Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah: Jews pray for rain, rejoice in the Torah

Rabbi holds up a Torah scroll, rocks in background

A rabbi holds a Torah scroll. Photo by Josh Evnin, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 11 and SUNSET THURSDAY, OCTOBER 12: Jewish families around the world mark Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, a time of “rejoicing in the Torah” and asking for G_d’s blessings. In Israel, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah combine to make one holiday; outside of Israel, the holidays fall over the course of two days. Though Shemini Atzeret technically falls within Sukkot, none of the blessings associated with Sukkot are carried over onto this—separate—holiday.

Prayers for rain commence on Shemini Atzeret; on Simchat Torah, the annual cycle of the weekly Torah readings is complete. In synagogues and temples, portions of the Torah are read each week of the year, and as the end is reached on Simchat Torah, Jews demonstrate the continuing cycle of life with the Torah by immediately re-rolling the scrolls and reading the first passage of Genesis.

To celebrate the Torah, lively processions around the synagogue take place with participants carrying Torah scrolls and singing and dancing. As many adherents as possible are given the chance to recite a blessing over the Torah—even children.

Though people today may not be as dependent on yearly rainfall for their sustenance, Shemini Atzeret serves as a reminder that human actions still effect the weather and environment—perhaps more now than ever.

 

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Yom Kippur: Jews fast, repent, end High Holidays on holiest day of the year

Kol Nidre, or All Vows, composed by Max Bruch, performed by Pablo Casals and remixed with artwork edited by Leo Bar for Pix in Motion. Fonts are from a 19th-century Jewish prayer book. You also can view this video on Vimeo.

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SUNSET FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 29: From the sweet wishes of Rosh Hashanah and through the High Holidays, Jews arrive tonight at what is often referred to as the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur.

YOM KIPPUR AROUND THE WORLD: Wherever they find themselves, Jews fast and gather at Yom Kippur for traditional prayers. This photo shows U.S. Navy Lt. Yonina Creditor, originally from Virginia, leading Yom Kippur services aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington. U.S. Navy photo by William Pittman released for public use.

A solemn observance, Yom Kippur (also called the Day of Atonement) is believed to be the final opportunity to make amends before one’s fate is sealed for the coming year.

Did you know? Throughout history, when Jews were forced to publicly convert to another religion, the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service would annul those vows.

For 25 hours–this year, from sunset on September 29, the official start of Yom Kippur–Jews uphold a strict fast. Intense prayer accompanies the fasting, and many Jews spend hours repenting. Having asked forgiveness from others and made amends in the days preceding Yom Kippur, Jews ask forgiveness from God on Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre, or “All Vows,” gathers the larger Jewish community and begins Yom Kippur evening services; Ne’ilah, a service during which the Torah ark remains open and the congregation stands, is the final plea to God for forgiveness. A blast from the shofar follows the final prayers.

Why is Kol Nidre so significant? Kol Nidre is a deeply emotional experience for many Jews. At the start of Yom Kippur, amends are made and the community symbolically opens itself to regular members as well as others who rarely attend services. There is a long and complex history to the traditions of Kol Nidre—and there are many examples in Jewish fiction of moving scenes set at Kol Nidre. Overall, Kol Nidre represents a fresh resetting of commitments and promises within the community.

YOM KIPPUR: A PACKED SYNAGOGUE

Visit any Jewish house of worship and you will see ways that the main seating area can be expanded on special occasions; Yom Kippur is the main holiday when all the partitions separating rooms are removed, overflow seating sometimes is added in other parts of the building and the majority of the Jewish community shows up for at least part of the long series of services.

Although Yom Kippur is a solemn day, it is also one of celebration: Celebration of the anniversary of God forgiving the Jewish people for worshipping the golden calf. According to Jewish scholar and ReadTheSpirit contributing writer, Joe Lewis:

By traditional calculation, Moses brought the second tablets to the people on Yom Kippur. God’s nature is revealed to Moses as a God of mercy and compassion, patience and kindness (Ex. 34:6), and this idea is central to the liturgy of the day. We end the day with a blast on the shofar, eat our fill, and make plans for the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), which is only five days away.

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Rosh Hashanah: Jews ring in a new year, begin High Holidays

Apples, honey, pomegranates on silver trays

Traditional foods for a “sweet” New Year, or Rosh Hashanah. Photo by Sufeco, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 20: Wish your neighbor L’shanah tovah: “For a good year!” It’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. For two days, Jews around the world attend services, seek forgiveness and joyfully enter the annual period known as the High Holy Days. Sometimes called the Days of Awe, this period culminates in Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement (which starts at sunset on Friday, September 29 this year).

Did you know? You can find biblical background on these Days of Awe in the 23rd chapter of Leviticus.

