Shavuot: Jewish festival honors revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai

Crowds gather at the Western Wall at sunrise

Jews gather at the Western Wall at sunrise. It is traditional to stay awake all night in Torah study for Shavuot, and in Jerusalem, this all-night study is followed by gathering at the Western Wall. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET SATURDAY, JUNE 8: Greenery and flowers adorn synagogues tonight, mimicking the top of Mount Sinai, as Jews wrap up a seven-week period of anticipation known as the Counting of the Omer. The Counting of the Omer ends and gives way to Shavuot, the celebration of the day G_d gave the Torah to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. Due to the counting of seven weeks leading up to Shavuot, this holiday is also known as the Festival of Weeks.

FREEDOM: FROM PHYSICAL TO SPIRITUAL

The ancient festival prompts many stories and interpretations. One of them emphasizes this: The movement from the Counting of the Omer to Shavuot connects the physical freedom in the Exodus with the spiritual freedom of the presentation of the Torah. During Passover, which was weeks ago, Jews acknowledged the physical freedom given to the ancient Israelites through the Exodus; more specifically, this physical freedom was acknowledged on the second day of Passover, when the Counting of the Omer began. Each night since, observant Jews have remembered the current count of days until they reach day 49. Today—day 50—Jews recognize the official presentation of the Torah. This, the 50th day, is also sometimes called Pentecost, although the Jewish religious associations with the holiday are different than the Christian Pentecost.

Did you know? Shavuot is one of the Jewish observances that differs, depending on location. In Israel, it’s one day; in the rest of the world, it’s two days.

Loaves of brown bread, crusty

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

OMER, GRAINS AND FIRST FRUITS

Ancient Israelites marked the spring grain harvest for seven weeks. (“Omer” is an ancient unit of measure.)

When that first harvest ended at Shavuot, farmers would bring an offering of two loaves of bread to the Temple of Jerusalem. In the same manner, the first fruits of Israel (Bikkurim) were brought to the Temple on Shavuot. In a grand display, farmers would fill baskets woven of gold and silver with the Seven Species—wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates—and load the glittering baskets onto oxen whose horns were laced with flowers. These oxen and farmers would travel to Jerusalem, marching through towns and met by music, parades and other festivities.

To this day, many Jewish families display baskets of “First Fruits,” including foods of wheat, barley, grapes, wine, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

SHAVUOT: DAIRY, RUTH & ALL-NIGHT TORAH STUDY

Among the many customs associated with Shavuot are the consumption of dairy products and the reading of the Book of Ruth, along with, for many observant Jews, an all-night Torah study. Several explanations exist for these traditions. One is that Jews recall the night the Torah was given and how the ancient Israelites overslept; although Moses had to awaken the ancient Israelites, Jews today remain awake throughout the night, all the while giving thanks for the Torah. In Jerusalem, the all-night Torah study ends with the procession of tens of thousands to the Western Wall at dawn.

Work is not permitted during the entirety of Shavuot.

Looking for dairy recipes to prepare for the holiday? This Jewish blog offers Kale and Mushroom Quinoa ‘Mac and Cheese,’ and Haaretz suggests Yam, Goat Cheese and Rosemary Quiche.

For more holiday inspiration, enjoy …

Author Debra Darvick offers her introduction to Shavuot from her popular collection of real-life stories: This Jewish Life.

 

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Categories: Jewish

Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut: Jews mark memorial, independence days

Young people lined up on stage, outdoors, with blue banners and Israeli flags on building behind stage

A ceremony for Yom HaZikaron, Ramla, Israel. Photo by U.S. Embassy Jerusalem, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET TUESDAY, MAY 7 and SUNSET WEDNESDAY, MAY 8: Commemorations in Israel begin at sunset on Tuesday, May 7, this year, for Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. In the Israeli calendar, Memorial Day (or Yom HaZikaron) is followed by the celebration of Independence Day (or Yom Ha’atzmaut), as a way to begin the celebration of freedom with a day-long solemn remembrance of the cost of that freedom. In the Jewish calendar, these days traditionally fall on the 4th and 5th days of lyar, the eighth month of the year.

Israel gained its independence in 1948, and an elaborate ceremony occurs each year on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. During this ceremony, members of the Israeli Parliament speak, dramatic presentations celebrate the nation’s history and soldiers march with the flag of Israel while creating formations like a Menorah. Traditionally, 12 torches are lit to represent the 12 tribes of Israel.

NEWS: Jewish communities worldwide mark Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. This article, from the Jewish Journal, highlights a variety of related events taking place in Florida this year.

