gifts. Drinking, as we said earlier, is mandated, but hasn’t generally led to violence or other unacceptable behavior (see below.) Anger at the anti-Semitism of the Gentile world is evident, but generally muted.
It wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t admit that some of the extreme fringe groups within the Jewish community in contemporary Israel, particularly the settler community, have, unfortunately, used Purim to commit acts of vandalism against their Arab neighbors. The worst example was the atrocity committed in the Cave of the Machpela on Purim1994, when innocent Muslim worshippers were massacred at prayer, by a settler. But we believe that these behaviors are not mandated by the heritage of the festival. On the contrary, the tradition provides us with a wonderful model of how aggression, even when justified, can be channeled in a non-destructive way. There is a Biblical commandment to “blot out the memory of Amalek” (see Exodus 17 and Deuteronomy 25:17-19.) At first glance, this seems to be, God forbid, a prescribed genocide. Haman was a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite (see Esther 3:1 and I Samuel 15:8.) The way we fulfill the commandment of wiping out the memory of Amalek is that when the Book of Esther is read in the synagogue on Purim, we make noise at every mention of Haman’s name. What a wonderful way to sublimate feelings of anger and aggression. If only all of us could find such creative ways of dealing with frustration!
For religious Jews, Purim includes reading the Book of Esther in the synagogue both at night and the next morning. There is a family or communal feast, with much joking, drinking, singing, dancing, skits. Gifts of food are distributed among friends, as well as charity to the poor. For both religious and non-religious Israeli Jews, Purim is a time for costume parties, parades and other events. It is the closest thing we have to the “Carnival” in Rio.
One of the traditional Purim delicacies in many Jewish communities is triangular pastries filled with poppy seeds, nuts, chocolate and other sweets. In Hebrew these are called Oznei Haman (“Haman’s ears,”) while in Yiddish they are called hamentaschen(“Haman’s pockets.”)
One final word about this festival: why the difference between Jerusalem and the rest of the cities? In the Book of Esther, the fighting in the capital city, Shushan, continued an extra day beyond the rest of Persia (see Esther 9:17-18.) So the Jews of Shushan celebrated their miraculous deliverance a day later than everywhere else. The Rabbiswanted to give the holy city of Jerusalem at least as much honor as Shushan, so they mandated that in Jerusalem, the festival would be celebrated on what is called Shushan Purim, not the day of Purim itself. They felt that although Purim was essentially a Diaspora festival, within it, special status would still be accorded to Jerusalem.
The common greeting would be Purim Sameach.
Sources for further Biblical study: The Book of Esther
Jewish Celebration of Passover
Pesach is celebrated from the 15th to the 21st of Nissan, the first month in the Jewishcalendar.Surprisingly,perhaps, the new Jewish year begins in the seventh month. This may not seem so strange to us when we remember that in the secular world, as well, we are used to operating with different calendars for different purposes. The secular New Year begins on January 1st, but the school year on September 1st, the university year towards the end of October or the beginning of November, etc. There are other “years” for budget, tax and liturgical purposes. In the Jewish calendar, the year begins in the seventh month, that is, in the autumn, while the months begin in the spring. The 15th of Nissan, the first night of Pesach, is usually the first full moon on or after the spring equinox. Pesach and Easter—often called “Pas’cha”—have close ties. Both have egg symbolism, both celebrate rebirth and renewal, both are festivals of spring. “Easter is a re-formulated understanding of Pesach in the light of the crucifixion andresurrection. It is a fest of liberation from slavery (of death.).”
Pesach commemorates the Exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, which is believed to have occurred around 1300 BCE. The Exodus story is not only the most important event in the formation of the people of Israel; it also represents a universal message of freedom and redemption. Pesach is also known sometimes in English as Passover. Both names—Pesach and Passover—refer to the last of the ten plagues, mentioned in Exodus 7-12. In Exodus 12: 27, in describing the killing of the Egyptian first-born sons, the text says, ”…the Lord passed over (Hebrew:pasach) the houses of the Children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians…”
Jewish households begin their Pesach preparations well in advance of the festival itself, sometimes as a kind of opportunity for “spring cleaning,” so much so that in modern Hebrew, the expression, “la’asot Pesach” has come to mean “to clean and make order”, no matter what time of the year it’s done. But the Pesach cleaning has a particular purpose—to rid homes of “chametz,” leavened bread and related products, in fulfillment of the Biblical verse, “Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread; as the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whosoever shall eat leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.” (Exodus 12:15.) If one happens to walk into a Jewish supermarket or grocery store during the week ofPesach, one will most likely see that the shelves containing cakes, biscuits and other products with leavening have been covered. Instead of regular bread, Jews eat during that week a flat, unleavened bread called Matzot, which can be square or round. Many people completely change over their dishes, cutlery, pots and pans for the festival.
