Laissez les bons temps rouler! Let’s shake things up and make this blog just a bit more fun. And, seriously, what could possibly lighten things up more than a Mardi Gras with Jews? I know, you are thinking, “Slap my dreidle and call me Bubbala! Kathy done lost her meshuggener mind!” But, really, there is such a thing. Kind of. You’ll see. As promised in the previous installment, it’s Jewish holiday time.
Learning about holidays and holy days is a fun way to gain both theological and cultural insight into a faith. It is the proverbial spoonful of sugar. We all know a little bit about some of the Jewish festivals (unless you are Jewish, and then you know a lot more than me; in that case, send me your favorite potato latke recipes). But, for my goyische readers, here is a primer so you can finally understand why the heck the kids in the Northeast of the US get the day off for Yom Kippur. So, hold on to your yarmulke cause it’s time to party! And atone. And build a hut. And light a candle. And drink!
This one seems pretty straightforward. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. There you go. Done. But, wait! There’s more! Rosh Hashanah does indeed mark the beginning of the Jewish calendar and it is heralded by the blowing of the shofar. The shofar is a trumpet made from a ram’s horn. As impressive and ancient as the ram’s horn may sound, it is significant in and of itself. It was a ram whose horns were caught in a thicket and alerted Abraham that he had a reprieve from sacrificing his son. (Abraham keeps cropping up, doesn’t he?) The ram’s horn is the symbol of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his long awaited child for God and also that God was merciful and accepted the ram instead. With the blowing of the ram’s horn, Jews are reminded of their first patriarch and his obedience. They begin the New Year with a reenactment of the beginning of their history.
In addition to blowing the shofar, Rosh Hashanah observances typically involve eating sweet foods, such as honey, to symbolize a sweet new year. Often the commemoration of the new year features challah (sweet yeast bread) dipped in honey. Delish! The typical Sabbath challah is simply braided whereas the special shapes created for Rosh Hashanah are celebratory. The challah prepared for Rosh Hashanah by the Ashkenazi (Jews of Eastern European heritage) community may have some honey in the dough and could be studded with raisins. Some shape their New Year challah into a spiral to indicate a new beginning or to resemble a crown (God’s royalty). Sephardic Jews (Jews of Iberian peninsula/Spanish heritage) might shape their bread into animals, keys or other symbolic shapes. And now I want some bread.
Rosh Hashanah ushers in a new year, but it also marks the beginning of something else: the High Holy Days or the Days of Awe. The ten days stretching from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur mark a time of atonement and repentance for the Jewish people. Rosh Hashanah is a celebration and is also the beginning of a more solemn and introspective time, akin to Lent for Christians. It is said that there are three judgments rendered on Rosh Hashanah: 1) the righteous are inscribed in the Book of Life 2) the evil are recorded in the Book of Death and 3) the remainder have judgment postponed until Yom Kippur. Since so few of us are all good or all bad, during the ten day period the practitioner has an opportunity to atone and secure a fair judgment by Yom Kippur. One might ask for forgiveness for transgressions from family, friends and neighbors in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During this time, you may hear people say to each other “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life”, thereby wishing a good outcome to each other. Now let’s have a little musical interlude! Please enjoy the a capella madness of the Maccabeats singing Book of Good Life. Fun stuff!
Let me start by giving you a pro tip: don’t wish someone a “Happy Yom Kippur!” Lots of non-Jews have made this mistake so you are not alone, but you will likely rethink that greeting now. If you are Christian, you can think of Yom Kippur as a day of solemnity, in tone it is more like Good Friday than Easter. The ten days of self examination that began with Rosh Hashanah conclude with Yom Kippur. Different interpretations of Judaism may commemorate this day in varying degrees of strict interpretation, but for all Jews it is the final day of atonement that seals one’s fate. It is your last chance to set things right and have your name written in the Book of Life.
As in other faiths, fasting helps one atone for sins and is an important part of Yom Kippur observances. If you say to your Jewish friend “have an easy fast”, it would probably be appreciated (and it would be waaaaaaay better than saying “Happy Yom Kippur!”). This is a 25 hour fast from sunset until sundown the next day. The penitent abstains from all food and drink, including water. (The sick, elderly, expectant mothers and the very young are exempt.) Many Ashkenazi Jews will wear white clothing, symbolizing a funeral shroud as a reminder of our mortality. Temple attendance is especially important on Yom Kippur. A Yom Kippur practice that is especially moving for me is the special Yom Kippur prayer that is said standing. There is a silent recitation of sins accompanied by a light knock on the chest near the heart for each sin committed. This is one of those crossover moments that highlights similarities rather than differences. It should be familiar to Catholics who may recall saying “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” which means “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” while striking their own chest three times during the Mass. Both faith practices remind with words and physical touch that our sinfulness, our errors in judgement and deed, come from deeply within our selves, near the heart. Yom Kippur ends in the way the Days of Awe began, with the blowing of the shofar.