During the day, many Jewish families celebrate similarly to the American Independence Day, with picnics, family gatherings and a generally festive air. (My Jewish Learning details some of the customs associated with Yom Ha’atzmaut.) In many areas, Israeli folk dances are organized in the streets at night.

READINGS

An Israeli government website now provides an inspiring list of readings for individuals and families marking these observances. Some are widely known and used, but—even if you regularly mark these occasions—you may find some interesting texts here that you haven’t seen before.

Here is the Israeli selection of readings for Remembrance Day.

And, here is the list of readings for Independence Day.

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Categories: Jewish

Yom HaShoah: Remembering the Holocaust and heroism

Young people dressed in white and blue carry Israeli flags and walk down railroad tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau

March of the Living participants. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, MAY 1: An Israeli memorial for the 6 million Jewish deaths during the Holocaust is commemorated worldwide as Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel, state-sponsored and synagogue ceremonies, moments of silence and a March of the Living all paint the picture of this solemn observance.

Also known as “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day” in English, Yom HaShoah has been defined, in recent decades, as having a scope broader than the millions of deaths at the hands of the Nazis and their allies. Today, those who mark this annual observance also remember the Jewish resistance during that era; they celebrate righteous acts in such dangerous times; and they emphasize the meaning of human dignity. (Learn more from the Jewish Virtual Library.)

In Israel, Yom HaShoah is a national memorial day. In 1953, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi signed the proposal for Yom HaShoah, enacting it as law.

Flags are flown at half mast; sirens blare in the evening and the following morning; services are held at military bases, in schools and by various organizations. (Wikipedia has details.) Public entertainment is not permitted on Yom HaShoah, and radio and television programs focus on the day’s memorial.

Yom Hashoah and Hate Crimes in 2019

Each year, one of the major themes associated with Yom HaShoah is the commitment to never forget what happened in this horrific genocide. In the 1970s and ’80s, American public schools that once ignored the Holocaust in standard lesson plans began to include this chapter of history for all students. Holocaust memorials, including the national museum in Washington D.C., opened to millions of visitors.

Click this image from Freedland’s and Hasan’s column to visit The Guardian website and read their entire text.

However, a rising tide of right-wing nationalism around the world has poured fresh fuel on smaller extremist groups that resort to violence. Hate crimes have risen against various minority groups, but especially Jews, according to FBI statistics in the U.S. and reports from other countries.

One of the most urgent appeals this spring was issued from the UK by two journalists writing for The Guardian newspaper: Jonathan Freedland and Mehdi Hasan. Together, they published this impassioned column, headlined: Muslims and Jews face a common threat from white supremacists. We must fight it together.

Their column begins this way:

The two of us have been having the exact same conversation for the past decade. About antisemitism and Islamophobia. One of us a Muslim, the other a Jew, we have conducted it in public and in private, on Twitter and on TV. We’ve agreed; we’ve argued; we’ve even wandered off topic to trade tips on how to get through a fast. Now we’ve come together because of the urgent and common threat that we face. Both of our communities are under violent attack from far-right white supremacists.

In Christchurch, New Zealand, last month a white supremacist gunned down 50 Muslims at prayer. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last October a white supremacist gunned down 11 Jews at prayer. Both killers were clear in their loathing of both Jews and Muslims. Both subscribed to the “great replacement theory,” which casts Muslims and other minorities as “invaders” of western societies and a threat to white, Christian majorities. In this narrative, the supposed invasion is a wicked plot orchestrated by the same hidden hand behind all malign events through world history: the Jews. The point was put concisely in an online remark reposted by the Pittsburgh murderer: “It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!”

This is how our haters see us: Jews and Muslims connected in a joint enterprise to effect a “white genocide.” It is an unhinged and racist conspiracy theory–and it has both of our communities in its murderous sights.

So there can only be one response: Muslims and Jews must stand and fight it together. 

Please, consider their appeal and share this column with friends.

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Categories: Jewish

Passover: Jewish families worldwide gather for the Seder and a joyous festival

Note: The morning of April 19 in 2019 begins the Fast of the Firstborn, in which observant firstborn sons fast to commemorate the salvation of firstborns in ancient Egypt.