The first night is a celebration largely centered in the home and family, called theSeder. In modern Hebrew, the word means “order” and this is indeed the most highly ordered evening of the Jewish year, with mandated prayers and blessings, readings, songs, symbolic foods. The book used for this celebration is called theHaggadah—literally, “telling”—and the purpose of the ceremony is to retell the ancient story so that each and every person at the Seder will feel as though he personally came out of Egypt. As one can well imagine, “coming out of Egypt” has taken on symbolic significance, especially in the Jewish mystical tradition, so that it may refer to many different kinds of national and personal liberation. The Haggadah incorporates texts from many different periods of Jewish history, beginning with the Bible, but focusing mainly on the Rabbinic commentaries. Contemporary Haggadot reflect different ideological approaches to Jewish life, including feminism, socialism and the need for Jews to support the liberation movements of other peoples. But for most families, the Seder is probably less an opportunity for ideological discussion and more a time for bringing the relatives together for traditional foods and songs remembered from childhood. Sociological studies of Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora have shown that even in very secular families, some type of Seder is preserved. In many homes, the major emphasis at the Seder is on involving the children, since the purpose is to transmit the story from generation to generation.
It may seem strange that a festival of freedom involves so much preparation and order. But this may be an indication that the Jewish concept of freedom isn’t a “free-for-all.” True freedom does involve a social order in which the rights of the weak are protected. One of the major themes of Pesach is identification with the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Massive drives are undertaken in the weeks preceding the holiday to make sure that poor families will have enough provisions for their Seder.
The first and seventh days of Pesach are full holy days, with restrictions on our activities (although not as stringent as the laws of Shabbat, the chief difference being that on a festival, we can cook.) The first day commemorates the Exodus itself, while the seventh day recalls the Parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14 and 15). However, the intermediate five days are only half-holidays, called Chol HaMoed, roughly, “the non-sacred part of the holy festival.” On those days, although the special dietary restrictions still apply, there are no restrictions on movement. For Jewish families, this is a time of many family trips and picnics. Especially popular are trips to the Galilee to see the spring flowers in bloom. As a matter of fact, one of the Biblical readings for this festival is the Song of Songs, which provides a magnificent description of this season when “the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth…” (2:11-12.) Liturgically, on Pesach, we stop praying for rain and begin praying for dew.
The general Hebrew term for festival is chag, from the same root as the Arabic word,haj. The haj, of course, is the pilgrimage to Mecca undertaken by devout Muslims as one of the five pillars of their faith. In ancient Israel, there were three pilgrimage festivals to Jerusalem, also known as the Shalosh Regalim. (“Pilgrimage“ in Hebrew is calledaliyah l’regel and may be an ancient play on the words for “foot” and “occasion.”) The three pilgrimage festivals in the Jewish calendar are Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. The appropriate greeting for all three would be Chag Sameach, “a joyous festival.”
Sources for further Bible study: Exodus 12 and 13.
Counting the Omer and Lag Ba’Omer
In the 23rd chapter of Leviticus, the children of Israel were commanded to bring a special grain offering to the High Priest on the second day of Pesach and then to count fifty days until the next pilgrimage festival. The period of counting –between Pesach andShavuot (Pentecost)—seven times seven weeks, is called Sefirat HaOmer, literally, the counting of the barley measure. In the Torah, there doesn’t seem to be any special significance to this period, except that it connects Pesach with the next festival, for which no date is given. Without the counting, we might not know when to celebrate the next festival. For the meanings of this period, we must turn to later Rabbinic literature.
