So, last week was Shavuot. (If you need a refresher on Shavuot, click here!) I’ve mentioned before that there is a custom to stay up all night learning Torah on this holiday. Our town has a particularly rich and varied program for this purpose; lots of different kinds of classes and workshops and activities in different places (and different languages!) running until morning. Eitan and I usually decline attending any of them in favor of going to bed and feeling human the next day. My two elder sons, however, had other plans.
H and R1 attend this after-school program called “Beit Yachad” (literally “the House of Together”). Each week they focus on a different value learned from Ethics of the Fathers in the Mishna. They have activities based on the theme of the week, including working with the community and volunteering as well as artwork and putting on skits and stuff. The guy who runs it is an incredible and highly experienced educator who has an amazing way with children.
On Shavuot, they run a special program for children from first- through third-grade starting at 10:30pm and running, yes yes–all night. (Israelis in general and Tekoans in particular have a very blasé attitude toward sleep hygiene. This is something that has always driven me crazy–especially as an intermittent insomniac who really, really suffers when she’s sleep-deprived.) They go through all 48 values that they intend to address over the course of the year, and the children are rewarded with treats and prizes along the way.
Last year, when H was in first grade, he really wanted to go and I wasn’t sure how to make it work. I mean, he had just turned 7. What 7-year-old can stay up all night learning–generous bribery notwithstanding?! That year, I was asked to participate in an artist’s discussion panel as a local author, so we dropped H off at Beit Yachad at 10:30 and I figured I’d pick him up after midnight on my way back home. But when I got there, he begged me to let him stay.
I was torn between my American-helicopter-parent instincts–which screamed at me that it was utterly insane to leave my son here overnight and trust him to ask an adult to help him cross the street and come home on his own while I was still sleeping–and my Jewish-mother pride that my 7-year-old was begging me to let him stay up all night to learn Torah. In the end, the Jewish mother in me won, and I went home and slept very fitfully, worrying about him getting home okay.
The next morning, we discovered him asleep on the guest bed. He apparently did not have the energy to climb to the top bunk where he sleeps… but we also discovered that before he collapsed, he sat down at the table and drew, in pencil, a meticulously detailed drawing of the medal and prize tickets he had won for staying up all night. (He apparently forgot, in the fog of sleeplessness, that drawing isn’t allowed on Yom Tov!)
I posted it on Facebook last year and concluded: “My first time waking up to find my son sprawled out somewhere after a long night out, and puzzling over the bizarre evidence of his exhausted-stupor-induced activities. I had no idea it would start this early.”
He was totally psyched to do it again this year, and I was confident about letting him do it again. But I wasn’t sure about R1. He’s more sensitive to physical discomfort; he needs more rest and more space and gets frustrated more easily. I wasn’t sure he’d be able to handle an all-nighter at the tender age of 6. I wasn’t even sure he’d be awake at 10:30pm when the program started. But he was, and he wanted to go. So we told him to come home when he wanted to and to have an adult help him cross the street. Eitan took them over there at around 10:20–bringing along the remainders of H’s birthday cake–and we went to bed.
I awoke with the Muslims just before 4am, and saw that neither of the kids were home yet. I lay in bed listening to the muezzin and trying not to worry. (Always a successful tactic, as I’m sure you know.) I gave up around 5am and moved to the couch to read a book.
At 5:30am the two of them walked in the door, each with a huge trophy in hand.
I love that I live in a place where children are awarded giant trophies, not for winning at sports, but for their perseverance and commitment in pursuit of learning Torah values.
They caught up on sleep throughout the day and slept normally that night, thank God. And I am somewhat relieved to have concluded this crazy period of Jewish holidays and family celebrations!
So yesterday was Yom Kippur. My in-laws are here, and having more “staff” around to watch the kids made it possible for me to pray at the synagogue significantly more than I am usually able to on the High Holidays. I was so, so grateful for this.
I’ve attempted to describe Yom Kippur in the past, but as I said then, it’s very difficult to put in words what is so powerful about it and why it was so fulfilling for me to be able to take part in the service. Because… I mean… an entire day spent fasting and sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a synagogue (if not standing… and there is a lot of standing) is not exactly most people’s idea of a good time.
