Category Archives: Jewish Holidays

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Chanukah…

Before I proceed to today’s post I would like to bring your attention to my guest appearance on yesterday’s episode of Jewish Geography, a new podcast created by my dear husband. 😉 He knew I had a draft of Sunday’s post sitting around, but that I was hesitant to post it because I knew it would be controversial and widely shared and… you know I have an aversion to opening cans of worms 😛 (I was right, too. 😉 ) But he was making a podcast about Jewish sexuality and encouraged me to finish and post it so I could read an excerpt for him. So I did!

Check it out, enjoy his deep, soothing voice, subscribe (it’s on iTunes), leave him a 5-star rating and a gushing review, hire him for your next tour to Israel, etc. 😛

And now… back to our regularly scheduled programming.


Dear Josep,

“Holiday season” in the USA is in December,  and the houses, streets and storefronts start to put up their Christmas decorations right after Thanksgiving (if not before). I remember what it felt like to be a little Jewish girl amongst all the tinsel, holly, lights, trees, carols, and Nativity scenes. In a word: uncomfortable.

One of the great things about moving to Israel was that come December, there was little to no evidence of the existence of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful holiday with a lot of lovely traditions… but it’s not mine, and there was something liberating about not having it blaring at me from every radio, street corner, and display window. The acknowledgement we get in a generic “happy holidays” greeting or a symbolic menorah here or there is a nice gesture, but honestly, for me, it just emphasizes our minority status.

Galus, as we say in Yiddish. (Yiddishized Hebrew for “Diaspora.”)

The fact is that Chanukah is not that important a holiday as Jewish holidays go. It is well known among non-Jews just because of its timing. Our real “holiday season” is September-October with all the Tishrei madness (Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succot, and Shmini Atzeret). Still, there’s something very charming about a winter holiday, and Chanukah is a very sweet one as holidays go. I’ll be elaborating on Chanukah itself in a later post; today I want to write about the Israeli answers to all the holly, trees, candy canes… and these things.

Yes. Don't think I've forgotten about these. "Caga TiĂł" by Valerie Hinojosa [CC BY SA 2.0]
Yes. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about these.1Caga TiĂł” by Valerie Hinojosa [CC BY SA 2.0]

1) Sufganiyot

Remember these?


These are the fancy-shmancy filled doughnuts, a.k.a. sufganiyot, of the Roladin bakery chain. Roladin is renowned for its “gourmet” sufganiyot. As I told you when we were at the Roladin on Mamilla last year, I personally think they’re overrated and overpriced. But you tried one, so you can be the judge of that.

In any case, the traditional filling is strawberry jam, but chocolate and caramel are also common.

These are the classic kind.
Classic jelly sufganiyot

These things start to appear in bakeries and supermarkets shortly after Succot (on par with the obscenely early Christmas decorations in the USA). The miracle in the Chanukah story involved oil, and we have traditionally used this as an excuse to consume food containing liberal amounts of the stuff. Sufganiyot are deep-fried, so they make the cut. The traditional Ashkenazi food is latkes, fried potato pancakes, with applesauce and/or sour cream, but those are best served crispy and fresh from the pan and most people prefer to make them at home.

2) Chanukah Accoutrement

The second thing to appear in the stores is, of course, the equipment required for Chanukah.

photo 1 (1)
The entrance aisle at the Rami Levy supermarket of the [now infamous…] Gush Etzion Junction. (Infamous because of the frequent attacks there. The last incident was an attempted stabbing yesterday morning. Needless to say, it was swarming with soldiers and everybody was on high alert, but it was just as busy as usual.)
Chanukiyot (also called menorahs–click here to learn about the distinction between the two…), Chanukah-themed candies and treats, candles of all kinds… and oil. Oil for frying (sufganiyot and latkes), oil for lighting…

oil everywhere

3) Things That Spin

Remember when we were in that store where you bought your mezuza case, and you spotted these things (I think they may actually have been literally identical to the ones in this picture), and asked me what they were? And I was so out of practice, and so much less articulate in speech than I am in writing, that I was just like, “It’s… a thing… and you spin it… and you put in… and it…”

"Colorful dreidels2" by Adiel lo - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Colorful dreidels2” by Adiel loOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

These are called “dreidels” in Yiddish or “sevivonim” in Hebrew, and they have become associated with Chanukah in a rather roundabout fashion. What we are told as kids is that Jews would study Torah in hiding, in defiance of the Romans (under whom it was illegal), and they had a kid stand watch, and when the kid would warn them that the Roman officials were coming, they would take out these little spinning tops, pretending to have been playing with them all along. Cute story; probably not true. (Though I absolutely 100% believe the studying Torah in hiding in defiance of the Romans part. See item #4 of “The 5 Secrets of Israeli Resilience Against Terror”…) They also tell us that the Hebrew letters on each side of the dreidel stand for Nes Gadol Haya Sham–“a great miracle happened there”–or, in Israel, Nes Gadol Haya Po–“a great miracle happened here.” Also cute… also not true. (I’m probably ruining all my Jewish readers’ childhoods here… sorry!)

The inconvenient truth is that the dreidel probably does not have a Jewish source at all. In this article, Rabbi David Golonkin explains that there was a game involving spinning tops that was popular in England around Christmastime, that was referenced in the 16th century under the name “totum,” which means “all” in Latin. The top had four sides with four letters: T (“take all”), H (“half”), P (“put in”), and N (“nothing”). The four letters on the dreidel are the Yiddish equivalent: Nun (“nichts”=”nothing”), gimmel (“ganz”=”all”), heh (“halb”=”half”), and shin (“stell ein”=”put in”). It has exactly the same rules as the totum game. You start out with a certain number of coins or candies or something, and each player spins the top in turn, and then must follow its instructions. If you spin a nun, nothing happens. If you spin a gimmel, you take everything in the pile in the middle. If you spin a heh, you get half of what’s in the pile. If you spin a shin, you have to put some of your objects in the middle.

So why is there a peh instead of a shin on the Israeli dreidels? Probably a Zionist invention based on the traditional explanation of the significance of the letters. The early Zionists were really into Chanukah because it emphasizes the image of the strong Jew protecting himself that they wanted to promote. They probably brought their dreidels with them and said, “Hey, nes gadol haya sham? I don’t think so! Nes gadol haya po!

It’s not entirely impossible that there was a game like this back in the days of the Greeks and/or Romans and that the Jews did, in fact, pretend to be gambling with it as a cover story to hide what they were actually gathered to do. But it’s more likely that it was a later development, and I see no reason to suspend disbelief on this…

Anyway, in an attempt to expand the commercial potential of Chanukah (not unlike the Catalan booksellers’ exploitation of St. Jordi’s Day 😛 ), stores are not satisfied just selling dreidels–they sell all manner of tops and spinning toys “in the spirit of Chanukah.”

I bet I could make some profound metaphor about spinning and being dizzy and what it means to be Jewish or something, but… I’ll spare you. 😛

4) Chocolate Coins

If you’re gonna play dreidel, you need something to bet with, right?

Chocolate gelt!
Chocolate gelt!

That’s “gelt,” not “guilt.” There was a tradition on Chanukah to give children a little money (“gelt” in Yiddish) as a gift. (Gifts were not a Chanukah thing until our kids started getting jealous of the Christian kids with their Santa Clauses and their Christmas trees and their caga-tiĂłs. 😛 ) So chocolate coins became a popular Chanukah treat.

5) Lights

Now I know this is not unique to Chanukah among winter holidays, but in our defense, Chanukah has always been known as the “Festival of Lights,” given that candles and flames are an essential part of the Chanukah story. So yes, you will find the street lamps decorated with lights, usually in blue and white.

6) Chanukah Parody Music Videos

Obviously this is a very recent phenomenon, and I believe it was started by the Maccabeats. They were an a cappella group from Yeshiva University (now they are still an a cappella group, but they’ve graduated) who made a silly video for their Chanukah parody song, “Candlelight,” and released it in time for Chanukah in 2010. The video went viral, and ever since, they as well as other Jewish musicians and a cappella groups seem to have made a tradition of releasing music videos for songs with Chanukah-oriented lyrics–some parodies, some original–around this time of year. The trend has also extended to other holidays, especially Passover, but Chanukah usually sees the most action on this front.