Part of the meaning is simply as a way of connecting Pesach and Shavuot, particularly when the latter is celebrated as the time of the Giving of the Torah. Counting the Omergives us a unit of seven weeks in which to make spiritual preparations for the moment of Revelation at Mt. Sinai.
In the Talmud, this period of the year is infused with a sense of sorrow. It is connected with the failed revolt against Roman conquest of 132-135 CE. The period in later Jewishhistory became associated with the Crusades and other persecutions of the Jews. There are mourning customs practiced during this period, including a prohibition against weddings, haircuts, and certain other things that are perceived as festive or joyous. Some scholars have suggested that perhaps the mourning goes back to an even earlier source and reflects the anxiety of the ancient farmers as to the outcome of their harvest. After all, they say, the time of year between Pesach and Shavuot is characterized in the Land of Israel by very erratic weather. Pesach is officially when we stop praying for rain, but rains can come after Pesach, and they are generally unwelcome. There can also be sand and dust storms, extremely hot weather or chilly weather, all of which can be detrimental to the crops. So, rather than make premature celebrations, what the farmers did during this time was to pray, wait and hope for a successful harvest.
But, according to Rabbinic tradition, on the 33rd day of this period, there is a temporary respite from mourning and a time of celebration. The name for this traditional half-holiday is Lag Ba’Omer, literally, the 33rd day of the Omer. The Talmud records somewhat mysteriously that a certain plague which had been killing off the students of an ancient rabbi, R. Akiva, somehow miraculously was lifted on that day. If we bear in mind that these students were also the soldiers who led the revolt against the Romans, we may conclude that all of this is a kind of code to say that the plague was the ultimate defeat of the revolt, but on that particular day, a victory was won in battle by the Jewish soldiers under their commander, Bar Kochba.
Until the mid- 20th century, Jews remembered these events by engaging in a daily ritual counting and observing the prohibitions of the period. The day of Lag Ba’Omer, however, was always an opportunity to hold weddings and other celebrations and to go on picnics, outings, sports days, even when the Jews were living as a minority, for example, in Europe. Here in Israel, several hundred thousand Jews travel to Mt. Meron, just outside of Safed, for a celebration which can take up to a week but reaches its peak on Lag Ba’Omer itself. This is also the anniversary of the death of R. Shimon bar Yochai, an ancient mystical rabbi, who is thought to be buried on that spot. Chassidim bring their three-year-old sons there to have their hair cut for the first time. Bonfires are lit along the sides of the mountain. Throughout Israel, both religious and secularyoungsters stay up all night around campfires, where they sing, dance, eat, tell stories, and so on. This is a good example of folk culture overtaking the Rabbinical authorities. While Lag Ba’Omer was not a major celebration in the past, it has become more and more popular, especially among Sefaradi or Mizrachi Jews, and also, because of the growing interest in Jewish mysticism.
In the 20th century, four days were added to the Jewish calendar. They all come between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost). Two (Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikkaron) are days of mourning and remembrance; two (Yom HaAtzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim) are days of celebration. They reflect the history of the Jewish people and the Zionist movement in recent times. Some Jews mark these days as religious occasions, with special prayers and rituals in the synagogue. Others see them exclusively as national, secular days.
The first of the two days of mourning and remembrance is marked on the 27th of the month of Nissan, just six days after the end of Pesach. This day is HolocaustRemembrance Day, or Yom HaShoah, in memory of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust during the Second World War. It is marked throughout the country with a two-minute siren blast in the morning, but the central commemorative ceremonies are held at Yad Va’Shem in Jerusalem and the Ghetto Fighter’s House on KibbutzLochamei HaGeta’ot, near Nahariya.
Exactly one week later, on the 4th of the month of Iyyar, Israelis remember the fallen soldiers and the victims of war and terror. This day is called Yom HaZikkaron, the day of remembrance. On this day, as well, there are nation-wide sirens in the evening and then again at 11:00 in the morning. Memorial ceremonies are held at the Western Wall Plaza and at military cemeteries throughout the country.
The two days of remembrance are sometimes marked earlier if the days they properly fall on would be Friday, Saturday or Sunday. This is done by an act of the Knesset, in order to prevent public desecration of the Sabbath.