Table set with food items, fancy and plates

A table set for the Passover Seder. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET FRIDAY, APRIL 19: The intensive search for chametz is over, and tonight, Jews begin the joyous festival of Passover—the most widely observed of all Jewish traditions. After weeks of painstakingly ridding their homes of chametzany grain product associated with fermentation—Jews join family and friends for a Passover Seder (ritual meal). It’s the 15th day of Nisan in the Jewish calendar, and tonight, the seven- or eight-day festival of Passover begins, commemorating the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. (Jews in Israel observe Passover for seven days, and Jews of the Diaspora observe eight.)

Among the events in the biblical story recalled during the Seder, Jews give thanks to G_d for “passing over” the homes of those whose doors were marked with lamb’s blood during the biblical Plague of the Firstborn, for helping them to escape safely from Egypt’s army and for eventually leading them to freedom. The Passover Seder is an extended meal that often lasts several hours, and is filled with ceremonial prayers, rituals, specific foods and drinks and careful table settings. During the Seder, the story of the Exodus is recalled through a recitation of the Haggadah.

Did you know? In Jewish families, young and old get involved in cleaning out the chametz as a way of remembering this key part of the Exodus: As the Israelites left Egypt, they moved so quickly that their bread was not able to rise. To this day, unleavened matzo bread is a common element on Seder tables.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. The omer, a unit of measure, is used to count the days from Passover to Shavuot.

MATZO: THE 18-MINUTE CHALLENGE

Bowl of matzo soup on wood table

Matzo ball soup, common fare for Passover. Photo by Amy Ross, courtesy of Flickr

Baking matzo is no easy feat: only 18 minutes are allowed between the mixing of flour and water to the finishing of baking. Elaborate measures are taken to ensure the mixture does not rise.

Many Jewish families switch to different dishes, eating utensils and cooking equipment to avoid any contact with traces of foods containing chametz. Chametz is defined as anything involving biological leavening, which includes simply wetting grains and letting them stand for more than 18 minutes. Five grains, in particular, are identified: wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats.

THE SEDER

The Seder includes many steps and lasts for hours. (Stressing over the pressure of hosting a Seder? Take some advice from a cookbook veteran in this article from the Washington Post. Or, try a Passover app.) All adults present at the Seder are required to drink a total of four cups of wine during the Passover Seder, and further, the Mishnah commands that even the poorest man in Israel has an obligation to drink. Interspersed throughout prayer and stories are the breaking of matzah (unleavened) bread; the washing of the hands; the eating of the symbolic elements on the Seder plate; and, of course, the eating of the holiday meal itself. The whole evening ends with a joint exclamation: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

For the next seven days—or eight, in the Diaspora—Jews will partake of no chametz at any meal. Jews commonly enjoy foods such as potato starch cakes, Gelfite fish, chicken soup with matzah balls and generous amounts of egg.

SEDERS, THE LAST SUPPER—AND A COMMON LINK

Christians teach that Jesus’s final journey to Jerusalem was to observe Passover, forever linking the two sacred seasons. Yet while biblical scholars disagree on whether Jesus’s Last Supper was an actual Seder, “Christianized” Seders are widespread at this time of year—and the practice appears to be growing among evangelicals. Sometimes called “baptized” or “Messianic” seders, the traditional Jewish ritual is changed to turn the meal into a remembrance of Jesus’s Last Supper.

This practice has always been controversial in interfaith settings, though, and Jewish leaders note that the practice distorts their traditions. That’s why the world’s largest Christian church, the Catholic church, forbids its parishes to Christianize the Seder. Instead, Catholic leaders encourage their billion-plus followers to visit authentic Seders—or to invite a rabbi to lead a model Seder to demonstrate the ritual for Christians. Catholic bishops say that “the primary reason why Christians may celebrate the festival of Passover should be to acknowledge common roots in the history of salvation. Any sense of restaging the Last Supper of the Lord Jesus should be avoided.” Many Jewish leaders welcome this approach to sharing their traditional meal.

Invited to a Jewish Passover Seder? The proper greeting is “Happy Passover” or “Happy holiday,” which in Hebrew is “Chag samayach” (hahg sah-MAY-ahk). A Seder plate will be located on most Seder tables, on which are symbols of various aspects of the Passover story. A Haggadah (hah-GAH-dah), a text in Hebrew and English that tells the Passover story and its meaning for each generation, is read during the meal. There are hundreds of different versions of the Haggadah, with many focusing on different elements of the holiday or interpreting it from a particular perspective, such as feminism or ecology. Learn more at ReadTheSpirit’s helpful resource, Ask an expert what to do at a Passover Seder.

Looking for interactive resources, stories, recipes and hosting ideas for Passover? Check out ReadTheSpirit’s own Feed The Spirit column for a recipe for homemade matzoh balls, or visit Chabad.org, the Jewish Virtual Library, Aish.com and Wikipedia.