Last year, there were two parodies of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” (this is the better of the two) and one of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” (“All About That Neis“). This year’s offerings include a Maccabeats parody of Walk the Moon’s super catchy “Shut Up and Dance with Me” called “Latke Recipe” (which I thought was pretty cute), “A One Direction Hannukah” parody mash-up by a collaboration of Jewish performers (I’m not a big fan of One Direction, but I loved what they did with “Story of My Life”), and Six13’s parody of SilentĂł’s “Watch Me” (a song I personally can’t stand, but never mind).

7) Preschool Chanukah Parties

If I were Catholic, this is where I would cross myself. 😛

This is one of those things about Israeli culture I have never learned to appreciate. It’s not that other Jews around the world don’t have Chanukah parties. It’s just that the way it’s done here is so… strangely ritualistic. Every preschool hosts two important parties during the year: the Chanukah party, and the graduation party. The content of the party varies from school to school, but there are two elements that are common to all of them: they involve some kind of performance on the part of the children; and they involve food–starring the ubiquitous sufganiya. There are certain activities I have seen at almost every preschool, such as the “giant cardboard dreidel descending from the ceiling and opening up to reveal treats for all the kids” thing. (It’s like a piĂąata without the violence, I guess?)

The parties tend to be noisy and crowded and overstimulating in a serious way. Most Israeli parents absolutely love them and look forward to watching their little darlings wear paper hats and twirl around with streamers and flashlights and whatnot.

I. hate. them.

I mean dude, you know my kids are awesome and highly entertaining, but I would much rather watch them build a block tower or roll around on their gym balls in my living room than watch them stand there looking bewildered as the teacher herds them into some formation. And dear God, the noise. Not “highly sensitive person” territory in the slightest. Still, I suck it up and go, because apparently, to stay home would be no less than to deprive my children of a normal Israeli childhood.

Well, at least there’s food at the end. 😛

In defense of R2’s preschool, his party was on Monday and they kept it really low-key and relaxed, with only one vaguely performance-y dance thing. And also, they get The Good Sufganiyot from our local bakery. 😀 (A “good sufganiya” is not overly greasy and contains actual strawberry jam, as opposed to that artificially flavored crimson gelatinous excuse for a doughnut filling they use in the generic, cheap ones they usually hand out at such events.) R1’s party is on Thursday and I am less optimistic on the low-key-ness front, but he’s in the older class in the same preschool as R2, so The Good Sufganiyot will be available as compensation. 😉

Also, one thing I love about their preschool is the way they tell the children the story of Chanukah, focusing primarily on the Holy Temple and the Maccabees’ aspiration to redeem and rededicate it, as opposed to their fight against the Greeks. It’s a subtle distinction, but I appreciate it.

…Yes, it is no coincidence that four out of the seven items I listed here involve food. Chanukah is another one of those Jewish holidays that follows the classic formula: they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!

So nu, Josep, are we finally going to merit a picture of your chanukiyah lit up this year?! 😉 First candle at nightfall on Sunday!



1. If you don’t know what this is, see this post.↩

Blog readers: What are your favorite Chanukah music videos?! Share them in the comments!

In God’s Presence: Succot & Shmini Atzeret

Dear Josep,

So after all the intense action of the first ten days of Tishrei, you’d think God would give us a nice break for the rest of the month.


The night after Yom Kippur, the banging of hammers and clinking of metal rods begins to sound throughout the Jewish neighborhoods.

We put those kids to work this year!
We put those kids to work this year!


We put those kids to work this year!


And very soon, strange little booths begin to pop up in yards and on balconies. Some with metal frames and walls of cloth; some made of wood; some covered in palm branches, some in bamboo mats.

Ta-da! (All that stuff lying around is our neighbors’. Really.) (Okay, except the red scooter.) (Whatever. You’ve been here. There’s no pretense that our house is neat. 😛 )

The children bring home a pile of paper chains, mobiles and other decorations from school.

photo (24)
It’ll be even prettier at night when we turn on the lights.

And this morning we woke up, all partied out from Shabbat (and Yom Kippur, Shabbat, and the two days of Rosh Hashana in the past two weeks…), to face yet. another. Jewish. holiday.

Succot is one of the lesser-known, yet nonetheless important Jewish holidays. “Succot” means “booths,” and the holiday is called that because the main commandment of the holiday is to build an impermanent structure–a succah–outside our homes, and basically live in it for seven days.

…Okay, what on earth is this about? I mean, we’ve got the other two regalim, Passover and Shavuot, and each one commemorates a very important event in the forming of the Jewish nation. What happened on the 15th of Tishrei that involved moving out of our homes into a “booth”?

Well, nothing actually happened on the 15th of Tishrei. But while Passover commemorates the Exodus, and Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah, Succot commemorates something else, something less momentous, and more subtle, but nonetheless crucial to our daily lives. The succot represent the Clouds of Glory that surrounded the Israelites as they walked through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land. In the text of the Torah it says that the Israelites were led through the desert by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire during the night. The Sages teach us that they were actually surrounded by this protective cloud on all sides–above, to protect from the brutal desert sun; below, to protect them from scorpions and snakes;  and on all sides, to protect them from bandits and wild animals.

So what makes me say that is this so relevant to our daily lives?

Because this holiday is really about understanding that like fish who can’t see the water in which they swim, we are constantly immersed in God’s presence. After a month and a half of introspection, breaking down the barriers between us and God and between ourselves and who we want to be, the time has come to simply bask in God’s glory and remind ourselves that He is always with us.

So for seven days, we move out of the comfort and security of our permanent homes, into these little impermanent structures. While they represent the Clouds of Glory protecting us, they also represent the impermanence of this physical world. And in the typical style of Judaism, we focus our attention and our lives on our existence within that world, celebrating all the goodness God has given us within it.

As usual in Jewish law, there are strict specifications for what qualifies as a succah. It must have at least two and a half walls that are at least 80 cm high and do not move around too much in the wind. The interior must measure at least 56cmx56cm. Its roof must be made out of organic material–branches or leaves, that are disconnected from their source, and parts of the succah that are covered by a permanent roof or a living tree do not qualify. The branches or leaves must be sparse enough so that the rain can come through and the stars are visible through them.  The idea is that though it is impermanent, and insecure, and at the mercy of the elements, we fear no evil, for God is with us.

Succot begins with a Yom Tov (or two outside Israel, as explained here). Then follow six days of chol hamo’ed,  “the mundane of the holiday,” in which we are not restricted from all the acts of creation like on Shabbat and Yom Tov, but are supposed to refrain from working as much as we can. During these seven (or eight) days, we must eat all our meals in the succah, and sleep in it if possible. It is highly encouraged–as always–to host guests in one’s succah, and there is a Kabbalistic concept that a special spiritual “guest” comes to “visit” us for each day of the holiday: Abraham the first day, Isaac the second, then Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and finally David. We call them “ushpizin” (Aramaic for “guests”), and recite a special passage “inviting” them in (or, more accurately, the spiritual attribute each of them represent–which correspond to the Kabbalistic spheres as I explained in the entry on counting the Omer).

There is a great Israeli movie called “Ushpizin” (“The Guests”) that is set in a haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem during the Succot holiday. If you have the time, I highly recommend it. (You can see it here on YouTube with English subtitles.)

The other special commandment of Succot is “taking the four species.”

The Four Species

When I was collecting ideas for “weird things Jews do,” this one came up a lot, but I left it out of that list because it’s not just a weird habit or tradition–it’s an actual mitzvah, a Torah commandment.

So what are the four species?

…Think Palm Sunday on steroids.1

Leviticus 23:40: “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the citrus tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven day period.”

That cluster of three types of branches is called a lulav. It is composed of a date palm frond in the center (also called a lulav), three myrtle branches on the right (hadassim), and two willow branches (aravot) on the left. The etrog is a citron (el poncem for you), a lemon-like citrus fruit with a thick rind. Together, they comprise the arba minim, the four species.

