Category Archives: Hebrew calendar

Tu B’Av: The Jewish Valentine’s Day?

Dear Josep,

A while ago I described Lag B’Omer as “pretty much the most obscure holiday we have.” Well, I lied.

A well-informed Jew who skims over my summary of the Jewish Year might notice that there is a little something missing. I believe when I first posted it, someone did ask me: “What about Tu B’Av?” I probably scoffed and said, “Tu B’Av is not really a thing.”

Well… that isn’t entirely true. Tu B’Av is a thing. Back in the days of the Temple, in fact, it was a major thing. It’s just that it’s not really celebrated by religious Jews in any meaningful way anymore, and more annoyingly, in Israel, it’s been commercialized and turned into the Jewish Valentine’s Day—or, as it were, the Jewish St. Jordi’s Day. 😉

So what is this Tu B’Av and why has it been hijacked by candy hearts and ads for diamond earrings?

The answer, as with everything in this crazy religion, is complicated.

Tu B’Av (the 15th of Av–it falls tonight and tomorrow) is first mentioned in the Talmud as a day of “great celebration” on par with Yom Kippur. The only allusion to it as a holiday within the Bible is in the book of Judges (19-21)–part of an EXTREMELY disturbing, gruesome, and profoundly unromantic story that starts with a horrific gang rape and murder and continues with a bloody civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of Israel. After the war, there were only 600 Benjaminite men left, and there was a concern that the tribe would be wiped out, because the Israelites had vowed not to give their daughters to Benjaminites in marriage.

The festival of Tu B’Av was used as a solution to the problem, because it involved a kind of bizarre ancient dating game: young women would go into the vineyards near Shiloh wearing white dresses (more on this in a minute), and they would dance. Young men would hide among the vines, and if they spotted one they fancied, they’d snatch her up and marry her.

That way, the Israelites reasoned, we get around the problem because we’re not willingly giving our daughters to the Benjaminites.

The earliest event associated with Tu B’Av, however–according to the Sages–is one that happened many years before. According to the Sages, the Sin of the Spies (Numbers 13-14) occurred on the Ninth of Av, marking it forever as a day of great calamity for the Jewish people. This is when the Israelites sent spies to scout out the land of Israel before entering its borders. When the Spies returned, the opinions were split ten to two: the majority reported that there was no way the Israelites could conquer the land. The remaining two, Joshua and Caleb, said the land was wonderful and that we would conquer it with God’s help. The Israelites believed the pessimistic spies, and cried all night that God had led them to their deaths. They started rebelling and planned to appoint a new leader to return them to Egypt. God was thoroughly exasperated with their lack of faith and gratitude and condemned them to wander in the desert for forty years, until a new generation arose with greater faith in God.

The Sages tell us that every Tisha B’Av for the next thirty nine years, fifteen thousand men of the “desert generation” would die. And in the fortieth year, the last fifteen thousand dug their own graves, and lay down in them, waiting to die, but God granted them reprieve and did not kill them. They say that the fifteenth of Av is when they realized that they were not going to die, and it became a day of celebration–on par with Yom Kippur, as a celebration of God’s forgiveness.

Well, that’s… all very well and good, but I literally had not heard this story at all until a few years ago. It’s just a rabbinic story, a parable, not something we are supposed to accept as historical fact. All other holidays are rooted in the Bible or in documented Jewish history. There are another number of events that are said to have occurred on Tu B’Av that are more well documented, but they occurred well after the festival was already established.

The Talmud describes the rituals observed on Tu B’Av in the days of the Temple. It says that all the girls of Jerusalem would borrow white dresses from one another: a rich girl would borrow from a poor girl, a poor girl from a rich girl, the daughter of a priest from the daughter of a beggar, etc., because on this day they were to be seen as having an equal station: all daughters of God.

The girls would then go out to the vineyards and dance there, as described above.

The unique thing about this ritual is that it erased the lines of class and station, creating an environment where men and women could select their partners based on their wishes and not on the expectations of society.

If  there is common thread among all these stories and ideas, it is a sense of love, brotherhood, and equality among the Jewish people, usually following some kind of conflict. After all, Tisha B’Av is the day the Temple was destroyed, and it is said that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among Jews. The vineyard ritual, in contrast, blurred the lines that separated us and brought us together as one big family.

…Hey, at least it’s a more logical connection to love than a saint slaying a dragon and handing a flower to a princess, okay?!

After the Temple was destroyed, this day was no longer celebrated. For a very long time the only way it was observed was the omission of certain prayers. Nowadays, religious communities take advantage of the theme to organize singles’ events. To be fair, it’s probably on par with Tu B’Shvat in that it doesn’t really have much practical significance anymore, and its meaning has been channeled towards a more general theme.

Well, call me a spoilsport, but I’d rather pretend this holiday doesn’t exist than acknowledge it as a “Jewish Valentine’s Day.” If Jewish women need a day on the calendar to guilt their husbands into buying them chocolate and make their single friends depressed and miserable about being single, I guess it’s better that it be Tu B’Av than Valentine’s Day. But… yeah. How about no.

Now, if we took a leaf out of your proverbial book and exchanged books on this day, that would be another matter entirely. 😛

But seriously–I’d rather continue to ignore it until someone comes up with a way to celebrate love and brotherhood among Jews in a genuine way that does not focus only on romantic love.



From the Archives, March 2014: Purim

This letter was written two years ago, a few months after Josep and I renewed our correspondence after a long time we’d been out of touch. He hadn’t recalled much of the information I’d given him on the Jewish holidays many years ago, except for this one detail about Purim: that it involves wearing costumes. In fact, this stood out to him so much that he seemed to be under the impression that all Jewish holidays involved wearing costumes. My theory is that this is because of the picture you will see in a moment, which apparently seared this information into his memory for all eternity, for reasons that are fairly self-evident. 😛

I posted this letter last year, but it messed with the formatting somehow and I decided to remove it and repost it this year. (And it will appear in the book–edited to suit the medium, and sans pictures, unfortunately!)

An easy and meaningful fast to those observing the Fast of Esther, and a joyful Purim to all!

Dear Josep,

So……. 🙂

I don’t know what gave you the impression that dressing up in costumes is a thing we do for every holiday. Eitan was correct, it really is only for Purim! Could be that you got that impression because I was particularly fond of that tradition and used it as an outlet for my theatrical silliness. …Hence the Hassidic Jack Sparrow when I was 17. 😀

Don't even ask, dear reader. Don't. Even. Ask.
Don’t even ask, dear reader. Don’t. Even. Ask.

I used to take the opportunity to express some personal joke from that year. But I guess my life has become more boring as I got older, because my costumes have gotten simpler and more tame, and I’m out of personal jokes to dress up as… this year H decided to dress up as Darth Vader (don’t ask me why… I think he saw someone with that costume last year), so I’m going along with the theme as Princess Leia. (I told Eitan he should be Chewbacca. He was not amused.)

Anyway, let me set you straight: the common denominator in Jewish holidays is not costumes, it is food. 😀 There’s a joke that all Jewish holidays follow the same theme: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” It’s true for almost all of the holidays, and Purim is not the exception. 🙂 Much as we joke about it, it really is reflected solidly in halakha (Jewish law): every celebration is marked with at least one festive meal, including most holidays, weddings and circumcisions. On Shabbat, we are required to eat three festive meals. 🙂 It’s one expression of the concept of channeling the material world to bring us to greater spiritual heights. We use the worldly pleasures and enjoyment to help us connect to the spiritual.

