A well-informed Jew who skims over my summary of the Jewish Year might notice that there is a little something missing. I believe when I first posted it, someone did ask me: “What about Tu B’Av?” I probably scoffed and said, “Tu B’Av is not really a thing.”
Well… that isn’t entirely true. Tu B’Av is a thing. Back in the days of the Temple, in fact, it was a major thing. It’s just that it’s not really celebrated by religious Jews in any meaningful way anymore, and more annoyingly, in Israel, it’s been commercialized and turned into the Jewish Valentine’s Day—or, as it were, the Jewish St. Jordi’s Day. 😉
So what is this Tu B’Av and why has it been hijacked by candy hearts and ads for diamond earrings?
The answer, as with everything in this crazy religion, is complicated.
Tu B’Av (the 15th of Av–it falls tonight and tomorrow) is first mentioned in the Talmud as a day of “great celebration” on par with Yom Kippur. The only allusion to it as a holiday within the Bible is in the book of Judges (19-21)–part of an EXTREMELY disturbing, gruesome, and profoundly unromantic story that starts with a horrific gang rape and murder and continues with a bloody civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of Israel. After the war, there were only 600 Benjaminite men left, and there was a concern that the tribe would be wiped out, because the Israelites had vowed not to give their daughters to Benjaminites in marriage.
The festival of Tu B’Av was used as a solution to the problem, because it involved a kind of bizarre ancient dating game: young women would go into the vineyards near Shiloh wearing white dresses (more on this in a minute), and they would dance. Young men would hide among the vines, and if they spotted one they fancied, they’d snatch her up and marry her.
That way, the Israelites reasoned, we get around the problem because we’re not willingly giving our daughters to the Benjaminites.
The earliest event associated with Tu B’Av, however–according to the Sages–is one that happened many years before. According to the Sages, the Sin of the Spies (Numbers 13-14) occurred on the Ninth of Av, marking it forever as a day of great calamity for the Jewish people. This is when the Israelites sent spies to scout out the land of Israel before entering its borders. When the Spies returned, the opinions were split ten to two: the majority reported that there was no way the Israelites could conquer the land. The remaining two, Joshua and Caleb, said the land was wonderful and that we would conquer it with God’s help. The Israelites believed the pessimistic spies, and cried all night that God had led them to their deaths. They started rebelling and planned to appoint a new leader to return them to Egypt. God was thoroughly exasperated with their lack of faith and gratitude and condemned them to wander in the desert for forty years, until a new generation arose with greater faith in God.
The Sages tell us that every Tisha B’Av for the next thirty nine years, fifteen thousand men of the “desert generation” would die. And in the fortieth year, the last fifteen thousand dug their own graves, and lay down in them, waiting to die, but God granted them reprieve and did not kill them. They say that the fifteenth of Av is when they realized that they were not going to die, and it became a day of celebration–on par with Yom Kippur, as a celebration of God’s forgiveness.
Well, that’s… all very well and good, but I literally had not heard this story at all until a few years ago. It’s just a rabbinic story, a parable, not something we are supposed to accept as historical fact. All other holidays are rooted in the Bible or in documented Jewish history. There are another number of events that are said to have occurred on Tu B’Av that are more well documented, but they occurred well after the festival was already established.
The Talmud describes the rituals observed on Tu B’Av in the days of the Temple. It says that all the girls of Jerusalem would borrow white dresses from one another: a rich girl would borrow from a poor girl, a poor girl from a rich girl, the daughter of a priest from the daughter of a beggar, etc., because on this day they were to be seen as having an equal station: all daughters of God.
The girls would then go out to the vineyards and dance there, as described above.
The unique thing about this ritual is that it erased the lines of class and station, creating an environment where men and women could select their partners based on their wishes and not on the expectations of society.
If there is common thread among all these stories and ideas, it is a sense of love, brotherhood, and equality among the Jewish people, usually following some kind of conflict. After all, Tisha B’Av is the day the Temple was destroyed, and it is said that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among Jews. The vineyard ritual, in contrast, blurred the lines that separated us and brought us together as one big family.