So, um… what do we do with them?

While we pray during the holiday, we hold them together, and at specified points in the prayers, shake them in all directions–the lulav in the right hand, and the etrog in the left, opposite the heart. The idea is, again, to remind us of God’s presence all around us.

Now, for anybody (with the possible exception of a religious Christian!), this makes for a pretty bizarre-looking scene: a bunch of guys parading around the synagogue holding a clump of plants and chanting.

Look, no one ever said we had to be normal. Meir624 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Look, no one ever said we had to be normal.
Meir624 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
So what’s the symbolism here? Why these plants?

The two most common explanations are as follows: one states that plants symbolize the different parts of the body. The etrog represents the heart; the lulav, the spine; the myrtle, the eyes, and the willow, the mouth (each because of the shape of their leaves). The idea is that we are subjugating all these parts of our bodies–our hearts and minds, our limbs, our eyes and power of sight, and our mouths and power of speech to service of God. The other explanation is that the plants symbolize four different kinds of Jews. The etrog, which has a fragrance and a flavor, represents a Jew who studies Torah and performs good deeds. The date palm, which has a flavor but no fragrance, represents one who performs good deeds but does not study Torah. The myrtle, which has a fragrance but no flavor, represents the opposite; and the willow, which has no fragrance and no flavor, represents a Jew who does neither. We are to strive to be like the etrog.

So the four species symbolize the different components of who we are–as individuals and as a community. And the idea of holding and shaking them during the prayers is that during this particular celebration of God’s presence, we are coming together and devoting everything we are to the continuous pursuit of His closeness. We seek Him in our diverse community, in our words, in our deeds, in our thoughts, and in our hearts.

Shmini Atzeret & SimḼat Torah

So you’d think that after the intense first ten days of the month of Tishrei and the seven or eight days of Succot, then we would finally get a break!


Often lumped together with Succot, the Yom Tov that follows immediately after its conclusion is not actually part of Succot, but a separate holiday in its own right. We do not eat in the succah on this day, and it doesn’t have any unique commandments of its own. The name Shmini Atzeret means something like “the final eighth day.” It’s kind of like the “after-party” of the Tishrei Holiday Extravaganza. You know how it’s like one in the morning and you just finished a lovely meal with your new friends from the USA and Israel, and the one from Israel is going to be flying home in the morning and you don’t know when you’ll ever see her again, and you’ve had such a lovely time getting to know each other and getting back to your normal routine is going to be so depressing… so you suggest going to hang out at a pub on La Rambla, to spend just a little more time together? Like that. 😉

But because there is no specific commandment associated with Shmini Atzeret, the Sages decided to designate it as the holiday to celebrate renewing the cycle of the weekly Torah portions. You see, the Torah (as in the first five books of the Bible) is divided into portions, and a different one is read each week. It takes a year to get through all the portions, and Shmini Atzeret is when we read the last portion and celebrate the completion of the Torah readings. For that reason, it is also called SimḼat Torah, “rejoicing in the Torah”.

I should point out that they are only on the same day in Israel. Outside of Israel, because of the need for two days of Yom Tov (which I explain about here), they are split. The first day is Shmini Atzeret, and the second day, SimḼat Torah.

So what does celebrating the completion of the Torah readings involve? A whole lot of dancing and singing! The congregation takes out all the Torah scrolls and dances with them, shoving all the chairs and benches in the synagogue to the side. This part of the services can last for hours on SimḼat Torah, and it occurs both during the evening services and the morning services. Parents involve the children by dancing with them (fathers often put their kids on their shoulders), and candy is frequently distributed.

In the morning, after all the dancing, the last portion of the Torah is read, followed by the beginning of the first portion of Genesis. Kind of like how you finish a really great book and you can’t help but just start it all over again right away! (Okay, actually, it’s exactly that.)

And then… we finally get a break! The month after Tishrei, Ḥeshvan, is devoid of holidays, and the holiday in the following month is at the end of it (the 25th of Kislev=Ḥanukah!). Other than finally getting back to our normal routines, we use this time to focus on praying for rain, as the rainy season in Israel begins at this time. And that, my friend, is a topic for another letter. 😉

Hey–good luck with the elections today. I won’t see the results until tomorrow evening because of Yom Tov, and I expect you to keep me informed! 😉



1. For the Jews, Muslims or otherwise uninformed among you: Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter, and in many traditions, it is celebrated by holding a procession of the congregants carrying palm fronds, in commemoration of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem before the crucifixion.

"Palm sunday" by english wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
Palm sunday” by english wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Bunch of guys parading around with palm fronds. Yeah, that looks about right. No one ever said you had to be normal…↩

Dusty Divinity

Dear Josep,

If I sound a little muffled, it’s because I’m writing from beneath a huge cloud of dust.

Epic sandstorm. Photo courtesy of NASA.
Yeah, we’re in there somewhere. Photo courtesy of NASA.

On Tuesday we awoke to yellow skies. This is not too unusual for the transitional seasons, but usually the dust storm lasts maybe a day, and then the heat “breaks” with a muddy rainfall, and the weather moves on with its topsy-turvy unpredictable transitional-season self.

Not this week, though. It’s Thursday, and though the skies are more gray than yellow now, the sand is still here. And it’s hot as all heck out there. This weather is dangerous for people with breathing difficulties, so they are advised to stay inside, and the Ministry of Education issued a directive to keep kids indoors during the school day. We’ve had the windows closed and the A/C on pretty much all day since Tuesday.

I have a habit of looking for God in the weather. I dunno; the weather is one of those things that is so beyond our control, something that feels like the direct result of His will. Therefore, when we have unusual weather, I tend to feel that God is speaking to me through it somehow. So I find myself asking, what’s with this dust, so soon before Rosh Hashana–which begins on Sunday night?

I thought about dust, and references to dust in the Rosh Hashana prayer services. It is mentioned in the context of our humility before God; “I am like dust in my lifetime…” And then it occurred to me: in Genesis 2:7, the Torah describes the creation of Man. “The Lord God created man, dust from the earth, and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul.” (The Hebrew word for “man” or “human” is Adam–אדם–which comes from the word adama, אדמה, which means “earth.”)

According to our tradition, Rosh Hashana is the birthday of the first man, Adam. The story described in Genesis is not necessarily meant to be taken literally, but I think what it is showing us is that as humans, we are a synthesis between the most tangible of matter–“dust of the earth”–and the highest of “spiritual matter”, “the breath of God.” This tension also represents what I am always saying is one of the most important tasks the Torah assigns: to take the material and elevate it into something spiritual.

In the previous chapter of Genesis, 1:26, we find a passage that is curious in its use of the plural: “God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image…'” Us? Our?

The Bible critics would jump on this and say it proves that whoever wrote the Bible believed in multiple gods, or something. The traditional commentaries would roll their eyes and say, “Sit down, you pretentious cynics. It’s a ‘royal we’.” Others say He was speaking to the angels, to teach us the lesson of humility, that we should always consult with those “lesser” than us and not see ourselves above asking their advice.

But there is one interpretation of the use of the plural form in this passage that I have always found particularly inspiring. [And I can’t find its source, so if anyone reading knows it, please tell me!]

God isn’t speaking to the angels or to other gods or to Himself with the royal ‘we’.

He is speaking to you.

He is saying, “Let us make man–you and Me. I’ll give you the raw materials–the dust–and you will breathe in My spirit. I’ll give you a body and free will, and you will use those to make good choices, to refine yourself and become all that you can be, and to elevate My world to its fullest spiritual potential.”

And that’s what Rosh Hashana is all about. What are we doing with our dust? Are we simply clumps of dust, coming from dust, returning to dust? Or are we drawing in God’s spirit with every breath we take, infusing our dust with Divinity?

So obviously, I have no idea why God kicked up this epic sandstorm at this particular point in time. But there is something that feels appropriate about it, being surrounded by these metaphorical particles that form what we are in this life, that create the veil of this material world behind which the infinite spiritual universe resides.

