Jewish Basics

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Holidays

Here Rabbi Weinstein has provided information about many Jewish Holy Days.
If you have further questions, please feel free to email Rabbi Weinstein at: sweinstein@templese.com

 

High Holy days

Rosh Hashanah
(Literally, "Head of the Year") Refers to the celebration of the Jewish New Year.  The holiday is observed on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which ususally falls in September or October, and marks the beginning of a ten-day period of prayer, self-examination and repentance, which culminates on the fast day of Yom Kippur.  These ten days are referred to as Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, or the High Holy Days.

While there are elements of joy and celebration, Rosh Hashanah is a deeply religious occasion.  The customs and symbols of Rosh Hashanah reflect the holiday's dual emphasis, happiness and humility.  Special customs observed on Rosh Hashanah include: the sounding of the shofar, using round challah, eating apples and honey (and other sweet foods) for a sweet new year.

There is also a customary service observed before Rosh Hashanah.  S'lichot, meaning forgiveness, refers to the penitential prayers recited by Jews prior to the onset of the High Holy Day season.  It is a solemn and fitting preparation for ten day sof reflection and self-examination.

Yom Kippur
The "Day of Atonement".  Refers to the annual Jewish observance of fasting, prayer and repentance.  This is considered to be the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.  In three separate passages in the Torah, the Jewish people are told, "the tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement.  It shall be a sacred occasion for you: You shall practice self-denial."  (Leviticus 23:27) 

Fasting is seen as fulfilling this biblical commandment.  The Yom Kippur fast also enables us to put aside our physical desires and to concentrate on our spiritual needs through prayer, repentance and self-improvement.  It is customary in the days before Yom Kippur for Jews to seek out friends whom they have wronged and personally ask for their forgiveness.


chanukah

Meaning "dedication" in Hebrew.  Refers to the joyous eight-day celebration during which Jews commemorate the victory of the Maccabees over the armies of Syria in 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent liberation and "rededication" of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The modern home celebration of Chanukah centers around the lighting of the chanukiah, a special menorah for Chanukah; unique foods, latkes and jelly doughnuts; and special songs and games.


Pesach

Known as Passover in English, this is a major Jewish spring festival, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt over 3,000 years ago.   The ritual observance of this holiday centers around a special home service called the seder (meaning "order") and a festive meal; the prohibition of chametz (leaven); and the eating of matzah (an unleavened bread).  On the eve of the fifteenth day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, we read from a book called the hagaddah, meaning "telling", which contains the order of prayers, rituals, readings and songs for the Pesach seder.  The Pesach seder is the only ritual meal in the Jewish calendar for which such an order is prescribed, hence its name.

The seder has a number of scriptural bases.  Exodus 12:3 - 11 describes the meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs which the Israelites ate just prior to the Exodus.  In addition, three separate passages in Exodus (12:26-27, 13:8, 13:14) and one in Deuteronomy (6:20-21) enunciate the duty of the parents to tell the story of the Exodus to their children.   The seder plate contains various symbolic foods referred to in the seder itself.


yom ha'atzma-ut

Israeli Independence Day.  Marks the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948.  It is observed on the 5th of Iyar in the Hebrew calendar, which usually falls in April.


sukkot

Sukkot, a Hebrew word meaning "booths" or "huts," refers to the Jewish festival of giving thanks for the fall harvest, as well as the commemoration of the forty years of Jewish wandering in the desert after Sinai. Sukkot is celebrated five days after Yom Kippur on the 15th of Tishrei and is marked by several distinct traditions. One tradition, which takes the commandment to "dwell in booths" literally, is to build a sukkah, a booth or hut. A sukkah is often erected by Jews during this festival, and it is common practice for some to eat and even live in these temporary dwellings during Sukkot. Read more about the history and customs of Sukkot.


tu BiSh'vat

Or the "New Year of the Trees"; Jewish Arbor Day.  The holiday is observed on the fifteenth (tu) of Sh'vat.  Scholars believe that Tu BiSh'vat was originally an agricultural festival, marking the emergence of spring.  After the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.C.E. this holiday was a way for Jews to symbolically bind themselves to their former homeland by eating foods that could be found in Israel. 