So, Purim! 🙂 The holiday commemorates the story of Queen Esther and and the Jews of Persia (which you can read about in your Bible under the Book of Esther–give it a read, it’s not long. I’d say read Wikipedia on it, but the article in Catalan has some glaring inaccuracies! Read the English one if you need a summary!) (And then go fix the Catalan one! 😛 ). If you want a very brief summary… repeat after me… “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” 😛

The remarkable thing about the Book of Esther is that even though it is clearly a story of God rescuing the Jews from a terrible fate (…as per usual…), it does not mention God’s name even once. One might think that it was Esther’s actions that saved the Jews, or her uncle Mordekhai’s advice. One might even go so far as to argue that it was all just a bunch of lucky coincidences–the right people being at the right place in the right time…

But we know that there is no such thing as a coincidence. 🙂 And that is the main theme of Purim: “things are not what they seem”. This is where the tradition of dressing in costumes comes from–as well as the tradition of eating foods that have some kind of “hidden” element in them, the most famous of these being hamentaschen:

Remember these?
Remember these?

(I usually make my mother’s oatmeal hamentaschen, which are way better than the standard fare. 😀 I have very fond memories of helping her bake them back in Pittsburgh in my childhood and Rehovot in my adolescence.)

Purim is a celebration of the Divine game of hide-and-seek; of God “hiding” himself in the mundane, behind science, behind history, behind strong and charismatic people, and waiting for you to recognize Him behind these disguises.

Purim is also about Jewish unity. One of the things the “bad guy”, Haman, says to King Ahashverosh (Xerxes) about the Jews is that they are “scattered and separate among all the nations” (Esther 3:8). We strive to counter that “separateness” Haman noted, by expressing our unity and love for one another, by giving charity, sending food to one another, and having a big feast (of course…) with our friends and family. These things are not just recommendations or traditions; they are mitzvot, commandments, required by Jewish law on Purim day! Most people send each other gift baskets, usually of sweets.

The other commandment of Purim is to hear Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) cantillated aloud in the synagogue both night and day. Like this.

(Geez, where was YouTube seven years ago?!) Don’t bother watching the whole thing. I’m having it start you at the beginning of chapter 3; you’ll notice something odd at about 10:27 minutes… that’s what happens every time the name of the bad guy of the story, Haman, is mentioned during the reading. 🙂

Since the obligation to hear the Megillah is equal for men and women (unlike the obligation to hear the Torah, which is only for men), women can read the Megillah for themselves, and in my community we have a reading by women for women. I learned how to cantillate from the Torah and Megillah from my mother, and I usually participate in these readings. (I also read part of my Torah portion at my bat mitzvah, but just at the party, not as part of the service.) This year, like last year, I’ll be reading chapter 8. 🙂

Purim being a very joyful holiday, there is a tradition to get drunk during the feast… which I am not a big fan of. 😛 I never particularly liked drinking. I’ll enjoy the occasional wine or sweet liquor, but only a little. The only time I ever got drunk I was eighteen months old. Yes, I said months. But that’s a story for another time. 😛

In most of the world Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar. In cities that were walled at the time of the reign of Ahashverosh and Esther, however, such as Jerusalem and Hebron, it is celebrated on the 15th. This is called “Shushan Purim” (Shushan=Sussa, the royal city where the events took place). Why the difference? Because apparently the big war between the Jews and their enemies took place on different days depending on location; in the walled cities, it took place a day later.

A joyful Purim to you and yours!



Well, the Almond Trees Are… Not Blooming.

Dear Josep,

So, today was Tu B’shvat, that obscure little not-really-holiday that is the New Year for Trees. And despite the popular Tu B’shvat song I mentioned last year… the almond trees are not, in fact, in bloom. Actually, it’s supposed to snow in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas (possibly here) as of this afternoon. Jerusalemites and people in the higher regions of Gush Etzion have reported some flurries.

I know I've said that the white almond blossoms look like snow on the bare branches, but...
I know I’ve said that the white almond blossoms look like snow on the bare branches, but…
By Zlerman (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
You see, Tu B’shvat is “early” this year. And when you start using words like “early” to describe something that is supposed to occur on the same date every year, you start to understand the complications of living with a solar-lunar calendar.

You see… the Muslims use a calendar that is 100% lunar. So for them there’s no such thing as an “early” or “late” Ramadan or Eid Al-Adha. These holidays fall whenever they fall; the weather has nothing to do with it.

But for us, it does, and here’s why. Passover has to fall in the spring: “You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread as I have commanded you, at the appointed time of the month of budding/springtime, for then you left Egypt, and they shall not appear before Me empty handed.” (Exodus 23:15) The seasons are dependent, obviously, on our position around the sun. So if Passover must fall in the spring, we need to manipulate our calendar to align, more or less, with the solar calendar.

So when Tu B’shvat falls in January, we have a bit of a problem. Passover falls on the 15th of Nissan, meaning exactly two months from Tu B’shvat. The end of March may technically be spring, but it’s pushing it, and next year it would certainly be too early.

What’s a Jew to do?

Well, we need another month.

So, we add another month.

And what better month to celebrate twice than the happiest month of the year: Adar!

Yup. This year there are going to be two months of Adar. That’s what we do on a Jewish leap year. In Hebrew they are called “shana me’uberet.” This is often literally translated as a “pregnant year,” which conjures up a pretty cute image; but it occurs to me that the root of the word “me’uberet” (מעוברת)–which is ע.ב.ר–means both “fetus” (“ubar”) and “passing” (“ma’avar”), so it could be that it actually just means “leap year.” But don’t quote me on that; I’m not a Hebrew scholar!

You may recall that we do have a holiday right in the middle of Adar: Purim. So you may be wondering, if we repeat the month, do we also repeat the holiday?! No, unfortunately 😛 , we don’t. We celebrate Purim during Adar II. During Adar I, we do note what we call “Purim katan” (“little Purim”) on the 15th, but we don’t actually do anything special on that day.

I know, I know. Two entire months without a holiday! How do we cope?!?!

I’m joking, but it was actually kind of a bummer as a student in school, because Adar I was never as fun as Adar II. 😉

My kids came home early from preschool today–because of the storm–with various almond-tree decorated paraphernalia, and looking out the window, it seems almost as strange as it used to back in the USA, where the concept of almond trees blooming was completely foreign to me around this time of year.

Well, wish us luck with the snow; at least we know the terrorists will probably be indoors over the next few days. 😛



The Jewish Year in a Nutshell

Dear Josep,

One of my very first “letters to Josep” style e-mails to you was an attempt at explaining the Jewish year and all its holidays. The e-mail was about the length of your living room table, and all it accomplished was to profoundly confuse you. I realized I would probably have to break it down and explain each component to you separately… and the rest is history!

Well, now that I’ve written a comprehensive post for each of the holidays, I can finally make some sense of the Jewish year! And what better time than Gregorian New Year’s Eve, which… has… absolutely nothing to do with the Jewish calendar?