And those are my dusty thoughts for the day. 😉 I will take this opportunity to wish you a sweet and happy new year, full of new beginnings, and personal fulfillment, and love, and joy, and everything your heart desires. May we all be written and sealed in the Book of Life.

Shana Tova,


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 maḼzorim (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…” SeliḼot 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 maḼzor, 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.



Shavuot: On Covenants and Cheesecake

Dear Josep,

The Shavuot holiday coincides with a number of joyful events in my family. In 2008, Eitan and I got married 3 days before Shavuot. In 2009, I gave birth to H the morning before Shavuot. In 2012, I gave birth to R2 right on the day between our anniversary and H’s 3rd birthday! Understandably, the Omer “count-up” has special meaning for us every year. 🙂

So what is this holiday and what is its significance?

“Shavuot” literally means “weeks”; the word shavua comes from the root sh.v.a., ׊.ב.ע, which means “seven”. But that same root also means “oath”. Remember how I said that Passover is like the birthday of the Jewish people, and that Shavuot is like the wedding anniversary? The 6th of Sivan is the day God gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai. In the 50 days between the Exodus and receiving the Torah, we went from being slaves to prophets–every one of us.

In Rabbi Judah the Levi’s philosophical work The Kuzari, he puts forth an argument that is still used in theological debates when discussing the Divine origin of the Torah. (Rabbi Lawrence Keleman gives a wonderful class on this here.) He states that every other religion began through the revelation of a single human being–Islam had Mohammad, and Christianity had Paul. (Yes, Jesus before that, but Christianity as its own religion, as opposed to a Messianic sect of Judaism, basically began with Paul’s revelation.) The thing about individual revelations is that they are impossible to verify. You can either believe that Mohammad or Paul was a true prophet and had a true revelation, or not. A skeptic could easily claim that they were making it up or were clinically insane, and it is very hard to prove or disprove one way or the other.

It gets a little harder to dismiss when you make the outrageous claim that an entire nation stood at Mt. Sinai and personally heard God speak. We’re talking about around 3 million people. It is extremely difficult to argue that 3 million people went simultaneously insane. Or just got together and decided to make the whole thing up and tell their children and their children’s children that they personally heard God speak, and manage to pass that intact story down through every generation for 3,500 years.

Now, this is obviously not a flawless argument–there is no such thing when it comes to theology–but it is a fairly strong one, and certainly differentiates Judaism from the rest of the world’s religions. Only Jews would have the audacity to claim that our ancestors all stood at Mt. Sinai and heard God speak with their own ears.

According to Exodus 19-20, the nation gathered at the mountain on the 6th of Sivan, and God gave them the Ten Commandments. (Which, by the way, is a fairly inaccurate translation of that phrase. We have 613 commandments, not just ten, and these ten aren’t necessarily more important than the others. The Hebrew phrase, asaret hadeebrot, is more accurately translated as “the Ten Statements”.) The Israelites were so overwhelmed by the Divine revelation that they told Moses to go up to the mountain and receive the rest of the Torah for them. He ascended Mt. Sinai and received the Tablets of the Covenant.

The revelation at Sinai, as depicted in an illustration from a card printed by the Providence Lithograph Company in 1907
The revelation at Sinai, as depicted in an illustration from a card printed by the Providence Lithograph Company in 1907

So What’s the Deal with this Torah Thing?

In my “Introduction to the World’s Biggest Book Club“, I gave two definitions for the Torah, the first of which was: “the entire body of teachings and Jewish law, starting with the Bible and all the way down to the rabbinic literature being written at this very moment”.

Now, one might ask oneself, aren’t we talking about faith and a relationship with God? What about this dry, austere collection of legalistic rulings and restrictions is so important and inspiring to Jews that they were willing to sacrifice their comfort, safety, financial viability, and sometimes their lives for it, for 3,500 years?

Here’s where our wedding allegory comes back. The Torah is like a wedding contract. If you take a look at any type of prenuptial agreement, you’re most likely to encounter a bunch of boring legalese. Any kind of contract provides the framework, the boundaries, through which a healthy, prosperous relationship can grow.

A good example of this is Shabbat. If you sat and read through those books I showed you about the laws of observing Shabbat, all you’d see is a whole bunch of things you’re not allowed to do. How stifling and restrictive! But as you saw yourself, all the “thou shalt nots” are not what define Shabbat. Shabbat is so much more than a bunch of restrictions. It is a time outside of time, a space to disconnect from our role as “creators” and enjoy our role as “creations”. We could not fully feel and enjoy this if we did not have a way to clearly differentiate our existence on that day from that of every other day of the week. The laws of Shabbat provide the frame; we fill in the picture. This is, of course, also true about marriage.

So what is the Torah? The Torah is our contract with God and our handbook to creating a just, moral, God-conscious society. God made a covenant with us to use the framework of the Torah to create a better society and raise the spiritual level of humanity to a point where God will be able to reveal Himself to all. He wanted us to do this by serving as an example to the rest of the world, being a “light unto the nations”, as it were. In return, He promised to give us the land of Israel–a land at the center of the world, where the paths of the leading civilizations at the time constantly crossed, meaning that they would all come in some kind of contact with us. He promised to bless us and protect us and provide for all our needs, as long as we kept our end of the deal.

…That didn’t exactly go as planned, but that’s a story for the Three Weeks and Tisha B’Av. 😉

Celebrating Shavuot

Shavuot is one of the Three Regalim–the Biblical holidays on which we were required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Like the other Biblical holidays (Passover, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succot and Shmini Atzeret), it is observed similarly to Shabbat, with restrictions on “acts of creation”–with the one exception of certain actions required for making food. (These are called “Yamim Tovim”, literally “good days”, or “Yom Tov” in singular.) In Israel Shavuot is one day long; outside of Israel, it is two days.

Other than that, there are no specific mitzvot associated with Shavuot. There is a custom to express our gratitude and love for the Torah by staying up all night learning Torah. (Eitan likes to note that this custom only came into existence when coffee became widely available…) Many synagogues are specially decorated with flowers and colorful cloths to cover the Ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept) and the Torah scrolls.

According to tradition, King David’s birthday and date of death were both on Shavuot. (It is said that dying on one’s birthday is a sign of great righteousness. Moses also died on his birthday.) For this reason, we read the scroll of Ruth during services on Shavuot, which tells the story of David’s great-grandmother–a Moabite convert to Judaism.

Another well-known custom of Shavuot is to eat dairy products. Tradition has it that this is because when the Israelites received the Torah, they were overwhelmed by all the laws regarding kosher meat, and decided to make life easier on themselves by just eating dairy until they were on top of the whole kosher meat thing.

Unlike in most areas concerning cuisine 😛 my Ashkenazi ancestors did dairy pretty well. Classic Ashkenazi dishes include blintzes (like fried crepes), bagels (traditionally eaten with cream cheese and smoked salmon), and cheesecake, the latter of which has become the classic Shavuot dessert.

Nom nom nom. by Michael Stern, under CC BY SA 2.0
Believe it or not, I was not a fan as a kid. My mom used to get cheesecake from the local kosher bakery for everyone else, and carrot cake for me; I assume because it was the other dairy cake they carried! I came around eventually–especially since Israeli cheesecakes are lighter and milder on the cheesy flavor–but I’m still kind of weird about cheese and sweet things. Especially the combination of chocolate with cheese. :-/
by Michael Stern, under CC BY SA 2.0

Shavuot falls on this coming Sunday, which means that us Israelis are in for a two-day Shabbat-Yom-Tov, and non-Israelis are in for a three-day extravaganza.

There will be cheesecake.

Lots of cheesecake.

(So Shavuot doesn’t exactly follow the formula of “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” But at least there’s the “let’s eat” part! 😛 )



Counting Up: The Omer and Lag B’Omer

Dear Josep,

This part of the year is chock full of notable events on the Jewish calendar. The next one coming up is Lag B’Omer, which is pretty much the most obscure holiday we have. But before we get into that, let’s back up a minute and talk about the Omer.