You haven’t heard of Sukkot? What, have you been living in a hut or something? Okay, you are excused because most non-Jews haven’t heard of Sukkot. But what is all this about huts? You get to build one in the backyard for Sukkot! Sukkot commemorates the 40 years of wandering in the desert when the Jewish people lived in temporary shelters, aka huts. For Sukkot, observant families will build a temporary shelter and then enjoy meals and celebrate the holiday within the rustic shelter for a week. The holiday also features the four “species” of citron, palm, myrtle and willow branches that form the “the lulav” when gathered together. The lulav is waved in the four directions (North, South, East, West) while reciting lines from the Torah. The lulav indicates another origin of Sukkot; it is also a harvest festival when God is thanked for his bounty.
A thoughtful practice during Sukkot is the reading of Kohelet. For those who don’t speak Hebrew (and really, who doesn’t?), Kohelet is the Book of Ecclesiastes. You are perhaps thinking, “Well, isn’t that nice. What is Ecclesiastes again?” Here’s a reminder. (Now that was groovy!) Ecclesiastes is one of the books of Wisdom in the Jewish tradition; it is philosophical and theologically challenging. Sukkot is a time of celebration of the harvest, but it is also a time for contemplation of life and its meaning. Forty years of wandering in the desert could very well lead you into some deep thought about God’s plan for his people and your very own self. So, it’s not just about a time to sow and a time to reap, it is truly a meditation that there is a time to every purpose under heaven, even if you don’t know what that purpose may be. Consider this passage:
Just as you do not know how the life breath passes into the limbs within the womb of the pregnant woman, so you cannot foresee the actions of God, who causes all things to happen. Sow your seed in the morning, and don’t hold back your hand in the evening, since you don’t know which is going to succeed
Ecclesiastes (and Sukkot) tell us to live now. We don’t know the future, we cannot predict God’s actions, we don’t know whether we will succeed in our efforts or not. But, despite all of the unknowing, we must still act, we must still live. How very Jewish to live in the now. It must be especially lovely to commemorate that in a hut, with your family, in thanks for your bounty. Wave that lulav and turn, turn, turn!
Goyische kids are not getting the day off for this one and it is possible that you’ve never even heard of Simchat Torah. But, I really wanted to share just a few lines with you on the topic because it is a festival that gives us a glimpse into the heart of Judaism: the Torah.
A little background….If you hear someone talk about the Jewish Bible, they are referring to the Tanakh, which is roughly analogous to the Old Testament for Christians. (Please note, however, that there are differences.) The Tanakh itself is divided into three parts: Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Wisdom). Take a look at those words for a moment… Torah, Nevi-im, and Ketuvim. I took extra time to bold those letters. Look at them again. Bingo! You are just like Dan Brown in your religious sleuthing.
The first part of the Tanakh is the Torah and that is a familiar word to many of us who are not Jewish. You likely already know that the Torah bears a remarkable similarity, nearly exact, to the first five books in the Old Testament scripture tradition of Christians. The Torah is quite similar to what Christians call the Pentateuch (penta = five in Greek). The Torah and the Pentateuch are the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. For Jews, this is where the law is found. We could go on and on for a very long time about Jewish holy books, but it suffices to say there is a lot more to Jewish scripture than the Torah and even the Tanakh. For example, there is the Talmud as well. The Talmud contains a written record of the ancient Jewish oral tradition about the law and then further commentary and interpretation of the law (Torah). It is kind of like commentary, and then commentary on the commentary, elucidating every aspect of a precisely led Jewish life. Orthodox Jewish people study the Talmud in great detail. Um, where am I going with all of this….
Back to the Torah. The Torah is the heart. It is the heart of the faith and it is the heart of the temple. It is the heart of the people of the temple. The word, this law, resides in the ark in the temple. The Torah is read throughout the year and when the cycle of reading begins again, it is Simchat Torah, the time to begin the cycle of reading again. This is a joyous celebration when the ark is opened and the Torah scrolls are paraded through the temple, the people singing, dancing and rejoicing. I often come back to the point of Judaism being a faith that is celebrated in the moment, and Simchat Torah is a joyful demonstration of that. When the very heart of the faith, the law, is revealed to the people, they erupt in celebration that they will once again hear God’s words. Simchat Torah is not a holiday that is well known amongst non-Jews, but like the Torah, it is a beat from the heart of Jewish life.
Here in the US, it really seems as though Hanukkah is the most super special and extra important of Jewish holidays because of the gift giving. Thank you, rampant consumerism! Gift giving is a more recent addition to the celebration. Hanukkah is a historic commemoration, a lesson in faith, a lesson in charity, and a testament to a people keeping their culture and language alive.