It wasn’t mine, either, as a kid or a young teen. I dreaded Yom Kippur! I counted down the pages in the prayer book and the minutes until the fast was over. It was torture.
It was only later that I started to enjoy the service. It was a combination of becoming familiar with the prayers and the general structure of the service, really listening to the words, and developing a personal relationship with God that helped me learn to experience Yom Kippur as a spiritual high.
You have to do it to understand it–and even then, it takes a degree of familiarity with the prayers, because part of it is the sense of community, of singing and chanting these prayers together with the congregation, and you can’t really do that when you’re focused on learning the tunes or the words.
But since my eldest son was born, I hadn’t really been able to participate in the prayers on the High Holidays. The fast is more important than the prayers, and my priority was surviving the fast: not an easy task when you are nursing a small baby! I actually fast pretty well under normal circumstances, but when pregnant or nursing it becomes extremely difficult, even when I am drinking in small amounts throughout the day. I have limited energy reserves in the best of circumstances, and in those times, between the fast and caring for a small child or three, there was no point in even trying to go to synagogue.
I don’t think I really understood how much I missed it.
As per my last post, my relationship with God has taken some major leaps in a positive direction in the past couple weeks.
There is a beautiful rabbinic saying about teshuva (repentance): “The Holy One says: open for me an opening the size of a needle’s eye, and I will open for you an opening the size of a great hall.”
I really felt that this year. I felt like I made one tiny effort at healing this relationship, opening up just a crack, and God opened my heart and my hands to receive His abundance, and then poured a generous dose of that abundance into them, as if to say: “I am here. I am listening. I love you more than you can imagine. And I am sorry for all the times I have to say ‘no.'”
This Yom Kippur, the forgiveness was mutual.
I have written that one of the most difficult things I have been coping with in all the relationships in my life is the presence of anger. I think that now, the major theme is learning to forgive: to forgive myself for my imperfections, to forgive my loved ones for falling short of what I need or want from them, and to forgive God for allowing suffering in the world.
Ironically, one thing that made this easier was a really intense book I read recently about basically the worst human suffering you can imagine. It’s called A Damaged Mirror (though the author tells me they are planning to re-release it under a different name in a few months): a Holocaust memoir with a major twist. And man, if you thought Man’s Search for Meaning was brutal… this book… :-/ It contained some of the most detailed and horrifying descriptions of Auschwitz that I have ever seen. (…And I have read a lot of Holocaust literature, and seen quite a few Holocaust movies, and visited Auschwitz myself.) But the book was actually about a process of repentance. (It’s an amazing book. Mind-blowing. Really. Highly recommended.) Mutual forgiveness between man and God also came up in the book… and the fact that it was at all possible to forgive God after seeing the things that this man saw was somehow comforting to me.
But I’ve learned that this forgiving God business is not a one-off thing. Last year I wrote a post called I Forgave God, and I it was true. But it’s a cycle, and this year I had to forgive Him again. Not unlike how He has to forgive us every year. But what I’ve learned is that that cycle of hurt and reconciliation, moving apart and coming back together, is a natural cycle in any healthy relationship.
Take our friendship, for example! 😉 You know how you and I tend to get on each other’s nerves sometimes? And remember how one time we had an annoying argument about it, and when we had resolved it, I said, “You realize we’re going to have this same conversation a million times, right? In sixty years I’ll be whining at you from my nursing home through whatever technology we’ll have at the time…” That was a result of this realization: that people have different needs, and that sometimes, they just cannot be reconciled… and that that’s okay. It’s just part of the package. It’s something we have learned to accept about each other. Needs don’t always have to be reconciled in a positive relationship. They just have to be navigated. And compassion is the compass. Making the most generous assumption possible about the other is how we find our way.