What is the Omer? Well, the word itself refers to a certain offering that was brought to the Temple at this time of year (omer ha’tenufah, “the sheaf of waving”). But it also lent its name to something we call “the counting of the Omer” (sefirat ha’omer).

Remember how we mentioned that the Exodus was basically the birthday of the nation of Israel? Sometimes it is also compared to the “betrothal” between God and the Israelites. The betrothal, or engagement, is an initial commitment that takes place before the eternal commitment of a marriage, right? So if the Exodus was the “betrothal”, the giving of the Torah–the seal of the eternal bond between us and God–is the “wedding”.

When a bride and groom are looking forward to their wedding, they often count the days left until the big day. That’s exactly what counting the Omer is–only when we count the Omer, we count up, instead of down.

“And you shall count from the day after the day of rest, from they day that you bring the omer ha’tenufa, seven complete weeks. Until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days”  — Leviticus 23:15-16

It just so happens that I got married on the 47th day of the Omer–the 3rd of Sivan, 3 days before Shavuot. So that year that feeling of counting up in anticipation was very tangible for me! (Not to mention that one of my sons was born on the 49th day and another on the 48th three years later. A lot to count up to each year! 😉 )

The “day of rest” referred to in the above passage is the first day of Passover. So we begin the night after. Since this is a mitzvah, we make a blessing first, and then count the first day: “Today is one day of the Omer.” “Today is two days of the Omer,” etc. Note that the passage says to count both seven weeks, and fifty days; so we mention both when we count. For instance, today is day 25, so last night the formula went as follows: “Today is twenty and five days, that are three weeks and four days of the Omer.”

So why are we counting up instead of down?

Good question. 😛

According to the Kabbalah, there 10 ways that God expresses Himself in the universe. These attributes or emanations are called sefirot. Does that word sound familiar? 😉 They are, from highest to lowest: Keter/Da’at (crown/knowledge), Binah (understanding), Chokhma (wisdom), Chesed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (might, discipline), Tiferet (beauty, glory), Netzach (eternity or mastery), Hod (splendor), Yesod (foundation), and Malkhut (sovereignty). These sefirot are arranged in a certain order, from the lowest and most material, to the highest and most spiritual. The lower seven are the ones that are expressed in our world.

The "sefirot" tree according to the Kabbalah. If you think this is complicated, you ain't seen nothin'.
The “sefirot” tree according to the Kabbalah. This one has eleven because it separates “keter” and “da’at” which are usually thought of as one. If you think this is complicated, you ain’t seen nothin’.

This is not the time or place to expound upon each one of these attributes, how they are expressed in the world and how we can recognize God through them. Kabbalah is a whole world unto itself and I don’t know much about it.

Anyway, each day of the Omer is associated with a different combination of sefirot. The first week is Chesed, lovingkindness, so the first day is “the chesed within the chesed“, the second day is “the gevurah (might/discipline) within the chesed“, etc.

The point of this is that it is an opportunity to examine the way each of these attributes is expressed through us. So for instance, today is “the netzach within the netzach“. Netzach can be interpreted as “eternity”, or “mastery”, or “endurance”. So on this day we can think about our endurance, our consistency, our fortitude, and try to improve these qualities within ourselves.

So let’s return to the question: why are we counting up? Because the idea is that with each day that passes from Passover to Shavuot, from the Exodus to the Revelation at Sinai, we rise up a spiritual level. Today, we are on “level twenty-five”–halfway there! Tomorrow, we will be on “level twenty-six”. When we reach “level fifty”, we will be ready to re-accept the Torah. Using the “chart” of the sefirot is one way that we can help ourselves ascend the spiritual ladder that is the Omer.

Now. All this is very exciting and you’d think that this would be a joyous time of year. Right?


Around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, there was a rabbi called Rabbi Akiva. He is mentioned often in the Talmud as one of the greatest and most influential teachers of his time. He had thousands of students. And at one time, there was a terrible plague that killed of 24,000 of his students during the first 33 days of the Omer. The Gemara states that this plague was wrought upon the students “because they did not honor one another”. For this reason, during the first 33 days of the Omer, it is customary to be in a sort of symbolic public state of mourning. We don’t cut our hair, don’t shave beards, don’t buy new clothing and don’t have weddings.

Now… one might ask, why all the fuss and bother over a bunch of students who died two thousand years ago? Haven’t there been worse disasters in our history that might be more deserving of public displays of mourning? Heck, if we commemorated every major disaster in our history we’d be in mourning every single day of the year.

Well, it’s a good question. And you know how we Jews sometimes like a good question better than we like a good answer? 😉 The answer is not very neat and easy to explain. People can take it in all kinds of different directions. One article I read went through the historical details of exactly what happened with the hypothesis that these students had the potential to reverse the destruction of the Temple and bring on the era of the Messiah, but that because they didn’t honor one another, they failed to do so and created an extremely unfortunate turning point in our history. This is the best explanation I have heard, and it’s worth taking a look at the article; lengthy, but worth it. 😉

So what is Lag B’Omer then? “Lag” is simply the number 33. Hebrew letters are also used as numerals, so 33 is ל”ג, which, sounded out, says “lag”. The 33rd day commemorates three things:

1) The end of the aforementioned plague;

2) The death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, to whom the Zohar (the book of the Kabbalah) is traditionally attributed, so it’s a big day for Kabbalists;

3) The rebellion of Bar Kochva against the Romans (after the destruction of the Second Temple) began that day. (The rebellion eventually failed, but… the same way we feel pride about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which also eventually failed, we also feel pride about Bar Kochva’s uprising.) To communicate the beginning of the rebellion, Bar Kochva’s men lit bonfires to be seen by their colleagues…

And that is why Lag B’Omer is the most polluted day of the year in Israel.

Firing up Lag B'Omer in Tel Aviv. צילום: אורן פלס [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Firing up Lag B’Omer in Tel Aviv. These people are serious.
צילום: אורן פלס [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
Because it has become a custom to light bonfires in honor of Bar Kochva that night. Now, Israelis love bonfires. It’s a big part of traditional kibbutz culture, and fits right in with the general Israeli love of being outside. (And didn’t I mention that Jews have a thing for fire? 😛 ) So this custom is a big hit even among totally secular Israelis.

Lag B’Omer is next week, so all the kids are hard at work collecting bonfire wood, hoarding it, and guarding it ferociously from other kids. When I was an older kid/young teen, I enjoyed going to bonfires with my friends, roasting meat and marshmallows in the flames and staying up late hanging around the fire.

But then I grew up, got sick of dealing with all the smoke, and became a curmudgeon along with my asthmatic husband 😛 so this is the only night of the year we keep all our windows closed and the air conditioner on all night. :-/



Welcome to Israeli Emotional Roller Coaster Week!

Dear Josep,

Today is Rosh Chodesh Iyar, the first day of the month of Iyar.

I saw an image on Facebook that I can’t share here because of copyright issues, but I can link to it and describe it. (And I’ll share it to the FB page. What, you didn’t know that Letters to Josep has an FB page? Well, now you know!)

It’s a cartoon by Shai Cherka that was printed in the Makor Rishon newspaper. It shows a steep roller coaster track with a man holding on for dear life, his kippah about to fly off his head. At the top of the hill he’s coasting down is a yellow Jewish star with “Jude” written on it; at the bottom of the drop is a torch propped up with rifles; and then the track shifts into the blue strips of the Israeli flag, with the blue Jewish star at the center, as it takes a sharp turn upwards.

This is a perfect visual representation of what the two weeks after Passover are like in Israel.

Towards the end of Passover, you start to notice some blue and white streamers popping up along the roads. Then, you start spotting teenagers at intersections, selling Israeli flags that fit onto your car window, usually around 15 NIS a pop. I can’t tell you how many of these we have lost by opening the window while driving at high speed. A couple years ago they started selling these cute sideview mirror covers that lack that disadvantage.

And the flags start appearing on windows and street lamps. By MathKnight and Zachi Evenor (Own work) [CC BY 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
And the flags start appearing on windows and street lamps.
By MathKnight and Zachi Evenor (Own work) [CC BY 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
At the top of the metaphorical roller coaster is Holocaust Remembrance Day. The importance of this to our national identity has already been described in that post.

