Celebrating our Judaism together, throughout the year
Whether joyous or solemn, Jewish holidays are always a time for gathering to celebrate together.
It all begins each year as fall approaches, as Jews in Louisville and throughout the world prepare for a unique ten-day period of prayer, self-examination, fasting, and repentance. It is time for the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, the High Holy Days: Rosh HaShanah, and Yom Kippur. These Jewish holidays are preceded by a month of reflection: the Hebrew month of Elul. During this time, morning worship includes special penitential prayers and concludes with the blowing of the shofar as a reminder of the approaching season of atonement. In some communities, this is also a time to visit the graves of loved ones.
The major holidays are described below.
For many Jews, the High Holiday season begins with Rosh HaShanah and the start of the new month of Tishrei. Jewish tradition, however, teaches that the preceding month of Elul is a time of soul-searching and reflection to prepare oneself for the magnitude of the Days of Awe. It is during this time that we observe Selichot (also spelled s’lichot).
In the broadest definition, selichot are penitential prayers said before and during the High Holidays and other fast days throughout the year. But the term first appears as a reference to the biblical verses that were added to the Yom Kippur liturgy. Eventually, the holiday prayers were combined with general prayers of repentance. The prayer book of Rav Amram Gaon, from the ninth century, for example, includes a collection of these poetic writings and meditations. While these prayers were initially only recited during the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the custom developed to use them in the days beforehand as well.
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Rosh HaShanah (literally, “Head of the Year”) is the Jewish New Year, a time of prayer, self-reflection, and repentance. We review our actions during the past year, and we look for ways to improve ourselves, our communities, and our world in the year to come. The holiday marks the beginning of a 10-day period, known as the Yamim Nora-im (“Days of Awe” or “High Holidays”), ushered in by Rosh HaShanah and culminating with Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”). Rosh HaShanah is widely observed by Jews throughout the world, often with prayer and reflection in a synagogue. There also are several holiday rituals observed at home.
Rosh HaShanah is celebrated on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which — because of differences in the solar and lunar calendar — corresponds to September or October on the Gregorian or secular calendar. Customs associated with the holiday include sounding the shofar, eating a round challah, and tasting apples and honey to represent a sweet New Year.
Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement” and refers to the annual Jewish observance of fasting, prayer and repentance. Part of the High Holidays, which also include Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.
Yom Kippur is the moment in Jewish time when we dedicate our mind, body, and soul to reconciliation with our fellow human beings, ourselves, and God. As the New Year begins, we commit to self-reflection and inner change. As both seekers and givers of pardon, we turn first to those whom we have wronged, acknowledging our sins and the pain we have caused them. We are also commanded to forgive, and to be willing to let go of any resentment we feel towards those who have committed offenses against us. Only then can we turn to God and ask for forgiveness, as we read in the Yom Kippur liturgy, “And for all these, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement.”
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 Jews to eat and even live in these temporary dwellings during Sukkot. Here in Louisville, at Temple Shalom we have a structure adjacent to the Founders Garden that is decorated by children and grown-ups alike. At some point during the week, a light meal or other refreshments are served in the sukkah.
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.
Hanukkah, (alternately spelled Chanukah) meaning “dedication” in Hebrew, refers to the joyous eight-day celebration during which Jews commemorate the victory of the Macabees over the armies of Syria in 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent liberation and “re-dedication” of the Temple in Jerusalem. The modern home celebration of Hanukkah centers around the lighting of the hanukkiah, a special menorah for Hanukkah, and also includes unique foods such as latkes and jelly doughnuts, and special songs and games.
Purim is an unusual holiday in many respects. First, Esther is the only biblical book in which God is not mentioned. Second, Purim, like Hanukkah, is traditionally viewed as a minor festival but elevated to a major holiday as a result of the Jewish historical experience. 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 odds.
Purim is celebrated with a public reading — usually in the synagogue — of the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther), which tells the story of the holiday. Over the centuries, the story’s villain — the king’s prime minister Haman — became the embodiment of every anti-Semite in every land in which Jews were oppressed. Under the rule of King Ahashverosh, Haman plots to exterminate all of the Jews of Persia. His plan is foiled by Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai, who ultimately save the Jews of Persia from destruction.
The reading of the megillah is typically a rowdy affair, punctuated by booing and noisemaking when Haman’s name is read aloud. At Temple Shalom children and grown-ups are encouraged to dress up as the characters in the story. For many years, our homegrown PurimSpiel has provides lots of laughs before we enjoy our hamantaschen.
Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is a major Jewish spring festival, celebrating freedom and family as we remember the Exodus from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. The main observances of this holiday center around a special home service called the seder (meaning “order”), which includes a festive meal. Passover includes a week-long prohibition against eating chametz (i.e., food made with leavened grains such as wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt), and the eating of matzah (an unleavened bread made specially for Passover).
On the 15th day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, Jews gather with family and friends in the evening to read from a book called the Haggadah, meaning “telling,” which contains the order of prayers, rituals, readings, and songs for the Passover seder. The Haggadah helps us retell the events of the Exodus, so that each generation may learn and remember this story that is so central to Jewish life and history.
Yom HaShoah and Related Holidays
Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, four new holidays have been added to the Jewish calendar: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day), and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day, which celebrates the reunification of the city in 1967). In Israel, these days are observed as national holidays. Around the world, they are observed in various ways by Jewish communities.
Yom HaShoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, occurs on the 27th of the Hebrew month 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. The Shoah is also known as the Holocaust, from a Greek word meaning “sacrifice by fire.”
The Holocaust was the largest manifestation of antisemitism in recent history. Yom HaShoah reminds us of the horrors that Jews and other persecuted groups faced: forced labor, starvation, humiliation, and torture, which often resulted in death. It was a systematic effort to wipe out an entire population from the face of the earth.
Many commemorate Yom HaShoah by lighting yellow candles to keep alive the memories of the victims. Most synagogues and Jewish communities gather together to mark the day through worship, music and the stories from survivors.
The Israeli Knesset (parliament) established the day that precedes Yom HaAtzmaut as Yom HaZikaron, a day to memorialize soldiers who lost their lives fighting in the War of Independence and subsequent battles, as well as a day to remember civilian victims of terrorism. The official State name given to the day is Yom HaZikaron LeHalalei Ma’arakhot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot HaEivah (יוֹם הזִּכָּרוֹן לַחֲלָלֵי מַעֲרָכוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְנִפְגְעֵי פְּעוּלוֹת הָאֵיבָה), which means “Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism,” and was enacted into law in 1963.
Yom HaAtzmaut marks the anniversary of the establishment of the modern state of Israel. It is observed on or near the 5th of the Hebrew month of Iyar on the Jewish calendar, which usually falls in April.
Lag BaOmer is a minor festive Jewish holiday that falls on the 33rd day of the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot, a period of time is known as the Omer. (The numerical value of the Hebrew letter lamed is 30, and the value of gimel is three; lamed and gimel together are pronounced “lag.”) This holiday gives us a break from the semi-mourning restrictions (no parties or events with music, no weddings, and no haircuts) that are customarily in place for some Jewish communities during the Omer.
Lag BaOmer commemorates a variety of historical events, including the end of a plague that killed many students of Rabbi Akiva (c. 50-135 C.E.), the yahrzeit of 2nd-century mystical scholar Shimon bar Yochai, and a Jewish military victory over Roman forces in 66 C.E. In remembrance of these events, some people celebrate with picnics and bonfires. Many couples in Israel choose to get married on Lag BaOmer, and many people also choose to wait until that day to get a haircut or shave.
Shavuot is a Hebrew word meaning “weeks” and 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.
The Torah tells us it took precisely 49 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 50th day) to be a holy convocation…” The name Shavuot, “Weeks,” then 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 Leil 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.”
Shavuot is celebrated seven weeks after Passover (when the barley harvest begins). These seven weeks are called the Omer and are counted ceremonially. This counting, called s’firat ha-omer, begins on the second day of Passover. The source for this practice is found in the book of Deuteronomy: “You shall count off seven weeks…then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks to Adonai your God” (Deuteronomy 16:9-10). The counting of the Omer takes place daily after the evening service.
Once the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the mitzvah of bringing the first fruits of the harvest was lost, the Rabbis were concerned that the observance of Shavuot might disappear. It was during this time period (second century C.E.) when the Rabbis determined that the revelation of Torah at Sinai coincided with Shavuot.
Recognizing that Shavuot has both agricultural and religious roots, the holiday is known by several different names: Shavuot, Z’man Matan Torateinu, and Chag HaBikkurim. Z’man Matan Torateinu translates as “the season of the giving of our Torah”; and Chag HaBikkurim means “the festival of first fruits”.
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