In the 20th century, four days were added to the Jewish calendar. They all come between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost). Two (Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikkaron) are days of mourning and remembrance; two (Yom HaAtzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim) are days of celebration. They reflect the history of the Jewish people and the Zionist movement in recent times. Some Jews mark these days as religious occasions, with special prayers and rituals in the synagogue. Others see them exclusively as national, secular days.
The first of the two days of celebration is Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, which is celebrated on the 5th of the month of Iyyar, immediately after Yom HaZikkaron, Remembrance Day. , Yom HaAtzmaut is mostly celebrated outside, with entertainment and dancing in the streets all night, and many picnics and cookouts the next day. The appropriate greeting would again be “Chag Sameach.”
Ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist and even non-Zionist Jews may not celebrate this day at all. It should also be noted that Yom HaAtzma’ut may be a difficult day for some Arab Israelis, who identify, as citizens, with the State of Israel, but also remember their own national misfortunes as Palestinians, for whom the establishment of the State of Israel was associated with a national tragedy.
The second of the two days of celebration is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, the 28th of Iyyar. The day commemorates what happened on the 3rd day of the 1967 war, when Israeli paratroopers took over the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. This is perhaps the most controversial festival in the Jewish calendar. Although it was widely celebrated by Israelis in the 1970’s, since the 1980’s, and especially since the firstintifada, it has become primarily the monopoly of the national-religious camp. Outside of that segment of the community and outside of Jerusalem, it may not even be noticed.
Yom HaAtzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim are sometimes marked earlier if the days they properly fall on would be Friday, Saturday or Sunday. This is done by an act of the Knesset, in order to prevent public desecration of the Sabbath.
Shavuot is a wonderful example of a festival which has gone through changes and historical developments. When the festival appears in Leviticus 23, it has no date, being only the fiftieth day after Pesach. It also has no name and is lacking in the kind of historical explanation given to some of the other Jewish festivals. However, in Exodus24:16, it is identified with the harvest of the first fruits, and in Deuteronomy 16:10, it is given a name, Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. The rabbis in the Mishnah added another name: “Atzeret,” from the root la’atzor, literally “to stop,” indicating that this festival was intended to be the conclusion and culmination of Pesach. “In what sense does Shavuot complement Passover? It completes the celebration of the exodus by rejoicing in the great bounty which the land, blessed by the Almighty, had given. On Passover one dwelt on the oppression and slavery of the past. In the seven weeks which followed, one was busy harvesting barley and wheat. On Shavuot the Jewish farmer could pause to give voice to his joy in his current prosperity.” (Abraham Bloch, The Biblical and Historical Background of the Jewish HolyDays, New York: Ktav,1978, p. 183) As a ritual expression of joy, the farmer would bring the first fruits of his harvest to the HighPriest and recite the statement found in Deuteronomy 26: 5-10, a kind of outline of the early history of the Hebrew people. During Rabbinic times, a new significance was given to this festival: using various clues in the Biblical text, the rabbis computed that the day on which the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai must have been the 6th of the Hebrew month of Sivan. That would put the Revelation on exactly the 50th day after the Exodus. Christians similarly observe a festival of revelation 50 days after Easter, namelyPentecost, the feast of the Giving of the Spirit.) Again, this would offer another meaning to the completion of Pesach: the Hebrews stopped being slaves unto Pharaoh so that they could be servants of the Lord. True freedom comes when there is a social code by which to live. In a society without law, might makes right. In a society based on Torah as its Law, there can be protection for the rights of the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger. Especially when the majority of the Jewish people lived in Exile from the Land, the Torah theme of Shavuot overshadowed the Land theme. Originally, the Jewishmystics and then all the students of Torah within the Jewish community adopted a festival practice of staying up all night on Shavuot and learning the sacred texts. This practice is known as Tikun leyl Shavuot. It is then customary to pray the morningprayer at sunrise. (In post-1967 Jerusalem, tens of thousands flock to the Western Wall for the sunrise service.) The vestige in the Diaspora, as well as in synagogues all over the world, including Israel, of the agricultural meaning of Shavuot, consists largely of decorating homes and synagogues with flowers and leaves. In many communities, it also became