A week later, we have Memorial Day, in honor of the fallen soldiers and terror victims. The very next day is Independence Day (Yom Ha’Atzma’ut), the 5th of Iyar, which is the day Ben-Gurion declared independence. Now, remember–Jewish days begin and end at sundown. So Memorial Day begins at sundown this Tuesday, and at sundown on Wednesday, the whole country makes a sudden and very dramatic shift from solemn mourning to joyous celebration. This may seem kind of jarring, but to us it makes perfect sense. We cannot celebrate our independence without first expressing our gratitude to those who gave their lives for that freedom. Last week, we remembered the victims of the Holocaust, standing as a symbol of the culmination of all Jewish persecution and suffering over the centuries. Then, we acknowledge those who died for our country. Only then can we celebrate our national independence, the miraculous realization of a 2,000-year-old dream.

As a kid I remember being struck by how Israelis seemed to connect less to Holocaust Remembrance Day than to Memorial Day. To me, the Holocaust was a tragedy so much more awful in every possible way. What I didn’t quite understand at the time was that even grandchildren of Holocaust survivors tended to have much more up-close-and-personal experience with death in the context of wars and terrorism. There is not a single Israeli who didn’t have at least a casual connection with someone who was killed in a war or a terror attack. It’s a small country. Serving in the army is mandatory after graduating high school. It’s fairly impossible to avoid.

Memorial Day is observed similarly to Holocaust Remembrance Day. A one-minute siren sounds in the evening at 8pm, and another, for two minutes, at 10am the following morning. Flags are lowered, ceremonies are held, graves are visited, candles are lit.

Soldiers stand at attention during the memorial siren on Mt. Herzl, the main military cemetery in Jerusalem. By Israel Defense Forces from Israel (Remembering the Fallen) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Soldiers stand at attention during the memorial siren on Mt. Herzl, the main military cemetery in Jerusalem.
By Israel Defense Forces from Israel (Remembering the Fallen) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
As you may remember, I did not serve in the army, but rather chose an alternative available to people who prefer not to serve for religious or moral reasons (usually religious women), known as national service (sherut leumi). You may recall that I worked in the northern office of OneFamily Fund, now called OneFamily Together, an organization that provides emotional, legal and financial support for victims of terror. I could probably write an entire book about what that year was like for me (…actually, I sort of did. 😛 But that’s another story.), but one thing that it helped me understand was how very, very close these tragedies were to all of us.

This year, unfortunately, over 70 names will be added to the list. Most of them are soldiers who were killed during Operation Protective Edge this summer. Some of them are people who were killed in the vehicular and stabbing attacks while those were “popular” back in the fall. (Actually, another man was just killed in a vehicular incident, but it has not been confirmed that it was a terror attack.)

There are a few people I will be keeping in mind when the memorial siren sounds.

One is a young lady named Karen Yemima Mosquera. She was from Ecuador, the daughter of a family with what appear to be crypto-Jewish roots, and she came to Israel to study and do a formal conversion to Judaism. She had completed her conversion process just a few months earlier, and had just begun her life as a fully observant, formally recognized Jew. She was killed when a terrorist veered his car into a crowded train stop, in the same attack that killed a 3-month-old baby. I did not know her personally, but somehow–probably because of my connection with Spanish crypto-Judaism–her story touched me deeply.

Another is a woman from my community. Just last week I was looking at an old Google spreadsheet that listed names and phone numbers of potential babysitters, and my stomach fell when I saw her name there.

And of course… three of those new names are the names that make every Israeli heave a deep sigh. The names we were posting on social media, chanting in rallies, hanging on signs, wearing on shirts… and then singing mournfully, spelling out using candles, and using to name new initiatives.

Eyal. Gilad. Naftali.

I will write more about them and the effect their kidnapping and deaths had on us when the one-year anniversary of that event approaches. The events of last summer deserve an entry of their own.

After these 24 hours of painful memories, on Wednesday night, we blow out the candles, raise our flags, and celebrate, with public ceremonies, parties, fireworks, and concerts. In the religious Zionist (dati leumi) communities, a special prayer is held after the usual evening prayers, singing various Psalms and verses of praise, and Psalm 126 to the tune of HaTikva1. For us, Yom Ha’Atzma’ut is not only a national holiday, it is a religious holiday. We see the foundation of Israel as a miraculous historical event much like the events that we celebrate during Chanukah and Purim2. Older Israelis, secular and religious alike, like to hold “shira b’tzibur”, “public singing”, which is a sort of communist version of karaoke 😛 where the music is played and the words displayed on the screen but everybody sings together.

As a teenager I would walk to downtown Rehovot with my friends, where the main streets would be closed to traffic, and there were vendors selling candied apples and other treats, and various Israeli-flag-themed paraphernalia, usually including big blow-up plastic hammers with which kids bonk each other on the head. Don’t even ask me how this became a Thing, but kids also run around spraying each other with “snow foam” and colored spray streamers. Well, I guess it’s slightly better than the Venetian carnival scented-egg-throwing thing.

Anyway, during the day, it’s become something of a tradition to have a picnic, usually barbecue, probably because the weather tends to be just right for it and basically any excuse to eat a whole lot of meat sounds good to an Israeli. 😉 Many people dress in blue and white in honor of the holiday, and cakes, cupcakes and cookies are decorated with Israeli flag toothpicks or blue and white frosting or sprinkles. Special prayers are held again for the morning services. Museums, tourist sites, and public parks are open and often admittance is free. The IDF also opens some of its lots to the public, where people can come look at the equipment they use up close. In general, Yom Ha’Atzma’ut is a day to honor and celebrate the soldiers who protect us, so it’s also customary to give them gifts and have kids write them thank-you notes.

And then, we have a couple weeks’ break until the next minor and somewhat obscure holiday on the calendar: Lag B’Omer. 😉

It so happens that there is another interesting holiday this week, the same day as Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, actually, but it is not an Israeli or a Jewish one. You know what it is, but I’ll keep our blog readers in suspense for now. 😉



1. “HaTikva”, “the Hope”, is the Israeli national anthem. Within the first twenty minutes of my very first conversation with Josep, he informed me that he knew all the words to this song, and took a deep breath as if to start singing, but thought better of it, seeing as we were standing in a little street corner print shop in Barcelona around a bunch of other young people who thought both of us were weird enough to begin with. It was at this point in our conversation that I started to wonder if maybe I was hallucinating.↩

2. If you’re wondering what happened to the post about Purim, it was causing some issue with the formatting so I had to delete it. I’ll repost it next year. 😉↩

Passover, Part II: Seder Night 101

Dear Josep,

In Part I, I mentioned that the Seder (and Passover in general) are all about interactive and experiential learning that is usually directed towards the next generation: the kids. This actually does not begin on Seder night, but on the night before, with a special ritual we call bedikat chametz.

Bedikat Chametz

In the weeks and days before Passover, as mentioned in Part I, we thoroughly clean and check our homes for any recognizable traces of chametz (leavened products; see part I for explanation). On the evening before Passover, we hold a special ritual to symbolically finish this task, called bedikat chametz, “checking for chametz”. We make a blessing, and then turn off all the lights in the house, and by the light of candles and flashlights, search for little pieces of chametz that were intentionally hidden by one of the family members (traditionally it’s 10 pieces). Obviously, this would be an extremely inefficient way to actually check for chametz; this is more symbolic than anything else, and it’s a fun game for the kids, kind of like a treasure hunt in the dark! When all the pieces of chametz have been found, we recite a passage in Aramaic that effectively nullifies any chametz that we have missed in our search. We declare that if there is any chametz left, to us it will be like “the dust of the earth”.

The following day, any remaining chametz (that will not be sold) must be burned or otherwise destroyed in a way that makes it unusable (such as pouring bleach all over it).