After the Temple was destroyed, this day was no longer celebrated. For a very long time the only way it was observed was the omission of certain prayers. Nowadays, religious communities take advantage of the theme to organize singles’ events. To be fair, it’s probably on par with Tu B’Shvat in that it doesn’t really have much practical significance anymore, and its meaning has been channeled towards a more general theme.
Well, call me a spoilsport, but I’d rather pretend this holiday doesn’t exist than acknowledge it as a “Jewish Valentine’s Day.” If Jewish women need a day on the calendar to guilt their husbands into buying them chocolate and make their single friends depressed and miserable about being single, I guess it’s better that it be Tu B’Av than Valentine’s Day. But… yeah. How about no.
Now, if we took a leaf out of your proverbial book and exchanged books on this day, that would be another matter entirely. 😛
But seriously–I’d rather continue to ignore it until someone comes up with a way to celebrate love and brotherhood among Jews in a genuine way that does not focus only on romantic love.
So, today was Tu B’shvat, that obscure little not-really-holiday that is the New Year for Trees. And despite the popular Tu B’shvat song I mentioned last year… the almond trees are not, in fact, in bloom. Actually, it’s supposed to snow in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas (possibly here) as of this afternoon. Jerusalemites and people in the higher regions of Gush Etzion have reported some flurries.
You see, Tu B’shvat is “early” this year. And when you start using words like “early” to describe something that is supposed to occur on the same date every year, you start to understand the complications of living with a solar-lunar calendar.
You see… the Muslims use a calendar that is 100% lunar. So for them there’s no such thing as an “early” or “late” Ramadan or Eid Al-Adha. These holidays fall whenever they fall; the weather has nothing to do with it.
But for us, it does, and here’s why. Passover has to fall in the spring: “You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread as I have commanded you, at the appointed time of the month of budding/springtime, for then you left Egypt, and they shall not appear before Me empty handed.” (Exodus 23:15) The seasons are dependent, obviously, on our position around the sun. So if Passover must fall in the spring, we need to manipulate our calendar to align, more or less, with the solar calendar.
So when Tu B’shvat falls in January, we have a bit of a problem. Passover falls on the 15th of Nissan, meaning exactly two months from Tu B’shvat. The end of March may technically be spring, but it’s pushing it, and next year it would certainly be too early.
What’s a Jew to do?
Well, we need another month.
So, we add another month.
And what better month to celebrate twice than the happiest month of the year: Adar!
Yup. This year there are going to be two months of Adar. That’s what we do on a Jewish leap year. In Hebrew they are called “shana me’uberet.” This is often literally translated as a “pregnant year,” which conjures up a pretty cute image; but it occurs to me that the root of the word “me’uberet” (מעוברת)–which is ע.ב.ר–means both “fetus” (“ubar”) and “passing” (“ma’avar”), so it could be that it actually just means “leap year.” But don’t quote me on that; I’m not a Hebrew scholar!
You may recall that we do have a holiday right in the middle of Adar: Purim. So you may be wondering, if we repeat the month, do we also repeat the holiday?! No, unfortunately 😛 , we don’t. We celebrate Purim during Adar II. During Adar I, we do note what we call “Purim katan” (“little Purim”) on the 15th, but we don’t actually do anything special on that day.
I know, I know. Two entire months without a holiday! How do we cope?!?!
I’m joking, but it was actually kind of a bummer as a student in school, because Adar I was never as fun as Adar II. 😉
My kids came home early from preschool today–because of the storm–with various almond-tree decorated paraphernalia, and looking out the window, it seems almost as strange as it used to back in the USA, where the concept of almond trees blooming was completely foreign to me around this time of year.