Hanukkah is the festival of lights when an additional candle on the menorah (like a candelabrum) is lit on each of eight nights. The candles are lit by the ninth candle which is called the shamash. The candles memorialize the miracle of the oil in the Temple. In the second century BCE, Greeks were ruling the Holy Land and were trying to force the Jews to accept Greek culture and beliefs. A small army led by Judah Maccabee defeated the Greeks (against mind boggling odds) and took back the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life, culture and faith. When they lit the temple’s candelabrum, there was only enough oil to keep it lit for one day. Miraculously, the oil stayed lit for eight days. Big deal, you might say. Why not just buy some more oil? Things in the Bible are never that easy. This was not a simple matter of running to the local merchant and purchasing another bottle of Wesson. This oil was special. The oil for the Temple must be ritually prepared and of special purity. It took eight days to prepare the oil that was fit for burning in the Temple. God provided this miracle to give his people the time they needed to properly provision the Temple.
Here’s some interesting information to impress your friends next December. The story of the defeat of the Greeks (1 Maccabee and 2 Maccabee) and the miracle of the oil is not in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), but it it is contained in the Catholic Old Testament. (During the Reformation, the Protestant movement removed some of the books of the Old Testament from the Catholic canon for the Protestant Bible). The celebration of Hanukkah is also referred to (kind of in passing) in the New Testament in John 10:22. I love that this factoid shows how our histories are intertwined and intermingled, from the time of Abraham, through the story of Hanukkah, and until today. If we would only look straight at our shared history, perhaps we would be less quick to look askance at each other. But, this begs the question, if Hanukkah doesn’t appear in the Tanakh, how is it a Jewish festival? The story of Judah Maccabee is not canonical, but it is in the Jewish tradition and is discussed in detail in the Talmud (remember, that is the commentary and the commentary on the commentary about how to live as a Jew).
Besides lighting candles, the miracle of the oil is celebrated with fried foods like potato latkes. Children are taught about charity through gifts of Hanukkah gelt, which are gold foil covered chocolate coins. A miracle, fried food and chocolate? What is not to love about this holiday? But wait, there’s more! There’s a game! You’ve likely heard the dreidl song and know that someone made it out of clay. There are several theories on the history of dreidl, and maybe it really is just a derivation of a dice game played by the Irish or English, but it may have also been a way to keep the Hebrew language alive and accessible to children in times where studying Hebrew was particularly dangerous. Regardless of origin, the letters on the dreidl stand for “a great miracle happened here”. Hanukkah may not be the most theologically significant of Jewish holidays, but its messages of charity, faith, and the importance of cultural tradition add to all of our lives and incidentally my waistline. Now go eat a sufganya (a fried jelly doughnut), because they are a Hanukkah tradition, too. This is really the kind of celebration I can endorse, especially since Matisyahu made this weird video that eventually turns into a good song.
And now, what you all have been waiting for. It’s the Jewish Mardi Gras! Like many exciting stories, the story of Purim starts with an evil plan hatched by a terrible politician and there is a beautiful girl who saves the day. (This is some real Game of Thrones stuff.) In ancient Persia, there was a King named Ahaseurus. He had his queen executed because she was perhaps too feisty and then he held a beauty contest to find a new wife (nice guy, right?). A Jewish girl named Esther (who kept her Jewish identity under wraps) won the beauty contest and stole his heart. She is the beautiful girl in our story, and like most women she should not be underestimated. Around the same time, Ahaseurus had appointed Haman, one of the great anti-Semites of history (and that’s really saying something), to be his Hand of the King. Sorry, I meant prime minister. However, I do think Haman really would have given Tywin Lannister a run for his money in an evil contest.
Haman hatched a plan to rid the Persian empire of those pesky Jews because they just weren’t subservient enough. The Jewish people in Persia were led by Mordechai, who happened to be the cousin of… wait for it… Queen Esther. Haman ordered the execution of all Jews on the 13th of Adar, a date chosen by a lottery devised by Haman. By the way, the word Purim means lottery. While Mordechai urged his people to fast and pray for salvation from this impending slaughter, he also asked his cousin the Queen to use her own, um, methods. She had become the beloved of the King and she took the great chance of revealing her Jewish identity to him as well as informing him of Haman’s plot. Remember that he killed his last wife, so this was a huge risk for her. Her gamble paid off and the King ordered that Haman and all of his sons be hung on the gallows that were prepared for the Jews.
Purim celebrations are an especially fun time when the Book of Esther is read aloud. Like the story of Judah Maccabee, the Book of Esther is not actually in the Jewish Bible but is still considered very important in the tradition. When the name Haman is said, the people make noise, they boo and hiss and use noisemakers to drown out his evil name. The Talmud recommends that men drink until they cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai”. Some communities will hold parades or beauty contests where little girls dress as Queen Esther. This whole Mardi Gras comparison is starting to make sense, right? Costumes, drinking, rowdiness, a religious justification for partying your butt off…. Queen Esther is an awesome heroine! Take that, Khaleesi. Since it’s Mardi Gra-ish, we really need some music here.
Every blog post must come to an end and we have reached it. But, but, but… there is still another holiday and it’s a big one! This right here is my cliffhanger. We’ll talk about Passover next time. It deserves it’s own post because of its significance and because it’s my bloggy and I’ll stop here if I want to. If that is not enough of a tease, we’ll probably mention Charlton Heston, too.