customary on this occasion to read the Book of Ruth. Ruth was seen as the first convert to Judaism, someone who accepted upon herself the Commandments (as the entire people had done at Sinai.) She also was seen as the embodiment of all the categories that needed special protection: the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger. Her story takes place during the harvest period and illustrates the agricultural commandments that have deep social significance—e.g., leaving the corners of the field for the gleaners. In the early 20th century, Zionist pioneers returning to the Land de-emphasized the Torah aspects of the festival and revived the ancient practice of Bikkurim, the First Fruits. For many years, this was the highlight of the festival onsecular kibbutzim—an impressive parade of the past year’s accomplishments in agriculture and industry, together with the community’s newborn children. Many Israelis from the urban centers would visit the kibbutzim on Shavuot in order to experience these ceremonies, which were often accompanied by folk singing and dancing, but devoid of any religious content. Recently, however, especially with the increasing privatization of the kibbutzim and the declining importance of agriculture, there has been a decline in the agricultural celebrations, together with a return to the all-night study sessions, in both religious and secular communities. For Jews who don’t fancy learning texts all night, the main custom of Shavuot is eating dairy delicacies, such as cheesecake, borekas and cheese-filled pancakes. This is because the festival celebrates two things which traditionally have been compared to milk and honey—the Land of Israel (…”it flows with milk and honey…”Numbers 13:27) and the Torah (“nourishing as milk, sweet as honey,” according to a Midrash.) Some children also have the practice of dousing each other with cold water on this festival, as the Torah has also been compared with “living waters.” Since Shavuot often marks the transition into the hot, dry season, being doused with cold water may not be such a bad thing! Sources for further Bible study: Exodus 19 and 20.
One date—the 9th of the month of Av, became the focus for remembering many tragic events in later Jewish history. Tradition has it that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed on this date respectively, in 586 BCE and 70 CE. The unsuccessful revolt against the Romans ended with the fall of Beitar, on the 9th of Av in 135 CE. Other historical events associated with this day include the expulsion of the Jews from England (1290) and from Spain (1492.) This is the only full day of fasting in the Jewishcalendar, except for Yom Kippur. Israeli law forbids restaurants and places of entertainment from opening on the night of Tisha B’Av; however, some proprietors in Tel-Aviv find their earnings on that night make paying the government fine worth while. The somber quality of the day is felt most in Jerusalem. The Biblical reading for this day is the Book of Lamentations, Megillat Eicha, traditionally ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah, (read by many Christians on Good Friday.)
There are three other half-fast days (the fasting being from sunrise to sunset) related to the destruction of Jerusalem in the 6th century BCE and/or loss of Jewish autonomy in the Holy Land. The first is the 17th day of the month of Tammuz, exactly three weeks before Tisha B’Av. This day marks the breach in the walls of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which led up to the first destruction of Jerusalem. For religious AshkenaziJews, the entire three weeks are a time of mourning. No weddings, haircuts or musical celebrations are permitted. For the Sepharadim, the period of intense mourning begins only on Rosh Chodesh Av and lasts for nine days. The Nine Days are a period of even greater mourning than the rest of the Three Weeks, within the Ashkenazi tradition, as they refrain from eating meat, drinking wine, swimming, etc.
The second minor fast is observed a week after Chanukah on the 10th of Tevet. This commemorates the laying of a siege upon the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who later destroyed the First Temple. This is described in the first few verses of II Kings 25. Recently, this day has acquired more contemporary meaning, as the Israeli Chief Rabbinate declared it a memorial to those who perished in the Holocaust and the individual dates of their deaths are unknown.
The third minor fast related to the loss of Jewish autonomy in the Holy Land is Tzom Gedalyah, the Fast of Gedalyah, observed on the 3rd of Tishrei. Gedalyah was governor of Judah, appointed by the Babylonians after they destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE. He was assassinated by one of his own people (II Kings 25:23-25). Traditionally, the fast commemorated this ancient event, marking the end of Jewish self-rule until the return from Babylonian captivity. Recently, some Israeli Jews have associated the fast with the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by a Jewish extremist and have suggested that it might be an appropriate time for a national process of Teshuvato take place.
One other minor fast is Ta’anit Esther, right before Purim. Apart from Yom Kippur, the other fasts, including Tisha B’Av, are generally observed only by very religious Jews.