Well, wish us luck with the snow; at least we know the terrorists will probably be indoors over the next few days. 😛
One of my very first “letters to Josep” style e-mails to you was an attempt at explaining the Jewish year and all its holidays. The e-mail was about the length of your living room table, and all it accomplished was to profoundly confuse you. I realized I would probably have to break it down and explain each component to you separately… and the rest is history!
Well, now that I’ve written a comprehensive post for each of the holidays, I can finally make some sense of the Jewish year! And what better time than Gregorian New Year’s Eve, which… has… absolutely nothing to do with the Jewish calendar?
Let’s break this down by category first, in descending order of significance:
These are holidays that are mentioned in the first five books of the Bible. They are the most important of Jewish holidays, and what they have in common is that they are all yamim tovim, literally “good days,” which are celebrated very similarly to the Sabbath. These are the differences between Yom Tov and Shabbat:
On Yom Tov, certain creative activities that are prohibited on the Sabbath are permitted–ones related to the preparation of food. For example, we are not allowed to light fires, but we may transfer them, and use the fire to heat and cook food. On the Sabbath those things are prohibited.
There is no requirement to eat a “third meal” on Yom Tov.
The prayers are different, depending on the holiday. The kiddush is different, and the havdala service is recited only with wine (no spices or candle).
With the exception of Rosh Hashana, the yamim tovim of a holiday last one day in Israel, and two outside of Israel. Explanation for that here.
When the Temple still stood, Jews were required to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the holidays three times a year (the three “regalim”).
This is the first day of the new month, or if the month has 30 days, day 30 of that month and day 1 of the next. The first commandment God gave the Israelites, while they were still in Egypt, was to observe this as a festive day. In the days of the Temple, it was celebrated by special offerings listed in the book of Exodus. In our days, it is noted mostly by festive prayers. There are no other special commandments or restrictions.
These are holidays instituted by the Sages to commemorate important events in Jewish history. They are of lesser importance in the Jewish calendar. These are Chanukahand Purim. They are not yamim tovim, so work and creative actions are permitted, but each of them have their own requirements (lighting the candles on Chanukah, and hearing the Scroll of Esther read, having a festive meal, exchanging edible gifts with friends and neighbors, and giving to the poor for Purim).
Holidays and Remembrance Days of Modern Israel: Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day, otherwise known as Israeli Emotional Roller Coaster Week; and Jerusalem Day. Religious Zionist Jews consider Independence Day and Jerusalem Day religious holidays in that we have festive prayers in their honor, but there are no commandments or requirements.
Purim (14th of Adar; 15th if in Jerusalem or another city that was walled in 423 B.C.E., when the Purim story took place. Note that on leap years, we add another Adar! In that case, Purim is celebrated during Adar II.)
We are now in the full swing of Aseret Yamei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (which begins on Tuesday at sundown). I’ve already posted about this period and these holidays, which focus on repentance and forgiveness. As I wrote there, the High Holidays are really about repentance as a community, but many use it as an opportunity to do some soul-searching on an individual level, too. There is a custom to take the opportunity to ask forgiveness of those you may have hurt in the past year.
Josep asked me a while ago about forgiveness in Judaism, and I wrote him this e-mail last November to explain about the process of teshuva (repentance) in Jewish law and thought.
Enjoy, and gmar chatima tova (roughly, may you be sealed in the Book of Life) to all.
“For you shall return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and all your soul. For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away… Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to do it”
The above passage is part of a larger section towards the end of Deuteronomy, discussing the “blessing and the curse” that God gave the nation of Israel. It is considered the Biblical source for the commandment of teshuva (repentance).
The concept of teshuva is based on two fundamental principles in Jewish thought:
1) No matter how low a person sinks, now matter how horrible his actions, he is always capable of redeeming himself and changing for the better.
A story goes that Rabbi Israel Salanter, a famous rabbi who focused on the study of moral conduct and ethics, was walking down a dark street one night, and saw a faint light flickering in a window. He approached the window and saw a shoemaker repairing an old shoe by the light of a dying candle. Rabbi Salanter said, “Look how late it is! Your candle is almost extinguished. Why are you still working?” The shoemaker said, “As long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend.” Rabbi Salanter was struck by the deep allegorical wisdom in those words. In Judaism, the flame is a symbol of the soul.