(True story: I cleaned, searched, vacuumed, and scrubbed my house top to bottom, and first day of Passover this year, I discovered two granola bars of dust in my purse. Thanks to the above declaration, it’s all good–I simply destroyed the evidence and removed it from the premises. 😛 )

The Seder

The holiday begins with lighting candles at sundown, as with every other Biblical holiday. A service is held at the synagogue, and then all families return to their homes to begin the Seder. It is a very strong tradition to have the Seder with lots of people, generally with one’s extended family, and/or lots of guests. When an Israeli asks me what I’m doing for Seder this year and I say, “Just the five of us,” s/he gives me a look that is halfway between pity and horror. Even Jews with very little connection to tradition and halakha tend to attend some kind of Seder. I guess the parallel would be like how Christmas is celebrated so widely even by people who don’t really consider themselves Christian. We like to have quiet, intimate Seders, so there is room for discussion but things don’t drag out too long, and especially when our kids got old enough to participate, we really want to keep their attention as long as possible. Back in the USA, we generally had our Seders with my dad’s parents in New York and whatever aunts and uncles were around.

The word “Seder” means “order”, referring to the ten steps to the ritual meal that must be carried out in order. The Haggadah, briefly mentioned in the entry about the Jewish holy books, guides us through these steps, which mostly involve reading the passages aloud and eating symbolic foods that help us commemorate those events. The symbolic foods are arranged at the center of the table on the Seder plate:

Our seder plate. Explanations of each of these symbols below.
Our seder plate. Explanations of each of these symbols below.

We also set three matzot on the table in a pile and covered by a cloth.

The table is set, the kids and guests are seated, and we begin:

Kadesh (Sanctification)

The leader of the Seder (usually the head of the household) recites the kiddush over a cup of wine. This is the same kind of “declaration” of the sanctity of the day that we perform on Shabbat and other holidays. If the Seder falls on a Friday night (as it did this year), the kiddush for Shabbat is recited as well. Then, we all drink our first cup of wine while reclining. This is symbolic of our freedom, as royals used to eat while reclining. (Yes, I said “first” cup of wine. There are four. It’s gonna be a long night. 😉 ) (Grape juice is okay for those of us who would rather remain sober…)

Urchatz (Washing)

We wash our hands as though for bread, but without the blessing. We are not about to eat bread, but there is a custom to wash our hands this way before eating a food that is dipped in liquid.

Karpas (Green Vegetable)

We eat a green vegetable, usually parsley or celery, dipped in salt water. The green vegetable symbolizes spring, and the salt water symbolizes the tears we shed under the oppression of slavery. The Polish tradition is to do this with potato, which is not a green vegetable, but good luck finding anything green in Poland at this time of year 😛

Yachatz (Splitting in Half)

The leader of the Seder takes the middle matza from the pile and breaks it in half. The bigger half is hidden away as the afikoman, which will be eaten later.

Maggid (Retelling)

Maggid is the centerpiece of the Haggadah; the section that actually contains the retelling of the story of the Exodus. There is no way I’m going to cover all its contents here. For that, you’ll have to actually read a Haggadah. (Conveniently, Chabad has a full English version here.) You’ll notice that it doesn’t really follow the narrative the way you would expect. To understand why… well, you’ll just have to come to our Seder someday, and we can discuss it long into the night–as per the tradition. 🙂

So by this point in the evening, if you have never been to a Seder before, you are going to be really confused. What is going on? Why are we eating these weird things? Why is this holiday so different from other holidays?

Well, that’s how Maggid kicks off the story. The smallest child at the table recites the Four Questions: Why is this night different from all the other nights–that on all other nights, we eat chametz and matza, but on this night, only matza? That on all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night, we eat bitter herbs? That on all other nights, we don’t dip our food even once, but on this night, we dip it twice? That on all other nights, we eat sitting or reclining, but on this night, we all recline?

The idea of the Seder is to make the children curious so they will ask questions like these.

The answer to those questions comes right away: Once, our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and God saved us from their hands. The text then dwells a little on the concept of retelling the story and educating our children about the Exodus, and then goes on to describe the story of the Exodus and interpretations of the passages and events by various sages. (Remember, the Haggadah is an extremely old text that was written around the time of the Talmud, so the passages reflect rabbinic discourse of that period.)

The most poignant part of the Seder, in my view, is the following passage, recited in the middle of Maggid: “And it is [that promise] that has stood for our fathers and for us, for not only one has arisen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they arise against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hand.” This line, written so many centuries ago, has rung true at every single Seder since. This is a beautiful version composed by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Yonatan Razel, who here changes some of the lyrics to present and future tense to emphasize how relevant this ancient passage still feels.

Rachtza (Washing)

We wash our hands again, this time actually for bread–that is, for…

Motzi Matza

That first word refers to the blessing we make over bread, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, “…who brings bread out of the ground”. We make two blessings over the matza–one for the enjoyment of food, and one for the mitzva–and eat the proscribed amount of it while reclining.

Maror (Bitter Herbs)

These are eaten to represent the bitterness of slavery. We usually eat either romaine lettuce or horseradish or some mixture of both. (The horseradish on the plate is that purple stuff. It’s purple because it’s mixed with… la remolatxa1. 😛 That is how it’s usually served with the famous (or is it infamous…?) gefilte fish.) We first dip the lettuce or horseradish into that brown mush, which is called charoset, and represents the mortar used by the slaves to make the bricks. It is traditionally made with apples, wine, nuts, and/or dates, and is supposed to be sweet, so it sweetens the bitterness of the herb representing slavery.

Apparently Ben & Jerry’s produced a charoset-flavored ice cream this year. o.O

Korech (Sandwich)

Now we follow a tradition established by Hillel the Elder in the days of the Second Temple. Tradition has it that Hillel sandwiched all the symbolic foods of Passover–the matza, the maror, the charoset, and the Passover sacrifice (a lamb)–and ate them together. Since we have no Temple, we cannot make the sacrifice, so we leave out the lamb. BTW, if you’re still wondering about the shankbone and the egg on the plate–the bone represents the Passover sacrifice, and the egg represents the Chagiga (holiday) sacrifice.

Shulchan Orech (Setting the Table)

This is where we have the feast! Everybody’s favorite part. 😛 Traditional foods include knaidlach, or matza balls, dumplings made of ground matza, in chicken soup; the aforementioned gefilte fish, which are balls of ground fish, usually carp; and lamb, in commemoration of the sacrifice. (I happen to dislike lamb. So, beef or chicken it is. As to gefilte fish, usually I can take it or leave it, but I enjoy it as a special Passover thing.)

Tzafun (Hidden)

So remember the piece of matza the leader of the Seder hid away way back before Maggid? Now is the time to find it: it’s the afikoman (that word apparently comes from the ancient Greek for “dessert”). We are required to have a proscribed amount of it as the last thing we eat. But first, the kids have to find it! Another treasure hunt. 🙂 This is a great way to keep them awake and engaged. Another tradition developed out of this that the children then hold the afikoman “captive”, thereby indefinitely delaying the end of the Seder, and “bargaining” to give it back in return for a gift or a treat.

Barech (Bless)

Now we recite Grace After Meals, over a third cup of wine (the second was drunk at the end of Maggid), and then drink that cup and recite the blessing after drinking wine. The final cup of wine is poured.

Hallel (Praise)

Hallel is a special prayer recited on holidays, comprised of Psalms 113-118. The first part of Hallel is recited at the synagogue, and it is continued here, and then we go on to read additional Psalms along the same general theme of God being awesome. The final cup of wine is now drunk. (And if it’s really wine, so are we. 😛 )

Nirtzah (Acceptance)

The name is referring to God accepting our completion of the Seder. This is when the Seder officially ends. (There are opinions that this is not a distinct section of the Seder, but that this and the previous are one section–“Hallel Nirtza”.) We sing l’shana haba’ah b’yirushalayim habnuya–next year in rebuilt Jerusalem! Then there are a few more traditional Passover songs, which are generally fun and lively and get everybody’s energy up for the final leg of the Seder. (Great for keeping the kids awake, too.)