I feel that until very recently, I have been harsh with God. I’ve been so angry and fearful that I was unable to make that generous assumption that He really is infinitely kind and compassionate and that even human suffering is paradoxically part of His kindness. Sometimes there are things we really cannot understand about the other, and when there is fear of getting hurt, it can be very hard to make a generous assumption. But once I had acknowledged and moved past that anger, I was able to soften… and strange as it may sound, I was able to feel forgiveness and compassion towards God. And my own softening was reflected right back at me.
I know there will be other times of distance, but I am hopeful that this latest experience has taught me how to navigate them better.
Wishing you a year of abundance and compassion and joy.
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.
Because of all its restrictions, Passover is a time wrought with tension over the topic of food. Food may seem to be a trivial thing to have tensions over, but hey, we’re Jews. Our lives revolve around food!
As I’ve elaborated in the past, “Passover kashrut” is even crazier than regular kashrut in every possible sense; for seven (or outside Israel–eight) days, we can’t eat any product made of one of the five grains (wheat, barley, spelt, rye, or oats) that isn’t matzah, and the restriction is so severe that we have to actually kasher our kitchens and use special dishes and utensils for Passover to avoid even the tiniest amount of chametz (leavened grain) being found in our food.
For those of us of Ashkenazi origin, however, there’s a whole additional layer. You see, because the five grains used to be stored together with things like corn, rice, and legumes, and processed in the same manner, my dear ill-advised ancestors were concerned that some of the forbidden grains might get mixed up with those other products, and therefore forbade the consumption of all of them, just to be sure. These other products are referred to as “kitniyot,” which in modern Hebrew refers to legumes.
And of course, there is a long-standing debate as to what exactly counts as kitniyot and what does not. There are two main opinions: one is that it’s only what was included in the original list of restrictions, and one is that it’s anything that can be ground into a flour that could theoretically make something resembling a grain product. The weird thing is that most rabbinical authorities hold somewhere in between. Here in Israel, bakeries and restaurants have excelled at Passover culinary innovation, creating breads and cakes and cookies from potato flour that truly resemble the real thing, and most authorities accept these as being perfectly permissible. These photos were taken by my friend Ari Moshkovski at the English Cake bakery chain shortly before Passover, and believe it or not, none of these products contain even the smallest trace of wheat, corn, or rice:
They even taste half-decent when fresh.
On the other hand, there are things considered kitniyot you would never have imagined anyone would associate with wheat. Like mustard seeds. Peanuts. Pumpkin seeds. Sesame seeds. Some people even include canola oil and quinoa. (Thank God, in our family, we don’t.)
So without bread or other grain products, and without flours or oils derived from common ingredients like corn, soy, and rice, it makes our culinary options on Passover quite limited.
And hell hath no fury like a hungry Jew.
Now, there are some Ashkenazim who have an established custom of eating derivatives of kitniyot. This opens up the possibility of eating things with oils or starches made from kitniyot, and that makes life a lot easier.
In the USA, where the vast majority of the Jewish population is Ashkenazi, most of the kosher-for-Passover products available cater to the Ashkenazi population and are therefore kitniyot-free. But in Israel, half the population is non-Ashkenazi, and the majority of the Ashkenazim are not religious and don’t particularly care about the kitniyot restriction. There are a few communities from Morocco that don’t eat kitniyot either, but even so, that leaves a rather small subset of us who won’t consume kitniyot during Passover. The factories and restaurants, particularly in areas without large concentrations of religious Ashkenazim, have little incentive to cater to our needs, so the majority of products on the shelves are non-kitniyot-free and therefore off-limits to us.
This makes a lot of Ashkenazim in Israel get their panties in a wad. Every single year around Passover time there is much grumbling and gnashing of teeth over this, and calls to cancel the kitniyot restriction once and for all. After all, it’s an old-fashioned restriction–a custom that achieved halakhic status because it was so widely observed in the community, but nonetheless, with relatively little halakhic weight. We know this because we do not treat kitniyot like chametz at all. We are allowed to cook it and feed it to our Sephardic guests in the same utensils we use for our food on Passover. Halakhically speaking, kitniyot can be “nullified,” not in sixty as with the rules about regular kashrut, but in a majority. Meaning if more than half the product is something else, and the taste of the kitniyot product is not easily discernible, it doesn’t count as kitniyot.