(This principle is, by the way, in sharp contrast to my understanding of Christian thought, which–as I understand it–argues that man is inherently sinful and is constantly pulled towards sin. According to Christian thought, the only way to redeem oneself from one’s inherent sinfulness is to accept Jesus as having died to atone for it. In a sense, Christians also believe that “as long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend,” but the Christian idea of “mending” is fundamentally different from ours.)
2) God is infinitely merciful and anxiously awaits our repentance. This is true in Christian thought as well. In the liturgy for Yom Kippur, there is a line that reads, “Until the day of [man’s] death, [God] will wait for him, and if he repents–[God] will immediately receive him.” The image we have is of a God who is waiting for you with outstretched arms and great anticipation. He is like a father whose child has done something wrong, who is waiting anxiously for the child to say he’s sorry, so He can embrace him, forgive him, and end the child’s suffering from the distance between them.
The word teshuva comes from the root ש.ו.ב., sh.u.v., which means “to return”. There is something very important to learn from this. It’s not just about returning to God. It’s about returning to yourself, to your “source”. We are all created with a Divine soul, and underneath all the layers, we are totally pure and good. Teshuva cleanses us from those layers.
In another sense, however, teshuva changes us fundamentally. One might ask, I have done something so terrible–my act was real and tangible. How can it simply be erased, as if it were no longer there? The answer, from the Jewish perspective, is that maybe the consequences of the sin still exist, but the person who committed that sin no longer exists. You are not him anymore, and when faced with the same temptation, you would turn away and not do what he did. Maimonides (who wrote a very important work on the practical aspects of teshuva) actually recommends symbolically changing one’s name as part of the process to demonstrate that you are no longer the same person as the one who committed the sin. Bringing this together with the idea I mentioned in the previous paragraph, you are a different person–one who is closer to your source, to what you could be, to the potential of your Divine soul.
According to Maimonides, there are four steps to the process of teshuva.
1. Regret (“In Your Heart”)
Notice that the word for this is “regret”, not “guilt”. The word in Hebrew for guilt is אשמה, ashma, which comes from the root א.ש.מ., a.sh.m., meaning to blame. Guilt is self-blame. It is a natural emotion to occur when we’ve done something wrong, but it can lead us further down the spiral of self-destruction and negativity. Shame and guilt are the sense that there is something inherently wrong with you. The Hebrew word for regret is חרטה, ḥarata, from the root ח.ר.ט, ḥ.r.t., which means to chisel, to smooth, to engrave. To refine, to make a permanent and enduring change to something. Regret is the recognition that you are inherently good, and you have failed to live up to your potential. That what you did is not an expression of who you really are and who you really could be.
This step is crucial, because obviously, if you don’t genuinely understand what you have done wrong, you can’t really change. And if you don’t genuinely recognize your own potential to be someone who would never commit that sin, there is also no way to move forward.
This part is fairly obvious. To repent for a sin, you have to stop committing it.
3. Confession and Asking Forgiveness (“In Your Mouth”)
Both Christianity and modern psychology also recognize that thinking and feeling are not enough. We cannot truly be free of something that torments us until we have given it a name and spoken that name out loud.
There is no special formula for this in Judaism, and it doesn’t matter where you are when you do it. All you have to do is speak to Him aloud, asking forgiveness, and explicitly naming what you did, in your own words. Unlike Christianity, this process is straightforward and does not involve a spiritual leader as intermediary. It’s just you and Him.
Asking forgiveness from the person against whom you sinned is also a crucial part of the healing process–for both of you. Again, this has to be totally sincere. Whether that person is able or willing to accept your apology doesn’t have a bearing on your process of teshuva; what’s important is that you express your regret verbally to the person you hurt.