Literally “head of the year,” Rosh Hashanah was never referred to by name in the Bible. Instead, references in Leviticus were made to Yom Teruah, the day of the sounding of the shofar. There are many stories and lessons associated with the blowing of the shofar now, but the Bible does not clearly explain the symbol. In the synagogue, 100 notes are blown each day of the New Year festivities; some refer to this noise as a “call to repentance.” Traditionally, Jewish teaching associates Rosh Hashanah with the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve.

DATES, HONEY AND A ‘SWEET’ NEW YEAR

For Rosh Hashanah, honey and apples are the most famous holiday foods in the United States; other foods, including dates and pomegranates, have ancient associations with the New Year and still are enjoyed in Jewish communities around the world. The honey-and-apples symbol, often seen on holiday cards and other Rosh Hashanah media, is a reminder of the joy in welcoming a “sweet” new year.

New Year recipes: Looking to bake up something delicious this Rosh Hashanah? Try Huffington Post’s 21 recipes with honey and apples or a Rosh Hashanah honey cake, courtesy of the New York Times. For an entire menu of Rosh Hashanah recipes, check out Chabad.org, AllRecipes, Epicurious, Food Network and Martha Stewart.

Tashlikh: A lesser-known Jewish tradition related to Rosh Hashanah is tashlikh, or “casting off.” After filling their pockets—most often with small bits of bread—devotees walk to flowing water and empty their pockets, thereby symbolically “casting off” the sins of the old year.

BEGINNING THE HIGH HOLIDAYS

Sometimes referred to as “High Holidays,” or “High Holy Days,” this is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and, often, the days in between the two holidays. One description of this period says, in essence, that G_d opens the books of judgment as the new year begins and finally, on Yom Kippur, the judgment for the year is “sealed.”

IN THE NEWS: ROSH HASHANAH 2017

What’s buzzing in news headlines this Rosh Hashanah?

  • Rosh Hashanah facts every Jew should know: Chabad.org has compiled a list of 17 Rosh Hashanah facts every Jew should have (read it here).
  • Traditional gift guide: Are you wanting to give a traditional gift (or a few) this Rosh Hashanah, but stumped on what to buy? The Jerusalem Post has put together a Rosh Hashanah 2017/2018 Traditional Gift Guide (check it out here).
  • Christians celebrating Rosh Hashanah: According to statistics, Christians celebrating Rosh Hashanah is a growing trend. Read the story in the Times of Israel.
  • A chef inspired (plus recipes): Cookbook author and food connoisseur Joan Nathan reports that experiencing Rosh Hashanah abroad is what first got her passionately interested in food. In this article, the OC Register has some of her Rosh Hashanah recipes.

 

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Tisha B’Av: Fasting on an ancient day of lamentation

The Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem, sunny day, pilgrims at wall

The Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET MONDAY, JULY 31: On the annual Jewish milestone of Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), men and women traditionally fast for 25 hours, refrain from bathing, set aside pleasurable activities and focus on communal lament.

But the observance gets mixed response as modern-day Jewish families balance the demands of contemporary life with this call from the past.

Author Debra Darvick wrote in an earlier column: “Tisha B’Av, a Jewish day of mourning that falls during the summer, marks the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. … I have attended services sporadically, more out of a sense of responsibility than any feeling of true mourning. How do I mourn something absent from Jewish experience for nearly two millennia?”

Debra also wrote about the holiday for her book This Jewish Life.

A CASCADE OF MEMORIES

Historically, the First Temple was destroyed on 9 Av 586 BCE; the Second, on 9 Av 70 CE. (Wikipedia has details). The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians; the Second Temple, by the Romans. According to Jewish tradition, 9 Av is associated with other tragic milestones, as well, which have been added to this annual day of remembrance.

Also on 9 Av: The Romans quashed Bar Kokhba’s revolt and destroyed the city of Betar, killing more than 500,000 Jewish civilians; Jews were expelled from England in 1290 CE; Germany entered World War I, the aftermath of which led to the Holocaust; and SS commander Himmler formally received approval from the Nazi Party for “The Final Solution.”

2017: PAINFUL DISAGREEMENT

This year, as the holiday approaches, Jewish newspapers and magazines around the world are covering a current, painful disagreement concerning the Western Wall (or Kotel)—a remnant of the Temple Mount that is a spiritual focus for Jews around the world. A recent decision by the Israeli government places even more authority in the hands of what are often described as “ultra-Orthodox” rabbis in Israel—rejecting the widespread hopes of American Jews for more inclusive access to the Wall, among other issues.

Care to read more? Here is recent coverage in The Jerusalem Post, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, and The Jewish WeekFor a sampling of regional Jewish media across the U.S., check out The Jewish News of Northern California, or New Jersey Jewish News.

 

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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 SUNDAY, APRIL 23: 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.)

Yom HaShoah was inaugurated in Israel in 1953, and by the next decade, a siren of silence filled the country’s streets for several minutes each year on the 27th of Nisan. No public entertainment is permitted on Yom HaShoah, and all radio and television programs focus on the day’s memorial.