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Kabbalists created a ritual for Tu BiSh'vat similar to the Passover seder.  Today, Tu BiSh'vat has also become a tree planting festival in Israel, in which both Israelis and Jews around the world plant trees in honor or in memory of a loved one or friend.


Lag ba'omer

An omer refers to an ancient Hebrew measure of grain, amounting to about 3.6 liters.  Biblical law forbade any use of the new barley crop until an omer was brought as an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Book of Leviticus (23:15-16) also commanded, "And from the day on which you bring the offering... you shall count off seven weeks.  They must be complete."  This commandment led to the practice of the Sefirat Ha'omer, or the forty-nine days of the "Counting of the Omer".  The omer is counted from the second day of Passover and ends on Shavuot.

Lag Ba'Omer is the shorthand way of saying the thirty-third day of the omer.  It is celebrated to commemorate the day a plague ended in which thousands of students of Rabbi Akiba, a Talmudic scholar, died during the Counting of the Omer.  The period of counting is traditionally observed as a period of mourning.  The mourning, however, is set aside on Lag Ba'Omer, making it a day of special joy and festivity.


shavuot

A Hebrew word meaning "weeks".  Refers to the Jewish festival marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.  Shavuot, like so many other Jewish holidays began as an ancient agricultural festival, marking the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest.  Shavuot was distinguished in ancient times by bringing crop offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Shavuot, also known as the Festival of the Giving of the Torah, dates from biblical times, and helps to explain the holiday's name, "Weeks".  The Torah tells us it took precisely forty-nine days for our ancestors to travel from Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai (the same number of days as the Counting of the Omer) where they were to receive the Torah.  Thus, Leviticus 23:21 commands: "And you shall proclaim that day "the fiftieth day) to be a holy convocation."  The name Shavuot, "Weeks", symbolizes the completion of a seven-week journey.

Special customs on Shavuot are the reading of the Book of Ruth, which reminds us that we too can find a continual source of blessing in our tradition.  Another tradition includes staying up all night to study Torah and Mishnah, a custom called Tikkun Lail Shavuot, which symbolizes our commitment to the Torah, and that we are always ready and awake to receive the Torah.  Traditionally, dairy dishes are served on this holiday to symbolize the sweetness of the Torah, as well as the "land of milk and honey."


simchat torah

Hebrew for "rejoicing in the Law".  Celebrates the completion of the annual reading of the Torah.  Simchat Torah is a joyous festival, in which we affirm our view of the Torah as a tree of life and demonstrate a living example of never-ending, lifelong study.  Torah scrolls are taken from the ark and carried or danced around the synagogue seven times.  During the Torah service, the concluding section of Deuteronomy is read, and immediately following, the opening section of Genesis, or B'reishit as it is called in Hebrew, is read.


Purim

Celebrated by the reading of the Scroll of Esther, known in Hebrew as the Megillat Esther, which relates the basic story of Purim.  Under the rule of King Ahasuerus, Haman, the King's prime minister, plots to exterminate all of the Jews of Persia.  His plan is foiled by Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai, who ultimately save the Jews of the land from destruction.  The reading of the Megillah is typically a rowdy affair, which is punctuated by booing and noisemaking when Haman's name is read aloud.

Purim is an unusual holiday in many respects.  First, Esther is the only Book of the Bible in which God is not mentioned.  Second, Purim, like Chanukah, is viewed by tradition as a minor festival.  The elevation of Purim to a major holiday was a result of the Jewish historical experience.  Over the centuries, Haman became the embodiment of every anti-Semite in every land where Jews were oppressed.  The significance of Purim lies not so much in how it began, but in what it has become - a thankful and joyous affirmation of Jewish survival against all odd.


yom HaShoah

Also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Occurs on the 27th of Nisan.  "Shoah", which means catastrophe or utter destruction in Hebrew, refers to the atrocities that were committed against the Jewish people during World War II.  This is a memorial day for those who died in the Shoah.


 

Shabbat


friday night

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saturday morning

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