4. Resolution Not to Repeat the Sin
Obviously, all of this doesn’t mean very much if you are not sincerely committed not to sin again. This is the real expression of the fact that you have changed. Maimonides says that teshuva is complete when you reach a point that when faced with exactly the same circumstances and temptations, you would make the right choice.
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.
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 is a Yom Tov. Yom Tov literally means “good day,” and it applies to holidays that are listed in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). What it means in practice is that it is a holiday that is celebrated very similarly to how we celebrate Shabbat; we light candles at the beginning and make havdala at the end, have festive prayers, eat two feasts (one at night and one during the day), and observe almost the same restrictions (barring certain activities that are related to preparing food). Now, in most cases, there is a difference between the duration of the holiday depending on whether you are in Israel or outside it. Inside Israel, a Yom Tov lasts one day. Outside of it, it lasts two. The reason is this: before we had calendars, Jews would calculate the months and the holidays according to observations of the moon. A month in the Jewish calendar, you see, can sometimes be 29 days, and sometimes 30. A witness for the Sanhedrin, the great rabbinical assembly, would have to sight the new moon and announce it to the rest of the nation. If you lived in Israel at the time, chances were that by the time the 15th of the month came around (which is when most Jewish holidays fall), you would have heard from these witnesses and would have an accurate calculation of the beginning of the month. If you lived outside of Israel, however, the news might not reach you by then. So Jews in the Diaspora observed two days of Yom Tov, just in case they had miscalculated and the holiday actually fell a day later than they thought.
In the case of Rosh Hashana, however, the holiday falls on the very first day of the month, and there was concern that even those in Israel would miscalculate. Therefore, even in Israel, we observe two days of Rosh Hashana instead of one.
Due to the intensity and significance of the High Holidays, the prayer services during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are particularly long. There are so many additional prayers that we have special prayer books only for the High Holidays, called maḥzorim (literally meaning “cycles”). If a normal Shabbat morning service runs from 8:00-10:30, Rosh Hashana services will easily run until 1pm, depending on the congregation, how fast the cantor goes, how much singing there is, etc.
One thing that is unique about the Rosh Hashana services is the blowing of the shofar.
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.
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.
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 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…” Seliḥot 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 maḥzor, 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.
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.
And also, the month of Adar! One of the themes of Adar and Purim is “v’nahafoch hu“; that everything that was turned on its head. I guess this is how the weather is choosing to celebrate the first day of Adar.
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)!
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!
MISHENICHNAS ADAR MARBIM B’SIMCHA!
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.
Anyone who attended a Jewish day school, anywhere in the world, learned That Tu B’Shvat song sometime in his or her childhood.
And everybody only knows the first verse and the chorus:
The almond tree is blooming And a golden sun is shining Birds from every rooftop Proclaim the arrival of the holiday
Tu B’Shvat is here, A holiday for the trees! Tu B’Shvat is here, A holiday for the trees!
Now… as a child in the northeastern United States, the entire concept of this song was utterly bizarre.
I was assured at the time that in far away, temperate Israel, where our ancestors had first observed this “new year for the trees”, Shvat was indeed the very beginning of springtime, when the worst of the winter rains were over–an ideal time to plant trees. As Shelly and the rest of my friends and family in northeastern USA right now will testify, this was pretty difficult to picture!
It was only when I moved to the Jerusalem area that I started to notice that the song actually describes the phenomenon with startling accuracy. Right around the beginning of the month of Shvat, it’s like someone (or, I should write, Someone) flicks a switch, and all of the these stark, bare brown almond trees suddenly burst into bloom. Almost overnight, the landscape is dotted with these patches of white and pink blossoms, so striking against the mostly leafless branches.