Let’s break this down by category first, in descending order of significance:

The Sabbath

It may surprise you to learn that the holiest day in the Jewish year is actually the one that happens every week (with the possible exception of Yom Kippur–but even Yom Kippur is called the “Sabbath of Sabbaths”!). Here is the post about Shabbat and how it is celebrated.

Biblical Holidays

These are holidays that are mentioned in the first five books of the Bible. They are the most important of Jewish holidays, and what they have in common is that they are all yamim tovim, literally “good days,” which are celebrated very similarly to the Sabbath. These are the differences between Yom Tov and Shabbat:

  • On Yom Tov, certain creative activities that are prohibited on the Sabbath are permitted–ones related to the preparation of food. For example, we are not allowed to light fires, but we may transfer them, and use the fire to heat and cook food. On the Sabbath those things are prohibited.
  • There is no requirement to eat a “third meal” on Yom Tov.
  • The prayers are different, depending on the holiday. The kiddush is different, and the havdala service is recited only with wine (no spices or candle).
  • With the exception of Rosh Hashana, the yamim tovim of a holiday last one day in Israel, and two outside of Israel. Explanation for that here.
  • When the Temple still stood, Jews were required to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the holidays three times a year (the three “regalim”).

These holidays include:

The High Holidays (Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur)

The Three “Regalim”: Passover, Shavuot, and Succot & Shmini Atzeret. (“Regel” literally means “foot,” and in this context it refers to the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.)

Rosh Ḥodesh

This is the first day of the new month, or if the month has 30 days, day 30 of that month and day 1 of the next. The first commandment God gave the Israelites, while they were still in Egypt, was to observe this as a festive day. In the days of the Temple, it was celebrated by special offerings listed in the book of Exodus. In our days, it is noted mostly by festive prayers. There are no other special commandments or restrictions.

Rabbinic Holidays

These are holidays instituted by the Sages to commemorate important events in Jewish history. They are of lesser importance in the Jewish calendar. These are Chanukah and Purim. They are not yamim tovim, so work and creative actions are permitted, but each of them have their own requirements (lighting the candles on Chanukah, and hearing the Scroll of Esther read, having a festive meal, exchanging edible gifts with friends and neighbors, and giving to the poor for Purim).

Fast Days

Here is a post about the Jewish fast days. There are two major fast days–Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av–and four minor fast days: 17 B’Tamuz, the Fast of Gedaliah, the 10th of Tevet, and the Fast of Esther.

Other Notable Days

Tu B’Shvat: The “birthday” for the trees, or more accurately, the Jewish agricultural New Year. See this post on the four New Years.

The Omer and Lag B’Omer: explained here

Holidays and Remembrance Days of Modern Israel: Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day, otherwise known as Israeli Emotional Roller Coaster Week; and Jerusalem Day. Religious Zionist Jews consider Independence Day and Jerusalem Day religious holidays in that we have festive prayers in their honor, but there are no commandments or requirements.

Let’s Just Sort That out Chronologically for Ya

For the visually inclined:

Jewish Calendar holidays

Starting with Nisan, which is the beginning of the year for months (see this post about the New Years if you’re confused as to why we’re not starting with Rosh Hashana!):

Nisan (March-April)

  • Passover (15th – 21st of Nissan, or until 22nd outside of Israel)
  • The Omer (period of counting that begins on the 16th of Nissan and ends on the 5th of Sivan)
  • Holocaust Remembrance Day (27th of Nissan)

Iyar (April-May)

Sivan (May-June)

  • Shavuot (6th of Sivan, and 7th outside of Israel)

Tamuz (June-July)

Av (July-August)

Elul (August-September)

Tishrei (September-October)

Heshvan (October-November)

Kislev (November-December)

  • Chanukah (25th of Kislev – 2nd or 3rd of Tevet, depending on how many days Kislev has that year)

Tevet (December-January)

Shvat (January-February)

Adar (February-March)

  • Purim (14th of Adar; 15th if in Jerusalem or another city that was walled in 423 B.C.E., when the Purim story took place. Note that on leap years, we add another Adar! In that case, Purim is celebrated during Adar II.)

Are we clear now?! 😉

Feliç Any Nou!



From the Archives, November 2014: As Long as the Candle Burns

We are now in the full swing of Aseret Yamei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (which begins on Tuesday at sundown). I’ve already posted about this period and these holidays, which focus on repentance and forgiveness. As I wrote there, the High Holidays are really about repentance as a community, but many use it as an opportunity to do some soul-searching on an individual level, too. There is a custom to take the opportunity to ask forgiveness of those you may have hurt in the past year.

Josep asked me a while ago about forgiveness in Judaism, and I wrote him this e-mail last November to explain about the process of teshuva (repentance) in Jewish law and thought.

Enjoy, and gmar chatima tova (roughly, may you be sealed in the Book of Life) to all.

Dear Josep,

“For you shall return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and all your soul. For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away… Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to do it”

–Deuteronomy 30:10-14

The above passage is part of a larger section towards the end of Deuteronomy, discussing the “blessing and the curse” that God gave the nation of Israel. It is considered the Biblical source for the commandment of teshuva (repentance).

The concept of teshuva is based on two fundamental principles in Jewish thought:

1) No matter how low a person sinks, now matter how horrible his actions, he is always capable of redeeming himself and changing for the better.

A story goes that Rabbi Israel Salanter, a famous rabbi who focused on the study of moral conduct and ethics, was walking down a dark street one night, and saw a faint light flickering in a window. He approached the window and saw a shoemaker repairing an old shoe by the light of a dying candle. Rabbi Salanter said, “Look how late it is! Your candle is almost extinguished. Why are you still working?” The shoemaker said, “As long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend.” Rabbi Salanter was struck by the deep allegorical wisdom in those words. In Judaism, the flame is a symbol of the soul.

"As long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend"
“As long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend”

(This principle is, by the way, in sharp contrast to my understanding of Christian thought, which–as I understand it–argues that man is inherently sinful and is constantly pulled towards sin. According to Christian thought, the only way to redeem oneself from one’s inherent sinfulness is to accept Jesus as having died to atone for it. In a sense, Christians also believe that “as long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend,” but the Christian idea of “mending” is fundamentally different from ours.)

2) God is infinitely merciful and anxiously awaits our repentance. This is true in Christian thought as well. In the liturgy for Yom Kippur, there is a line that reads, “Until the day of [man’s] death, [God] will wait for him, and if he repents–[God] will immediately receive him.” The image we have is of a God who is waiting for you with outstretched arms and great anticipation. He is like a father whose child has done something wrong, who is waiting anxiously for the child to say he’s sorry, so He can embrace him, forgive him, and end the child’s suffering from the distance between them.

The word teshuva comes from the root ש.ו.ב., sh.u.v., which means “to return”. There is something very important to learn from this. It’s not just about returning to God. It’s about returning to yourself, to your “source”. We are all created with a Divine soul, and underneath all the layers, we are totally pure and good. Teshuva cleanses us from those layers.

In another sense, however, teshuva changes us fundamentally. One might ask, I have done something so terrible–my act was real and tangible. How can it simply be erased, as if it were no longer there? The answer, from the Jewish perspective, is that maybe the consequences of the sin still exist, but the person who committed that sin no longer exists. You are not him anymore, and when faced with the same temptation, you would turn away and not do what he did. Maimonides (who wrote a very important work on the practical aspects of teshuva) actually recommends symbolically changing one’s name as part of the process to demonstrate that you are no longer the same person as the one who committed the sin. Bringing this together with the idea I mentioned in the previous paragraph, you are a different person–one who is closer to your source, to what you could be, to the potential of your Divine soul.