The very last song of the Seder, at least in Ashkenazi tradition… you’d think it would be something profound, about freedom, or the purpose of the Jewish people, or maybe even about the holiday itself. But it’s this:

A cumulative song in Aramaic about a little goat that Dad bought for two zuzim (units of money), which gets eaten by a cat, which gets bit by a dog, which gets hit by a stick, which gets burned by a fire, which gets doused by water, which gets drunk by an ox, which gets slaughtered by a shochet (ritual slaughterer), who gets killed by the Angel of Death, who gets destroyed by the Holy One, Blessed Be He.

(And you betcha we sing it with sound effects. 😛 )

…I know. Why on earth are we ending the Seder with this silly little ditty?

Obviously, as with everything in the Seder, because it is has important symbolism. The idea of the song is that there is justice in the world, even if we don’t see it at the time; that every action has a consequence, and that, as the Talmud says: “There is justice and there is a Judge“.

Believe it or not, this silly animal song contains the deepest, most fundamental message of the Seder.

Why is it so important for us to remember that God freed us from slavery and brought us out of Egypt?

Because we must remember that there is justice, and there is a Judge, and even when the world seems unjust and terrible things are happening to good people, there is a reason for everything, and it’s all for the ultimate good. Even when we’re at the profoundest depths of despair, God’s redemption can occur in the blink of an eye.

That is the message of the Seder, and that is why the tradition of the Seder has carried us through many other “Egypts” throughout history.

So… that’s the Seder, in a nutshell. Outside of Israel, you “get” to do the whole thing all over again the following night. (I’m sure there are advantages to this, but to me it just sounds exhausting and I am grateful to be here!)

A blessed and happy Passover!



1. La remolatxa is “beet” in Catalan. The only reason I know this word is because I served a Moroccan beet salad to Josep when he was here for Shabbat, and he asked me what it was, but we did not have a common language in which we both knew the word for this vegetable. 😛 After Shabbat I Googled it, and now I’ll never forget. (When I clarified, he was like, “Not something I eat every day!” Was that a polite way to tell me he hated it? 😛 I decided not to press the issue.)↩

Passover, Part I: Freedom, Education, and National Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Dear Josep,

So I figured out why I never sent you an e-mail specifically about Passover, even back in 2007 when I would get concerned notes from you wondering if something was wrong because you hadn’t heard from me in 5 days.

(…Yes, apparently that happened.)


The reason is that it is just not possible to capture Passover in a single e-mail. No, not even a Daniella Standard Size e-mail.

So what we’re gonna do is make it a series. In Part I, I will discuss the general concepts of the holiday. In Part II, I will go into detail about the Seder night and the Haggadah.

To begin, let us turn to the age-old template for Jewish holidays: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat”. Does it apply here? Why, yes it does. 🙂

As you probably know, Passover is the celebration commemorating our freedom from slavery in Egypt, also known as the Exodus.

You know, slavery, burning bush, ten plagues, splitting the sea, all that jazz.
You know, slavery, burning bush, ten plagues, splitting the sea, all that jazz.

It begins on the 15th of Nisan, which is the day the Israelites left Egypt, and lasts seven days in Israel. This year it falls on this coming Friday night through the following Friday. It is one of the three “Regalim”, holidays mentioned in the Torah, on which we were required to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. (“Regel” means “foot”.)

All Regalim, unlike rabbinic holidays, are celebrated similarly to Shabbat, with the same types of restrictions, barring a few differences with regards to the preparation of food. Such a day is known as a “Yom Tov” (literally “good day”). In the case of Passover, it begins and ends with one Yom Tov in Israel (two each outside of Israel), with five days of “chol ha’moed” (“the mundane of the holiday”=days that are still part of the holiday, but with much fewer restrictions) in between. That’s a total of seven days in Israel, and eight outside of Israel. (Why is it different outside of Israel? A reason that is long, complicated, and not so interesting in my opinion. 😛 But if you insist, Wikipedia keeps it simple.)

The first night (or two nights outside of Israel) is the crux of the holiday: the Seder night. You may have heard of the Seder; it is believed to have been Jesus’s “last supper” (hence the proximity to Easter). As mentioned, we will elaborate on the Seder in Part II.

But first: why is the Exodus such an important event in the history of our people?

There is a vast amount of rabbinic literature that addresses this question, but here’s the simple answer: the Exodus marks the birth of the nation of Israel. The narrative of the Bible, up until that point, follows a number of individuals, or at most a family, and their interactions with God. We became a multitude under slavery; we became a nation, with a destiny and a purpose, when God gave us our freedom.

It is said that God wanted us to be slaves before giving us the Torah to develop our sense of empathy and justice. You can never really understand someone until you’ve experienced his pain. And you can never know and appreciate the true value of freedom if you have never been a slave. Our purpose is to be a “light unto the nations”, to spread kindness, compassion and justice throughout a corrupt world. We could not have done this without first knowing pain, cruelty, and injustice.

The goal of the Seder night is for every one of us to relive the experience of being freed from slavery. It is a multi-sensory, hands-on educational production, and it revolves around passing the message to the next generation. As we’ve discussed, educating children is a very important mitzvah, and the purpose of some of the strange customs on Seder night is to provoke the children to ask questions. Raising questions is a classic Jewish educational method. We even tend to like excellent questions better than we like excellent answers. 😉

So, that’s freedom, and education. “National obsessive-compulsive disorder”?!

Well… yeah. This is another thing that makes Passover so special, and also such a pain in the neck. Over the seven days of Passover, we are not allowed to eat or possess “chametz“. Chametz means leavened products. That is, any product made out of grain (wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye) and water that was cooked over 18 minutes after the flour came in contact with the water–therefore beginning the process of fermentation that causes the dough to rise and become puffy.

Um… wait, you say. Is there any type of grain product that is baked in under 18 minutes?!

Why yes there is. It’s called… matza.

"Shmura Matzo". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
Appetizing, I know.
Shmura Matzo“. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

This is the bread of Passover, referred to in the Haggadah as the “bread of affliction”. Apt, because it tastes like cardboard, and we are required to eat a fair amount of it on Seder night. (Okay, okay, it’s not that bad. It’s like a very plain cracker.)

So what’s the deal with unleavened bread?

(Good, good, keep up the questions! 😉 )

The practical answer is that the Israelites were granted their freedom very quickly and they did not have time to get ready for their trip out of Egypt. The Torah says that they did not have time to let their dough rise for bread, so they made matzot to take on their journey. The prohibition against eating chametz, and the mitzva of eating matza, are both in commemoration of that. There is also an idea that chametz represents the ego, and that on Passover we clean it out of our homes and souls.

So the thing is, you know how obsessive-compulsive Jewish law is about things we’re not allowed to eat… and this applies to chametz too. In fact, it is even more strict than the laws of kashrut. This means that we have to literally kasher our kitchens before the holiday. (Which, as I’ve been trying to tell you all these years, is not nearly as fun as you think it is. 😛 ) Most of us have an entirely different set of dishes and cookware set aside specifically for Passover, because not everything can be kashered, and because, again, kashering pots and pans can be a serious pain.

We are also not allowed to own any chametz, which means we have to clean our houses thoroughly (especially us parents of toddlers…) to make sure no bits of crackers/cereal/bread are in accessible places. People (by which I mean “crazy Jewish housewives”) often take this to the extreme and use it as an opportunity to do a very thorough “spring cleaning”… but much of this is not really necessary.

The prohibition against eating chametz also gave way to the most famous of legal fictions in Jewish law. Obviously, getting rid of all one’s chametz can be impractical at best and financially damaging at worst, especially for stores and factories. So we have a rather silly solution: we “sell” the chametz to a non-Jew during the seven days of Passover, keep it covered/hidden during the holiday, and “buy” it back afterwards.

…By the way, can I interest you in some instant oatmeal and maybe a few pitas? 😛

(I kid, I kid. These days we can sell our chametz very easily through rabbis who centralize the “sales” and sell them to a designated non-Jew. We can do this through our synagogue or even on the Internet.)

Well, that’s Passover in a nutshell. Stay tuned for Part II, in which we will discuss the details of the aforementioned multi-sensory, hands-on educational production we call the Seder. 😉

Bona Pasqua!



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!