One of the things I very quickly learned after making aliyah is that Israelis are completely obsessed with nature. They can’t get enough of this beautiful land and everything that grows in its soil. I was nine years old when I moved here, and my classmates had already mastered the names of all the most common Israeli wildflowers the year before. Whereas “field trips” in the USA involved trips to places like museums and historical buildings, the annual Israeli school tiyul meant hiking–and I mean serious hiking. Like, six-hour-mountainous-trails-in-the-blazing-May-sun hiking. I heard once that Israel has more marked hiking trails per square kilometer than any other country in the world; I don’t know if that’s true, but it could be. The land is covered with trails, and hiking them is the most common and popular recreational activity. (Unless, of course, you count arguing about politics. 😛 )
For a girl who has always loved nature, it is a little embarrassing to say that I rather dreaded these excursions. I am sensitive to heat, I hate exercise, and I am an exemplary specimen of introvert. Needless to say, these trips held very little appeal. So when my class went on its first overnight tiyul in sixth grade, I declined and stayed home. When I tried to do the same in seventh grade, my teacher was extremely concerned and called my parents to tell them they couldn’t just let me stay home! This was a crucial part of my social development! She was completely baffled that I would even consider the possibility of not going. Unfortunately, introversion is often considered something of a social disability in this very gregarious and outspoken culture. My parents brushed her off.
In eighth grade, I gave in to peer pressure and decided to go anyway. I eventually found my Introvert Niche within these trips: heart-to-heart conversations with my handful of close friends, late into the night. It was worth suffering through the hikes for that “quality time” with friends.
In any case, over the years I have acquired bits and pieces of that fundamental education in Israeli flora. I now know, for instance, that these lovely bright red flowers blooming in a field across the street from us now, are called kalanit (anemone):
And not pereg (poppy), which is the red spring flower that grows closer to the coast, where I grew up:
Or nurit (buttercup):
Telling these three flowers apart is elementary knowledge in local botany for Israelis. (Here’s the secret, which you can’t really see in my picture: anemones have a white circle around the flower’s center, and the other two don’t. Buttercups have five petals, anemones have six, and poppies usually have four.) (You’re welcome.)
Indeed, the month of Shvat is very different here from what I grew up with. Your climate is much closer to mine, and one day I expect a full report of your favorite flora native to Catalonia, complete with photographs. 😛
You once asked me where you could find a Hebrew calendar to help you keep track of the holidays and stuff, since, I quote, “I have you to tell me every single holiday, but… you can’t be writing to me every day of our lives to tell me all the holidays 🙂 And, of course, to have a different calendar makes it hard to keep updated every passing year, because it never falls on the same day…” Little did you know, you would be stuck with me as your personal Jewish calendar forever. Mwahahahahaha!
Well, as I’ve said before, technology has been developing to our advantage. These days, you can have the Hebrew date displayed alongside the Gregorian date on your Google Calender really easily. (You go into Settings–>General and select “Hebrew calender” under “Alternate calendar”.) Unfortunately it does not mention the holidays, so you have to add the Jewish holidays separately. But that’s also pretty easy: you browse to your calendar, and under “Other calendars” click “Browse interesting calendars”, and then “subscribe” next to Jewish Holidays. Tada!
So hold on a second. What is the Hebrew calendar anyhow? What are we counting from? Well… tough question, because theoretically, it’s supposed to be counting from the creation of the world. That is, it’s a calculation using the Bible and the dates and years mentioned in it as a reference. But most modern Orthodox Jews don’t actually think the world–or more accurately, the history of homo sapiens, since it’s theoretically counting from the creation of Adam–is only 5775 years old. We don’t think the creation story is meant to be taken literally. The word “Torah” means “instruction”. The Torah is an instruction manual, not a history book. So I see it is being more symbolic than anything else; meant to make us reflect on the creation, rather than give a scientific calculation of when it happened. (If you’re interested in learning more about how we reconcile science with the Genesis creation story, here’s a fascinating and comprehensive article by Dr. Gerald Schroeder, a scientist and Orthodox Jew who has written extensively on the harmony between science and Judaism.)