According to Maimonides, there are four steps to the process of teshuva.

1. Regret (“In Your Heart”)

Notice that the word for this is “regret”, not “guilt”. The word in Hebrew for guilt is אשמה, ashma, which comes from the root א.ש.מ.,, meaning to blame. Guilt is self-blame. It is a natural emotion to occur when we’ve done something wrong, but it can lead us further down the spiral of self-destruction and negativity. Shame and guilt are the sense that there is something inherently wrong with you. The Hebrew word for regret is חרטה, ḥarata, from the root ח.ר.ט, ḥ.r.t., which means to chisel, to smooth, to engrave. To refine, to make a permanent and enduring change to something. Regret is the recognition that you are inherently good, and you have failed to live up to your potential. That what you did is not an expression of who you really are and who you really could be.

This step is crucial, because obviously, if you don’t genuinely understand what you have done wrong, you can’t really change. And if you don’t genuinely recognize your own potential to be someone who would never commit that sin, there is also no way to move forward.

2. Cessation

This part is fairly obvious. To repent for a sin, you have to stop committing it.

3. Confession and Asking Forgiveness (“In Your Mouth”)

Both Christianity and modern psychology also recognize that thinking and feeling are not enough. We cannot truly be free of something that torments us until we have given it a name and spoken that name out loud.

There is no special formula for this in Judaism, and it doesn’t matter where you are when you do it. All you have to do is speak to Him aloud, asking forgiveness, and explicitly naming what you did, in your own words. Unlike Christianity, this process is straightforward and does not involve a spiritual leader as intermediary. It’s just you and Him.

Asking forgiveness from the person against whom you sinned is also a crucial part of the healing process–for both of you. Again, this has to be totally sincere. Whether that person is able or willing to accept your apology doesn’t have a bearing on your process of teshuva; what’s important is that you express your regret verbally to the person you hurt.

4. Resolution Not to Repeat the Sin

Obviously, all of this doesn’t mean very much if you are not sincerely committed not to sin again. This is the real expression of the fact that you have changed. Maimonides says that teshuva is complete when you reach a point that when faced with exactly the same circumstances and temptations, you would make the right choice.



Days of Awe

Dear Josep,

The Hebrew month of Elul is just around the corner—Rosh Chodesh is this coming Sunday—and I have to say, it is my favorite time of year.

There is something magical in the air towards the end of the scorching Middle Eastern summer, when a cool breeze wafts in and big, puffy clouds start to appear on the horizon, softening the once-brutal sun. Sometimes those clouds even bring with them a few drops of promise-rain. The sky, almost white during the end of summer from the dust in the air, clears to a deeper blue. The squill, a tall pyramidal flower with small white blossoms, pops up suddenly from the brittle brown of the sun-dried grasses. This flower, known in Hebrew as the ḥatzav, is the harbinger of autumn in Israel. And then there are the pomegranates. I never saw pomegranate trees growing along the coast where I spent my first decade in Israel, but here in Judea they grow wild and you can see them ripening during Elul. Best of all, you can buy massive amounts of them and stain your fingers to your heart’s content with their crimson juice, because they become the cheapest fruit by the kilo at our local supermarket when they’re in season. Nothing says Elul and Tishrei like the tangy sweetness of pomegranate.

And look what I found in the supermarket today! That's a shehechiyanu right there.
And look what I found at the supermarket today! That’s a shehechiyanu right there.

From before sunrise on the first day of Elul and every morning until Yom Kippur, the Sephardi and Mizrahi men gather in the synagogue to recite seliḥot, the special prayers in the days preceding the High Holidays asking God for forgiveness. During the services, the rousing call of the shofar—the ram’s horn—carries into the streets from the synagogues. Throngs of tourists—most of them Israeli—flood to the old neighborhoods in the ancient cities of Jerusalem and Safed for “seliḥot tours,” visiting the many synagogues there with their different traditions, prayers, and melodies. Ashkenazim begin to recite seliḥot the Saturday night preceding Rosh Hashana, or, if Rosh Hashana falls in the first half of the week, the Saturday night before that one.

Elul is a month of introspection, reflection, soul searching, prayer, and forgiveness. The Sages say that this month, “The King is in the field.” If God is compared to a king in a palace, where most of the time, it takes many hurdles and obstacles and bureaucracy to gain an audience with Him, during Elul it is as if He has flung open the palace gates and walked out towards you in the field. This allegory means that it is a time of particular spiritual closeness to God.

I loved this time of year in high school. You know me, I’m a “soul archeologist” by nature and introspection is one of my favorite pastimes—sometimes to a fault!—so I especially loved activities geared towards making us think about spirituality and our relationships with God. They’d invite people, often Jews who used to be secular and went through a process of becoming religious, who would speak to us about their spiritual journey of teshuva (return to their spiritual roots). We would have concerts of soft spiritual music, and that music would stir awake the yearning for God that we often ignore. I have several memories of lying on the grass somewhere, looking up at a sky full of stars, singing softly, with tears pouring down my face, just feeling that strange mingling of an unquenchable yearning with an overwhelming sense of being loved by Him.

These days I don’t have evenings of spiritual music built in to my curriculum, but I do have those clouds, that sky, that gentle breeze, the sound of the shofar echoing from the Sephardi synagogue near my home.

The Ten Days of Repentance

I will elaborate on the Jewish concept of repentance, teshuva, in a later post. The first ten days of the month of Tishrei focus on teshuva as a national, collective process. The reason for this is that on Rosh Hashana—the Jewish new year, the first two days of Tishrei—it is believed that God figuratively “opens the books” and sets down all the decrees for the coming year, based on what we merit, deserve and need according to our deeds from the previous year. However, tradition has it, on Rosh Hashana God does not “seal” our fates; he merely “writes them down,” and does not seal them until the end of the tenth of Tishrei, which is Yom Kippur (literally “the Day of Atonement”). So during the ten days between lighting the candles of Rosh Hashana and the final shofar blast of Yom Kippur, we have the power to change those decrees, through teshuva, giving charity, and prayer.

Now, as you will see in the letter about teshuva, on an individual level, we can change the spiritual influence of our sins at any time during the year. So the question arises, why do we need the Ten Days of Repentance? What does it mean that the decrees are “written” and “sealed”? The answer is that the Ten Days of Repentance are not really about individual teshuva, though they are an opportune time to focus on it. They are about teshuva as a community, as a collective. We are not really coming together on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to pray for ourselves as individuals, and nor for just ourselves as a community; we come together to pray for the entire universe.

Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year because it is believed to be “the birthday of the world.” But it is actually not the day we believe the world was created. It is the day we believe that humans were created. That is, the sixth day of creation, not the first. So why do we count starting from Adam’s birthday, and not from the day God said “Let there be light”?

Because the Torah’s focus is on humans and our role in elevating the universe spiritually. It is really all about us. The famous Hassidic rebbe, Rabbi Simcha Bunem, taught his students that they should carry two notes, one in each pocket, at all times. One note should read, “The world was created for me”; and the other should read, “And I am dust and ashes.” The idea is that on the one hand we should remember the greatness of the role and responsibility for which we were created; and on the other hand, we must remember that we are made of dust and will return to dust, and must balance that responsibility with humility.