In 1953, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi signed the proposal for Yom HaShoah, enacting it as law. In Israel, Yom HaShoah is a national memorial day. 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.) Though no specific rituals are carried out on this day, memorial candles and prayers are common.

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 U.S., public schools that once ignored the Holocaust in standard lesson plans—began to include this chapter of history after major public efforts in the 1970s and 1980s. Holocaust memorials, including the national museum in Washington D.C., continued to open. But many who care about this issue are concerned that the message could be fading.

Given an increasing number of anti-Semitic incidents worldwide, over the past year, observances in 2017 take on an increased urgency that these memories continue to motivate actions in defense of human rights.

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Passover: Share matzo, embrace Jewish history & partake in the venerated seder

Passover setting, embroidered cloth

From Nina Paley, courtesy of Vimeo

SUNSET MONDAY, APRIL 10: The traditional search of homes for chametz is officially over, and tonight, Jews begin the joyous festival of Passoverthe most widely observed of all Jewish traditions. After weeks of painstakingly ridding their homes of chametz—any grain product associated with fermentation—families sit back and relax as they join with relatives and friends for a Passover seder (ritual meal).

Tonight begins the seven- or eight-day festival (Jews in Israel observe seven days; Jews of the Diaspora observe eight), as Passover commemorates the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. This ancient story of freedom defines Judaism to this day. 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.

Interested in viewing the photo at the top of this page as an animation? Check out the link, here.

CHAMETZ: THE LINK TO PASSOVER

Bowl of soup with matzo balls, vegetables

A bowl of matzo soup. Photo by Amy Ross, courtesy of Flickr

Why is it so important to get rid of leavened products? 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. In the wilderness, the Bible says, God provided sustenance. To this day, unleavened matzo bread is a staple element on seder tables and a symbol of this ancient festival.

Which 2017 household products do not require Passover certification? The Jewish Press offers a free downloadable guide to Passover-safe products, kitchen guidelines and more.

Matzo is made from flour and water that is mixed and baked in 18 minutes. As matzo is such an important element of Passover, many Jews are trying to revive the art of homemade matzo. Baking matzo is a challenge; 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.

FAST OF THE FIRSTBORN—TO SEDER

During the day today, Jewish families may observe the Fast of the Firstborn. Tonight, after sunset, Passover will commence. As Passover begins, seders—ritualistic meals with readings, stories, songs and spirited discussion—are held in Jewish households everywhere. Attending a Passover seder is a universal expression of Judaism.

Did you know? The true intent of the Passover seder is to not only recall Jewish history, but to discuss the contemporary meaning of ancient Jewish wisdom, passing on that valuable information to the next generation of Jews.

Throughout the holiday period, and in more traditionally observant households, the dishes and baking tools used for the Passover seder are reserved only for this time and have never come into contact with chametz. 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 readings from the Haggadah.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. On the second day of Passover, keeping track of the omer—an ancient unit of measure—marks the days from Passover to Shavuot.

 

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Purim: Jews masquerade, parade and feast in honor of Esther

A group of girls in matching purple skirts and costumes walks down an open road

Girls participate in a Purim procession in Israel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET SATURDAY, MARCH 11: Happy Purim!

Purim may be a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish year, but there’s no question: It’s fun!

Jews end the Fast of Esther tonight and feast, masquerade and drink for the joyous festival, recalling Queen Esther and the victory she managed to pull off for the Jewish people in the face of the Persian Empire’s crushing power. Because they were saved from destruction and won over their foes, Jews celebrate gaily and throw parties for adults and children alike. The masks and costumes associated with Mardi Gras are echoed in Purim’s customs as celebrants dress up to symbolize God’s “hidden presence” in the events of the Book of Esther.

Triangle-shaped pastries, filled with jam, on white plate with red cloth beneath

Haman’s pockets, a traditional treat made for Purim. Photo by ulterior epicure, courtesy of Flickr

‘BLOTTING OUT’ HAMAN: STOMPS, NOISEMAKERS & POCKET TREATS

Purim day begins with a reading of the Book of Esther, which is often done publicly in the synagogue. As the evil Haman’s name is read—which occurs 54 times—Jews stomp their feet and rattle noisemakers, to “blot out” his name. Some Jews even write Haman’s name on the bottom of their shoes, so as to literally stomp on his name!

Purim is associated with good food and drink. One particular treat exchanged on Purim is Hamantaschen, “Haman’s pockets,” which consists of sweet pastry filled with prunes or poppy seeds. In the jovial nature of Purim, adults are encouraged to drink until they can’t tell the difference between “cursed by Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.”

Traditional Purim costumes reflect the various roles in the story of Esther. However, as Jewish organizations continue to make merry on this ancient holiday, new ideas arise—including cultural themes that tie Purim with the 21st century: themes like Harry Potter, “Star Wars” and Marvel superheroes have gained popularity in recent years.

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