Care to read more?

Over the past decade our online magazine has published more than 100 Passover-themed stories, and we can heartily recommend some of our most popular holiday reading:

Debra Darvick shares Passover reflections from her popular book, This Jewish Life.

Our Feed The Spirit columns, over the years, have published delicious Passover stories—and some tasty recipes. Here’s a story that includes a vegetable Kugel you can make at home. And here’s a column with a great recipe for potato gnocchi, because that preparation can be made kosher for Passover.

Fanny Neuda’s Passover prayer was written more than 150 years ago and was recovered by poet Dinah Berland—and Dinah gave us her permission to publish that prayer 10 years ago! Since we first published that text, thousands of readers around the world have read that prayer in our pages.

Rabbi Bob Alper also is famous coast to coast as the rabbi who does clean standup routines—and often has appeared on stage with comedians who are Christian and Muslim to promote interfaith understanding. Bob has written many stories and two books for us over the past decade. Here’s one of our most popular Bob Alper columns about the stories he tells in Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This.

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Categories: Jewish

Four Chaplains Sunday: Congregations nationwide honor interfaith activists

Illustration of stormy night and men in small rowboat at sea

Click on the image to watch a short video about the Four Immortal Chaplains

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 3: Millions of Americans may be gathering in front of their televisions to watch the Super Bowl tonight, but during earlier hours, many congregations and veterans groups nationwide recall four chaplains whose courageous example has inspired generations of interfaith activists. This is Four Chaplains Sunday.

Did you know? In 1951, President Truman dedicated a chapel to the four chaplains.

THE FOUR IMMORTAL CHAPLAINS

On Feb. 3, 1943, the converted luxury liner Dorchester was struck by a torpedo while crossing the North Atlantic; the ship sank within 20 minutes. Hundreds of U.S. troops and civilians were aboard the ship when it was struck, and as passengers were scurrying to lifeboats, four chaplains—the Rev. George Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander Good (Jewish), the Rev. Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed) and Fr. John Washington (Roman Catholic)—spread out and began helping the wounded and panicked. Amid the chaos, the four chaplains were calmly offering prayers and encouraging words. When life jackets ran out, the chaplains already had given their own to others fleeing the ship. The four men joined arms and said prayers, singing hymns as they sank with the ship.

Ceremonies in honor of the courageous men emphasize “unity without uniformity,” a primary part of the mission of the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation. The Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated by President Harry S. Truman in 1951. In 1988, an act of Congress officially declared February 3 as an annual Four Chaplains Day.

A WINDOW AT THE PENTAGON

The four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross. In 1960, a Congressional Medal of Valor was created and presented to the chaplains’ next of kin. Stained glass windows of the men still exist in a number of chapels across the country—and at the Pentagon—and each year, American Legions posts nationwide continue to honor the Four Chaplains with memorial services. The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation continues to honor those who exemplify the heroic traits of the Four Chaplains, promoting “unity without uniformity.”

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Categories: ChristianInterfaithJewish

Hanukkah: Menorahs, latkes and dreidels mark Jewish season of light

Nine lit candles on a menorah, close-up from low perspective

A menorah lit for Hanukkah. Photo by saildancer, courtesy of pixabay

SUNSET SUNDAY, DECEMBER 2: The first night of Hanukkah has arrived for million Jews worldwide. Although not as religiously significant as some other Jewish holidays—Yom Kippur, Sukkot or Passover, just to name a few—Hanukkah is widely celebrated, and is easily recognized even by non-Jews.

Each evening during Hanukkah, Jewish families light candles on a menorah, in honor of the Maccabees’ victory over Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE. As the traditional story is retold: Once the Second Temple had been reclaimed from the Greeks, purified and rededicated, there was only enough sacred oil found to burn for one day—but, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. In celebration, Jews today partake in foods fried in oil, light candles, play traditional games and sing songs.

Stack of gifts in white paper with Hanukkah-themed tags, nighttime cityscape outside window in background

Gifts for Hanukkah. Photo by Heather Jessica, courtesy of Flickr

MENORAH IN THE WINDOW; LATKES ON THE TABLE

Hanukkah is faithfully observed by most Jews with the lighting of candles in a nine-branched Menorah, with one candle for each of the eight nights and one extra candle (the shamash), which is often placed separately from the others. The shamash must be used for “practical” purposes, so that the remaining candles may be used solely for publicizing the miracle of the oil.