As Jews, our responsibility is that much greater, in that we believe God gave us a unique and crucial role in the process of spiritually elevating the universe. And during the Ten Days of Repentance, the weight of that responsibility is heavy. God asked us to be a light unto the nations, to spread knowledge of Him throughout the world, to abolish injustice and evil. And when we stand before Him on the day the world is judged, we have to answer for ourselves and what we have done, as a nation, in the past year, to further that goal.

That is why the High Holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) are often seen as being very grave and serious holidays. They are also known as the Days of Awe. But they are also filled with joy, singing, celebration, and a strong sense of community.

Rosh Hashana

Rosh Hashana is a Yom Tov. Yom Tov literally means “good day,” and it applies to holidays that are listed in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). What it means in practice is that it is a holiday that is celebrated very similarly to how we celebrate Shabbat; we light candles at the beginning and make havdala at the end, have festive prayers, eat two feasts (one at night and one during the day), and observe almost the same restrictions (barring certain activities that are related to preparing food). Now, in most cases, there is a difference between the duration of the holiday depending on whether you are in Israel or outside it. Inside Israel, a Yom Tov lasts one day. Outside of it, it lasts two. The reason is this: before we had calendars, Jews would calculate the months and the holidays according to observations of the moon. A month in the Jewish calendar, you see, can sometimes be 29 days, and sometimes 30. A witness for the Sanhedrin, the great rabbinical assembly, would have to sight the new moon and announce it to the rest of the nation. If you lived in Israel at the time, chances were that by the time the 15th of the month came around (which is when most Jewish holidays fall), you would have heard from these witnesses and would have an accurate calculation of the beginning of the month. If you lived outside of Israel, however, the news might not reach you by then. So Jews in the Diaspora observed two days of Yom Tov, just in case they had miscalculated and the holiday actually fell a day later than they thought.

In the case of Rosh Hashana, however, the holiday falls on the very first day of the month, and there was concern that even those in Israel would miscalculate. Therefore, even in Israel, we observe two days of Rosh Hashana instead of one.

Due to the intensity and significance of the High Holidays, the prayer services during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are particularly long. There are so many additional prayers that we have special prayer books only for the High Holidays, called maḥzorim (literally meaning “cycles”). If a normal Shabbat morning service runs from 8:00-10:30, Rosh Hashana services will easily run until 1pm, depending on the congregation, how fast the cantor goes, how much singing there is, etc.

The Shofar

One thing that is unique about the Rosh Hashana services is the blowing of the shofar.

"Flickr - Government Press Office (GPO) - “Slichot” Prayer (2)" by - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Remember this guy from the post on the Messiah? That’s a shofar in his hand. 
Flickr – Government Press Office (GPO) – “Slichot” Prayer (2)” by Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

A shofar is a hollowed out horn from a kosher animal that is blown like a musical horn. It was used as a call to battle during Biblical times, and features in the story of how Joshua defeated Jericho. It symbolizes the ram that was sacrificed in place of Isaac, and its purpose is to “awaken” our souls to repent.

My most poignant experience of hearing the shofar blown was actually not on Rosh Hashana at all. It was in the spring, in the Łopuchowo Forest in Poland. (More about my trip to Poland here.) We were standing over a mass grave there, where all the residents of the town of Tykocin were murdered by the Nazis. After a small ceremony we held in their memory, the principal of my school stood in front of us. “There are things,” he said, “that are so raw, so powerful, so great, that they can’t be expressed in words. Sometimes the only way to express how you feel is to cry out from the depths of your soul. And sometimes, even the human voice is not enough to give expression to this cry.” He reached in his bag and took out a shofar. “When I blow this shofar,” he said, “let it be your voice.” He blew it, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. Since that day, every time I hear the shofar I am transported back to that moment in the Łopuchowo Forest, with my soul crying out in pain, in yearning, in hope.

That is the idea of the shofar. It gives a voice to the deepest cries of our souls.

A Sweet New Year

Now, as with all Jewish holidays, food has a significant role in the celebrations. 😉 As I mentioned, there are two feasts, one during the evening and one during the day. Like on Shabbat, the meals are preceded with Kiddush over wine and a blessing over two loaves of bread. On Rosh Hashana there is a custom to use round loaves of bread, symbolizing the cycle of the year. Additionally, there is a custom to dip the bread in honey, as a sign that we are wishing for a “sweet” new year. We take this further with the iconic symbolic food eaten on Rosh Hashana: apples dipped in honey. The apples, which are round, also symbolize the year.

"Apples and Honey" by slgckgc [CC BY 2.0]
Apples and Honey” by slgckgc [CC BY 2.0]
Many also have the custom to eat other symbolic foods, whose Hebrew names are reminiscent of other things we are wishing for. One of the most widely eaten ones, is pomegranates. As I mentioned, the pomegranates are just starting to ripen. They are one of the Seven Species, and my personal favorite fruit. Their many seeds are symbolic of prosperity and fertility—and the Torah. You see, if you ever sat down and counted all the seeds in a pomegranate, you would discover that the number of seeds comes out astonishingly close to 613—the number of mitzvot, commandments in the Torah.

photo 4 (1)
I’m not counting. But they sure are pretty!

When we eat pomegranate on Rosh Hashana, we say, “May it be Your will, our God and God of our forefathers, that our merits be as numerous as [the seeds of] a pomegranate.”

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the climax of the Ten Days of Repentance. Tradition has it that this is the day the fate of the world in the coming year is sealed. Thus, it is the holiest day of the Jewish year, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths.”

I am constantly emphasizing that Judaism is about life on this world, about elevating the mundane and channeling our base desires for a higher spiritual purpose. Yom Kippur is the only day of the Jewish year on which we deny ourselves worldly pleasures rather than use them as part of our service of God and spiritual refinement. It is the day we try to be like the angels, which in Jewish thought are messengers of God or channels through which He manifests His will in the physical world, and thus have no will of their own. Many of us wear white clothing to symbolize purity from sin.

The restrictions of Yom Kippur are the same as Shabbat, with the added restrictions of a major fast day, which include eating, drinking, wearing leather shoes, washing, anointing ourselves with oil, and marital relations. Not much left to do, then, except pray! And pray we do. Yom Kippur is the only day in the Jewish year with five prayer services: one in the evening (ma’ariv), one in the morning (shaḥarit), one right after shaḥarit (mussaf), one in the afternoon (minḥa), and one just at the end of the fast, called “ne’ila,” which means “locking,” as in the “locking of the gates of prayer.”

In the evening, the first prayer is the famous Kol Nidre. Well, actually it’s not so much a prayer as a kind of juristic declaration that annuls all personal vows (ones you take upon yourself, not ones that involve other people) made in the last year, and declares it permissible to pray with outcasts and sinners. The origin of the formula is unknown, but it is believed that it was created during the Geonic period (the last half of the first millennium C.E.), during a time of extreme persecution where many Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity or Islam. The common theory is that the idea of the passage was to welcome such Jews back into the fold and declare their conversions to those other religions null and void.

One would imagine that it was a very important prayer to crypto-Jews during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. There are those who theorize that the haunting melody most commonly sung has its origins in pre-expulsion Spain. It is certainly reminiscent of the saetas in Andalusia during Holy Week.