The Hebrew calendar has 12 months and is mostly lunar but influenced by the sun as well. What that means is that the months are based on the moon, and each month begins with the new moon, but every few years we add an extra month to realign the calendar with the seasons. We do this because according to the Torah, Passover must take place in the spring. The Muslim calendar, by contrast, is only lunar, so their months and holidays fall during different seasons.
The names of the Hebrew months (Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tamuz, Av, Elul, Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shvat, Adar) are generally understood to have been adapted from the Babylonian calendar. This makes sense, because our calendar was really consolidated during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, returning from the First Exile in Babylonia. In the Torah, the months are not referred to by names, just “the first month”, “the second month”, and so forth.
Pop quiz! Which month is the first month of the Hebrew calendar?
You know that Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year, which begins with Tishrei, so you’d think that Tishrei is the first month, right? Not in the Torah: the source for the holiday of Rosh Hashana is Leviticus 23:24: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation.”
You see, because Jews have a penchant for complicating things, we actually have four different new years. The first of Tishrei, otherwise known as Rosh Hashana or the Jewish New Year, is the new year for years. That means that we count years from that date, so 5774 turned to 5775 on the first of Tishrei.
The first of Nisan is the new year for months. Nisan, not Tishrei, is the first month, and we count the months from there. That’s how Tishrei comes out as the seventh month. So when does Nisan fall? Usually around March-April; it’s your Hebrew birth month. 😉 The first night of Passover falls on the 15th of Nissan.
The other two new years are a little more obscure, so stay with me here.
The first of Elul is the new year for the tithing of cattle. There is a commandment to bring the firstborn of cattle to the Cohanim (priests), and the first of Elul was sort of the “fiscal year” for animals born during that year, similar to how taxes are calculated in countries where the fiscal year starts on a date other than the first of January. This new year is no longer observed, because we no longer have a Temple and the priests cannot receive these offerings. But Elul–which is the month before Tishrei–has taken on the significance of preparing for the High Holidays.
The last of the new years is the 15th of Shvat, or Tu B’Shvat (because the number 15 is written as ט”ו, tet-vav, or the numerical value of 9+6. Why don’t we write 10+5? Because then it would be yud-heh, and that spells one of the names of God. 16 is written 9+7, ט”ז, for the same reason). This new year is used for calculating the age of plants or crops for certain commandments that have to do with agriculture, or for agricultural tithing. It has become known as “the new year for trees”, and has become a minor holiday on which we celebrate trees and their fruit. It is customary to eat the new fruit of the season on this day. The Kabbalistic mystics created a sort of ceremony, a “seder” (similar to the Passover seder), during which they eat symbolic fruit and discuss its significance. It’s also evolved into the Israeli Arbor Day. A day to plant new trees and to develop environmental awareness.
So. Why am I telling you all this now?
Because tonight is Rosh Chodesh Shvat; the first day of the new month of Shvat. A month I happen to be especially fond of, not only because I have a thing for trees, but also because my birthday falls on the 3rd. 🙂
Birthdays are not much of a big deal in Jewish tradition, though it is said that it’s a sign of a righteous person when s/he dies on his/her birthday. (This is said to have been true of Moses and King David.) Generally, important Jewish figures are commemorated on the day of death, not the day of birth. However, we do tend to celebrate like people in many other cultures. We’re all about giving thanks on a day that commemorates something good that happened to you, and getting born is pretty high on that list! 😉 It is said that on one’s birthday, just like on one’s wedding day, one has a particularly strong connection to God and can give particularly powerful blessings to others. (The reason for this, by the way, is that such life events bring us joy, and joy brings us closer to God.)
And, well, you’ve experienced firsthand that my blessings have a fairly good record 😉 If there’s something specific you’d like me to pray for this Friday, let me know. 😉 Either way, you know I will be (and have been) praying for you.
Chodesh Tov, many blessings, and lots of love,
Blog readers: What do you think about what seems to be a conflict between the Bible’s calculation of the history of humankind versus the scientific calculation? What meaning does that number, 5775, hold for you?