While a menorah lights up a window, a game of dreidel is often played. The four-sided spinning top that is the centerpiece of the game has a Hebrew letter imprinted on each of its sides. The letters are an acronym for “A great miracle happened there.” Candies, money or chocolate gelt (coins) are often wagered in a game of dreidel.

Meanwhile, the sound of spattering, hot oil fills the Jewish kitchen, as devotees cook latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyots (doughnuts) and other deep-fried foods.

NOT CHRISTMAS: The 8-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah is not like Christmas, so far-flung Jewish relatives don’t rush home for these holidays as Christian families migrate for Christmas day. However, the whole point of lighting the Hanukkah candles, each night, is to remember connections stretching back thousands of years. Often, parents and their children enjoy the ritual together to establish this tradition for future generations.

HANUKKAH: AN AUTHOR’S PERSPECTIVE

In her inspiring book, This Jewish Life, Debra Darvick writes dozens of true stories about Jewish men and women experiencing the seasons in Judaism. In one section of her book, she explains the basics about Hanukkah’s commemoration:

“In 167 BC, Antiochus decreed the practice of Judaism to be an offense punishable by death. The Temple was desecrated, and the Syrians went so far as to sacrifice pigs in the Temple. A Jew named Mattathias and his five sons began a revolt not only against Antiochus, but against the Jews who were quite willing to take on the ways of the majority population and jettison Jewish practice. Three years later, the Maccabees, as the Jewish fighters were known, and their followers, were victorious and the Temple was once again in Jewish hands.”

She further explains:

“According to Jewish tradition, when the Temple was finally cleansed for re-dedication, there was but a single day’s supply of ritually pure oil for the ner tamid, the everlasting light that hangs in every synagogue as a symbol of God’s ever-presence. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, the time needed to press and ritually purify additional oil for the ner tamid.”

 

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Categories: Jewish

Kristallnacht: Marking 80 years since ‘The Night of Broken Glass’

Black-and-white photo of broken windows, two people walking by

The night after Kristallnacht. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 9: The sound of broken glass still echoes around the world on November 9, as communities remember the tragic events that took place in 1938 during Kristallnacht.

Literally “Crystal Night,” Kristallnacht was so called for the shattered glass that covered streets and sidewalks after thousands of Jewish synagogues and buildings were destroyed. Kristallnacht was a coordinated series of attacks by the Nazis in Germany and Austria; German law-enforcement officials were ordered not to intervene during the destruction. Jewish persecution moved into a dramatically public and violent phase, and while their schools, stores, hospitals and places of worship were being destroyed, Jews were beaten in the streets and detained for concentration camps.

In 2018, a range of events—from documentary screenings to memorial articles to exhibits and programs—will mark the anniversary of “The Night of Broken Glass.”

Foreign journalists in Germany reported on the events, alerting their respective homelands of the shocking events: For the first time, the public fully understood the alarming intentions of the Nazi regime. International support of pro-Nazi movements declined almost overnight, and many reports compared Kristallnacht to the gruesome pogroms of Imperial Russia. As was written in The Times of Kristallnacht: No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.

Kristallnacht marked a public turning point in the Nazi regime. The attacks on Jewish neighbors, businesses and houses of worship shocked the world; the Nazi regime’s intentions could no longer be denied. The 1,400 synagogues attacked on Kristallnacht, the 90 Jews murdered that night, and the 30,000 Jews detained for concentration camps foretold of the tragedies to come.

LEADING TO KRISTALLNACHT

In the 1920s, German Jews lived as other citizens: operating businesses, obtaining licenses and having access to education. Yet with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, things quickly began to change. Hitler immediately introduced anti-Jewish policies and forbade inter-religious marriage. When Jews sought refuge, foreign countries began locking down admissions. In August 1938, residence permits for foreigners were cancelled; thousands of Jews were forced from their homes with nowhere to go, their possessions seized by Nazi authorities. It was with these expulsions that the ground was laid for Kristallnacht.

Among those expelled from Germany was the family of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jew living in Paris with his uncle. When his family wrote, pleading for help, Grynszpan assassinated German diplomat Ernst vom Rath—stating that his protest had to be heard around the world. The following day, the German government removed Jewish children from public schools and halted Jewish cultural activities and publications. When word of vom Rath’s death reached Hitler, a pogrom was organized—an act that Hitler and his inner circle had been planning already, just awaiting a trigger like the shooting.

Kristallnacht ensued that evening.

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Categories: International ObservancesJewish