The evening continues with the reading of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, a formula God gave Moses when he was pleading that God forgive the Israelites for the sin of the Golden Calf. There are a number of powerful liturgical poems that are sung. One of my favorites is “Ki Hinei KaḤomer,” “Like Clay”: “For like clay in the potter’s hand/With his will, he expands it, and with his will, contracts it/So are we in Your hand, Rememberer of Kindness/Look to the Covenant, and disregard the evil inclination…Seliot are also said, as well as the usual Amidah prayer for the High Holidays. There is also an added passage of confession: a double acrostic poem of all different kinds of sins, written in first person plural: “For the sin we have committed before You under duress or willingly… for the sin we have committed before You by hard-heartedness…” Through speech, or through deceit, or through disrespect, or inadvertently—“And for them all, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.”

The morning services are also full of beautiful prayers and poems. If you ever get a chance to flip through a High Holiday mazor, I highly recommend it.

It is really hard to describe the experience of the prayers of Yom Kippur. There is an intense sense of connectedness, both with the community, and with God; a sense of standing bare-hearted before the King of Kings, and saying, “I know I haven’t been all I could be, and I want to be better.” I used to say that Yom Kippur was my favorite holiday because it was the day I felt closest to God. These days, between fasting and taking care of little kids, it’s much harder to connect in that way. But even so, even if I manage to spend just a little time in synagogue, or take the time to say some of my favorite Yom Kippur prayers… it feels like peeling away the layers of my soul, one by one, sometimes painfully, to touch the Divine core of my being, and connect with He from whom that core originates. Because you see… what Yom Kippur really is, is the cleansing of our souls from the stains of sin, of doubt, of fear, of distance from God and from ourselves and what we want to be.

This painting by Maurycy Gottlieb, "Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur" (1878), is more haunting than it looks at first. If you look closely, you'll notice that each male figure is a self-portrait of the painter at different ages and stages of his life. The female figure is the painter's wife. I think this painting is such a powerful visual representation of what Yom Kippur is.
This 1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb, “Jews praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur,” is more haunting than it looks at first. If you look closely, you’ll notice that each male figure is a self-portrait of the painter at different stages of his life. The female figure is the painter’s wife at different ages. I think this painting is such a powerful visual representation of what Yom Kippur is and how it fits into the cycle of a Jewish lifetime.

When the fast is over, traditionally, the first thing we do (after guzzling water and stuffing our faces with cake, of course), is start building the Succah (what’s that? Stay tuned!). Because that is the major mitzvah of the next holiday that comes up only five days later, and we want to act on our freshly renewed commitment to our covenant with God, and get the year off to a good start with our shiny clean souls.

Wishing a meaningful Elul full of self-discovery and renewal to all of us, and may we be written and sealed in the Book of Life.



Starving for God: Jewish Fast Days

Before I proceed to today’s post, I first want to welcome you to our shiny new website! 😀 I hope you enjoy it. It’s going to take me a while to straighten out all the links on previous posts, so be patient, but if you come across a problem let me know. Don’t forget to subscribe (yes, unfortunately, you will need to do this again if you were subscribed to the other site): just enter your e-mail address in the box to the right. →→→that’a’way.→→→

While we’re here, if you like what I do and think more people should read my stuff, please help me out by sharing the site and/or your favorite posts. “Like” our page on Facebook (there’s a box for that here too→→→), and if you’re having  a discussion with someone in which one of my posts has something relevant to say, feel free to share the link! The posts now have buttons on the bottom which you can use to easily e-mail, print, or share the post to Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Thanks so much for reading and for your support!

And now, the post:

Dear Josep,

The 17th of the Jewish month of Tamuz falls on this coming Shabbat. It marks the beginning of the period we call “the Three Weeks,” which culminate in the major fast of Tisha B’Av, the day the Temples were destroyed. But I’ll get to that in a later post. The 17th is observed as a minor fast day. But this year the fast will be observed the following day–the 18th–because we are not allowed to fast on Shabbat. (Yom Kippur is the only exception to this rule.)

Virtually every religion on earth has some tradition of fasting. For Jews and Muslims, this means refraining from partaking in any kind of food or drink during the day. For Catholics, and other Christians who practice fasting, it is a lot more, shall we say, open to interpretation. At most, it means going without food, but not water. And it usually means reducing one’s intake or refraining from certain types of foods, generally food that has been historically considered high-class or festive such as meat, dairy, eggs, and the like.

Well, while I’m wasting away without food or water on a sweltering summer day while my kids run hyper circles around me and destroy the house, I will think of you, dear Catholics, and your self-imposed temporary veganism, and I will shed a tear. (That’s a whole drop of water that could have been in my cells. You should be deeply moved.)

our hearts bleed


Ahem. Now that I’ve got that out of my system:

Why Fast at All?

Why is it that so many religions have this tradition of reducing or refraining from eating or drinking? I think at its most basic, this is pretty simple to explain: eating and drinking are some of our very basic animal needs, but free will was given to humans by God, and fasting is using that free will to distance ourselves from our animal nature, therefore bringing us closer to our spirituality and to God.

Now, if you’ve been really paying attention all these years I’ve been gabbing at you about Judaism, you will be asking, “Wait. Aren’t you always saying that Judaism is all about sanctifying the mundane and channeling our basic human needs for a higher, holier spiritual purpose–in direct opposition to other religious concepts of distancing ourselves from the mundane?” 10 points to Ravenclaw1! You are absolutely right. In Judaism, the way we normally relate to the basic animal needs of eating and drinking, is to sanctify them–be that by using them to celebrate the Sabbath, a holiday, a mitzvah (such as a wedding or circumcision ceremony), etc., or by simply reciting a blessing over the food.

Why do we fast, then?

So the thing is, in Judaism, fasting is less about spiritual uplifting, and more about expressing grief, sadness and regret. You know how when you’re really stressed out or depressed, you can’t bring yourself to eat anything? That’s what fasting means to us. Fasting is what we do as an expression of communal grieving, or to express the regret that is essential to the process of repentance. That isn’t to say that we don’t believe in fasting as a means to spiritually cleanse ourselves and/or bring ourselves closer to God the way it is done in other religions; it’s more of an “and” than an “either/or”.

The Jewish Fast Days

As I have mentioned before, there are two major fasts on the Jewish calendar. They are Yom Kippur, and Tisha B’Av. Both of these fast days are entire blog posts in and of themselves, so I’m not going to get into too much detail here; I’ll focus on the aspect of fasting.

Yom Kippur, which means “Day of Atonement,” is unique among the Jewish fasts in that is the only Biblically proscribed fast, and also the only fast day that is also a holiday. It occurs on the 10th of Tishrei, the 10th day of the Jewish year, and it is the climax of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year). The purpose of Yom Kippur is to atone for all the sins we have committed over the year. God commands us to refrain from five things–eating and drinking, sexual relations, washing, wearing leather shoes, and anointing ourselves with oil. The Torah says specifically that the purpose of this abstinence is to “cause ourselves to suffer.” If we do this on Yom Kippur, He promises, and sincerely repent for our sins, He will “wipe the slate clean.”

The other fasts on the Jewish calendar are all rabbinic.

Tisha B’Av, the other major fast day, is the day both Temples were destroyed, and has generally been a particularly, shall we say, unlucky day for the Jewish people. We’ll get into that in a later post.

The Fast of Gedalya, a minor fast which falls the day after Rosh Hashana, mourns the assassination of the leader of Judah after the destruction of the first Temple, killed by another Jew due to political disputes. If not for this murder, there may have been a hope of maintaining a significant and continuous Jewish presence in the land of Israel even under Babylonian occupation. The murder signified the nail in the coffin of the first Jewish commonwealth in the Holy Land.

The 10th of Tevet, which falls soon after Chanukah, was the beginning of the siege on Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, which culminated in the destruction of the First Temple a few hundred years before the common era. (The exact date of the destruction is under dispute.)

The Fast of Esther, which takes place the day before Purim, commemorates the fast that Queen Esther of Persia fasted as she planned to risk her life to visit King Ahashverosh and ask him to spare the Jews.

The 17th of Tamuz commemorates the Roman breach of the walls of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the Second Temple.

Major vs. Minor Fasts

There are several differences between major and minor fasts:

1) Duration: Major fasts begin at sundown and end at nightfall the following day, meaning they last 25 hours. Minor fasts begin at daybreak and end at nightfall the same day, so they usually last somewhere between 14-18 hours (longer in the summer, obviously).

2) Restrictions: On minor fasts, we are only prohibited to eat and drink. On major fasts, we are also prohibited from the other four “afflictions” of Yom Kippur–sexual relations, washing, wearing leather shoes (considered to be a luxury back in the day), and anointing ourselves with oils or perfume. On Tisha B’Av, since it is a day of mourning, we also have some restrictions to do with mourning–on which I’ll elaborate in later posts.

3) Strictness: Yom Kippur is the strictest of them all–in fact, the punishment the Torah lists for eating on Yom Kippur is even more severe than that of breaking Shabbat. As a rule, every Jew above the “age of mitzvot” (twelve for a girl, thirteen for a boy) is required to fast. But obviously, if fasting would put one’s life in danger, one may not fast. People who must eat and/or drink, by doctor’s orders, if possible, do so in small amounts at fixed intervals (less than “a cheekful” (around 30ml) of liquid and a matchbox-full of food every 4-9 minutes); this allows them to technically “fast” according to the guidelines of the Sages. If they can’t do this, they eat and drink normally. All Jews (barring children and those with a doctor’s order not to fast) must fast on Tisha B’Av, too; but if one has a medical reason not to fast or to break the fast, he eats and/or drinks normally, since it is a rabbinic fast and therefore less severe. Pregnant and nursing women, as a general rule, are required to fast on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, but one should always speak to a doctor and a rabbi she trusts before fasting to get specific guidelines for when and how to eat and/or drink if she starts to feel unwell.

On minor fasts, on the other hand, anyone who is ill, pregnant, or nursing is automatically exempt, and if someone starts to feel ill or weak enough that s/he must lie down during the fast, s/he is allowed to break it.

Isn’t Fasting Torture?

This is such a First World Problem. Thank God that in our day and age people have no idea what it might be like to go an entire day without eating or drinking.

Everybody experiences fasting differently; some people are hardly affected at all, and some people are totally incapacitated by it. Most people feel kind of weak and shaky by afternoon, maybe a little dizzy; some people get headaches. Many people feel a kind of adrenaline rush towards the end of the fast, where suddenly they feel more energetic and kind of light-headed; the mood during Ne’ilah, the last prayer on Yom Kippur, often reflects this.

For most people, me included, it’s not exactly fun, but it’s not all that bad, either.

Breaking the Fast

Contrasting with Ramadan, there is no special meal on which Jews break their fasts. On Yom Kippur, the festive meal is actually eaten before the fast. On Tisha B’Av we also have a symbolic “last meal” before the fast, sitting on the floor with some bread and salt (symbolizing the poverty of our ancestors under siege), and a hard boiled egg with ashes on it, to symbolize our hope for the rebuilding of the Temple out of the ashes.

So when the fast ends, we simply eat and drink normally. In Israel there are always articles going around before Yom Kippur about what to eat before the fast (lots of “light” protein, like fish or chicken, and “slow carbs” like whole grains that take longer to digest) and after the fast. After going a full day without eating and drinking, it is recommended (from a medical standpoint) to start with some juice or other sweet drink to rehydrate and get your blood sugar back up, accompanied with a light snack like cake or crackers; then, after a little while, to have a bigger meal. Many synagogues offer some drinks and cakes to congregants after the services on Yom Kippur.

Okay, so, what is so very terrible about the destruction of the Temple, that we designate four fasts, including a major one, to mourn for it?

Stay tuned, and you shall have the answer. 😉



1. In the category of Ridiculous and Insignificant Non-Sequiturs on Which I Offer a Far Too Detailed Explanation:

In the course of writing this letter, I wanted to use the phrase “10 points to [Hogwarts House name]” to express my approval for a hypothetical good question. But I realized that, though from knowing Josep I was fairly confident he would identify with Ravenclaw, I had never discussed the matter with him. Now, I have an established tradition of sending Josep random, bizarre questions out of the blue, but this one surpassed them all. And to my shock and horror, he responded that he has never read Harry Potter. Thus, I was forced to conduct an emergency Sorting in the Hat’s absence:

sortinghat combined

So, if you, too,  suffer from this grievous, gaping hole in your general knowledge, behold, an explanation: in the Harry Potter books, the students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are divided into four competing “houses”. Students are sorted into one of the houses according to their dominant character traits by an animate hat called the Sorting Hat. (The traits listed in my message to Josep above correspond to the houses as follows: 1. Gryffindor, 2. Ravenclaw, 3. Hufflepuff and 4. Slytherin.) Teachers can award points to a student’s house as a reward for good behavior, or take away points to punish bad behavior.

Thus: “10 points to [Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff or Slytherin]” is a phrase that expresses approval or celebration of achievement, especially in an academic setting.

Why am I telling you all this on a blog about Judaism and Israel? BECAUSE YOU SHOULD KNOW, THAT’S WHY. Now go read Harry Potter, you Philistine. (…In Josep’s defense, my husband, too, has this grievous, gaping hole in his general knowledge. I will forever hold this against both of them. 😛 )

(So there’s the longer answer I promised, Josep. 😉 Aren’t you glad you’ve wasted everybody’s time on this silly footnote?!)

In the Empty Synagogues of Poland

Dear Josep,

Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed in Israel starting this evening, on the 27th of Nisan, which is the day the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. The date was also selected for its proximity to Memorial Day (for the fallen soldiers and terror victims) and Independence Day next week. We see all these events as part of the same story.

We observe this day with ceremonies and stories, lowered flags and sad music on the radio; and one thing that is unique to Israel: a siren sounds throughout the country at 10 a.m., and everyone stops whatever they are doing, stands up, and observes two minutes of silence in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. The entire country comes to a literal halt.

As you can imagine, remembering and teaching about the Holocaust (the Shoah in Hebrew) is a big deal in the world’s only Jewish country, and given that Israel was founded out of the ashes of the Holocaust and on the backs of its survivors, it is a major part of our national identity. Educating future generations about it is of utmost importance to us. To this end, many high schools arrange educational tours to the death camps in Poland.

There is some controversy about those trips; about the moral integrity of funding Poland’s “death camp tourism” industry, about whether those rowdy teenagers actually get anything meaningful out of the trip, and about whether the Holocaust should be something so deeply focused upon and ingrained into our national identity when we have 3,000 years of rich and diverse history to draw upon. After all, half of the country’s Jewish population is comprised of non-Ashkenazim–Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, India, and Ethiopia. They have other important stories to tell, stories that are not told as thoroughly and as publicly as the stories of the Ashkenazim. Furthermore, some argue, is it really so healthy for such a major part of our national identity to be built upon a sense of victimhood?

Well, I traveled to Poland with my fellow 11th graders in March 2004, and it was one of the most powerful and meaningful experiences of my life. The kind of experience in which the depth of its impact is completely impossible to convey to those who weren’t there. But let me try.

We visited three camps–Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, and Treblinka–as well as the neighboring cities, Krakow and Warsaw, and a number of small towns where Jews once flourished, such as Lodz, home of the famous Hassidic sect, and the charming town of Tykocin… and the mass grave in the nearby Łopuchowo Forest where its entire Jewish community was murdered by the Nazis.

My friends walking to the mass grave and memorial site in the Łopuchowo Forest.
My friends walking to the mass grave and memorial site in the Łopuchowo Forest.

We had several guides, including an Israeli guide, a Polish guide, and a “witness”: a man who survived the camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz and whose family was murdered at Treblinka. We are especially lucky to have been the last generation that could travel with a witness and hear his personal story as we stood at the very places where the events happened. Our witness, Avraham, was a remarkable man with a vibrant spirit and a great sense of humor, and his contribution to the trip was immeasurable. Our teachers accompanied us and ran discussion groups. Our principal had brought his guitar and he played along with our singing.

And we sang everywhere. We filled every empty synagogue with song and dancing; we sang “Am Yisrael Chai”, “The Nation of Israel Lives”, and brought life and music to all these places where our ancestors had been silenced.

My classmates, teachers and I dancing and singing in the beautifully restored synagogue where the Jewish community of Lancut, Poland, once prayed.
My classmates, teachers and I dancing and singing in the beautifully restored synagogue where the Jewish community of Lancut, Poland, once prayed. (I’m the one with the dull pink coat, the white scarf and the hair all over the place. 😛 )

In the gas chambers of Majdanek, we sat on the floor and sang about faith and yearning for redemption through our tears. It may sound strange to do anything but observe a reverent silence in such a place; but for us, raising our voices in song is our way of honoring those who died there, giving them a voice, calling out to God from the depths of our despair.

We walked, grandchildren of survivors, free citizens of a sovereign Jewish state, and sisters of the Jewish soldiers protecting it, down the infamous train tracks, into the forests, and through the remnants of the ghettos. We carried our Israeli flags in heartbroken pride; our unspoken message to those who died there that their deaths were not in vain. My friend Menucha, whose grandmother survived Auschwitz, says: “I remember walking in Auschwitz with an Israeli flag on my back and thinking of how my grandmother had come in with nothing. I think it’s one of the proudest moments of my life.”

Walking to the barracks at Auschwitz.
Walking to the barracks at Auschwitz.

One evening in our hotel in Krakow, a woman came to speak to us and tell us how she and her family sheltered Jews during the Holocaust. After her talk, we got up, one by one, to thank her and hug and kiss her. That wordless exchange–the glowing warmth and gratitude, the firmness of her grip on my arms, the softness of her white cheeks against my lips–is burned forever into my memory.

There is no way to replace this kind of learning. As Menucha says, being there with a witness to share his story was like the difference between learning about the Shoah and being in Poland; the difference between knowing and feeling.

So did my trip, and the focus on the Shoah in my education, result in building my national identity on a sense of victimhood?

The answer is: absolutely not.

It built my national identity on a deep sense of purpose and triumph. Triumph, because we are the answer to the Holocaust. Every Jewish baby born, every Israeli soldier sworn in, every mitzvah observed, every holiday celebrated, every song, every laugh, every smile is another slap in the face of Hitler and all he stood for. Ultimately, we won; not with guns or bombs, but with our spirit, our faith, and our dedication to our identity and purpose.

“The Eternal Nation is not afraid of a long journey”, I sang with my friends in the empty synagogues of Poland.  The Jewish people is here to stay. We have something invaluable to give the world. We have been oppressed, persecuted, and massacred for carrying that message for thousands of years. But we’re still here, still carrying it. Learning the terrible extent of the sacrifice my brethren made to keep their identity and hold on to that message makes me all the more determined to do the same, and to pass it forward into what will hopefully be a brighter future for all of us.



Even the Weather Is in on It

Dear Josep,

So remember how I was boasting all about Tu B’Shvat and spring and the almond trees and anemones blooming?


And look how they both posed for me so nicely. An almond tree in the middle of a young olive grove in the outskirts of Jerusalem.

So…. we woke up to this this morning.



All I can say is, climate chaos. :-/

And also, the month of Adar! One of the themes of Adar and Purim is “v’nahafoch hu“; that everything that was turned on its head. I guess this is how the weather is choosing to celebrate the first day of Adar.

Crazy stuff!



From the Archives, February 2007: HAPPY ADAR!

The following is an introduction to the joyful month of Adar, from my hyper, 20-year-old self. Happy Rosh Chodesh (beginning of a new month)!


Subject: …SURPRISE!

It’s me again! (Have you forgotten me yet? No? I make that rather difficult, don’t I?)

I have an important announcement to make!


Now that we have that out of the way…

LOL. Today (like, as of sundown) is the 30th of Shvat, the first day of the two-day Rosh Chodesh Adar! Next month is… you guessed it… Adar. And there is a famous saying about the month of Adar that all Jewish kids sing in the schools, and it is: Mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha! A very rough translation: “From the time Adar enters, spread the joy!” The month of Adar is exceedingly joyful (and usually rather silly). Attempts are made to make life easier for everyone–the kids at school make funny regulations for the teachers and switch jobs around and stuff, they dance through the halls singing that all-famous line at the top of their lungs in long trains… And I am not just talking about my school, man. I don’t know about the secular schools, but all the religious schools I’ve heard of go crazy during Adar. Even politicians get into the spirit, wearing silly hats and stuff.

Why all the happiness and craziness? Well, the star holiday of this month is Purim! Remember that whole long complicated story I tried to explain to you and you didn’t get it, the story of Esther? [Blog readers: Worry not. There will be an entry on this. 😉 ] So, THAT holiday. And it is a very very joyful holiday! It’s another one of those that fits into the famous category of the typical Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” It’s celebrated by reading the story of Esther at synagogue, once in the evening and once in the morning, sending gift baskets of food to friends and family (and poor people), giving charity, having a feast during the day (because you know, all the cakes and candies from the gift baskets or “mishlochei manot” aren’t enough to fill you up… :-/ ), and my favorite part of it: dressing up in costumes!

Why do we wear costumes on Purim? Well, in the entire scroll of Esther, God’s name is not mentioned once. But He is obviously behind the miraculous events that led to saving the Jewish people. Purim is about the “hidden face of God” and how He works behind the scenes, and about how things are not always what they seem… something that seems terrible can actually turn out for the best. So we wear costumes to symbolize this idea that things are not always what they seem.

Elaborations will be forthcoming, of course. 😛

Shavua tov and chodesh tov!