So we know that it’s not really chametz, and the holiday is restrictive enough when it comes to food, and it’s annoying, and why must our lives be needlessly made difficult?
But honestly, I think the whole argument is pretty ridiculous.
Yes, it’s a custom that may no longer have relevance, and yes, it does make our lives a little difficult.
But it’s just a week.
The principle that binds us to the custom is “minhag avoteinu b’yadenu”–the custom of our forefathers must be observed by us, unless there is a truly compelling reason to cancel it. And as much as everyone complains, there really is no compelling reason. You can live perfectly well on fruits, vegetables, unprocessed meats, eggs, and dairy for a week. Matzah, potatoes and sweet potatoes are perfectly acceptable sources of carbohydrates. Those who have particularly restrictive diets due to food allergies, veganism/vegetarianism, or illness can easily be granted permission to eat kitniyot on a case-by-case basis. My mother-in-law is here for Passover, and she is vegetarian and allergic to wheat, corn, and all kinds of nuts. My husband–as a rabbi–granted her halakhic permission to eat kitniyot, but she hasn’t needed to take advantage of it.
I think there are two issues that drive people to make a big deal over this. One, I think, is that the Rabbinate is overly careful at best–lazy at worst–about product labeling. A few years ago I bought a can of applesauce that listed its ingredients as 100% apples, and the kashrut stamp said it was “for consumers of kitniyot only.”
Seriously? Even if a tiny bit of corn or soy or whatever somehow got mixed in, it is surely nullified in the majority. I was so annoyed about this that I forced Eitan to ask a senior rabbi about it, and the rabbi told us it was fine for us to eat. Even in cases where there are actually kitniyot derivatives in the product on purpose, they may often be nullified in the majority. But the Rabbinate marks anything that may have any derivative of kitniyot in it as being kitniyot-only. And because we non-experts don’t actually know enough details to know whether the kitniyot is nullified or not, we just don’t eat all of them, leaving us with a relatively narrow selection of products to choose from. We feel like an oppressed minority, forced to look on as our Sephardic brethren happily consume products we might actually be able to eat but can’t because the Rabbinate couldn’t be bothered to label them accurately.
The second issue is that people eat a lot of processed foods and feel at a loss when most of those foods are suddenly off-limits to them. We don’t eat a whole lot of processed food in my home, but there are a few things that we use regularly, like mayonnaise or canned tomato sauce, that are hard to find kitniyot-free (because they are usually made with soybean or corn oil), and it’s annoying.
But you know, Lubavitcher Hassidim have even more extreme restrictions. In addition to kitniyot, they can’t eat any fruit or vegetable that hasn’t been peeled first (and therefore can’t have fruits or vegetables that can’t be peeled), and they can’t eat matzah (or any product made of matzah meal) that has come into contact with liquid. This rules out the precious matzah ball dumplings that are the one redeeming feature of traditional Ashkenazi Passover cuisine.
So it’s pretty much eggs, chicken, and (peeled) potatoes all week. And are they complaining?!
(Well, probably. It’s our #1 coping mechanism, after all. But still.)
Basically, it comes down to this: it’s an annoying restriction that may not really be necessary, and maybe one day in the future when we have a strong enough halakhic authority that the vast majority of Jews accept (…basically, the Messiah. 😛 ) we might cancel it once and for all.
But in the meantime… it’s not really that big a deal. I know this may be hard for people to believe, but they’re not gonna die from a week without hummus.
So there was a bus bombing in Jerusalem yesterday. In an area both Eitan and I drive through very often. We are all safe, thank God.
The bomb went off on an empty bus, setting it and a few neighboring vehicles (including another bus) on fire, injuring dozens, but thankfully, miraculously, no one was killed. It sounds like it was a fairly amateur attempt that did not go as planned.
In the terror attacks in Europe and the USA of late, I’ve noticed that it takes a long time before they declare it a terror attack. We’re not used to that here in Israel; usually we know the instant it happens that it was a terror attack. But in this case it took the police a few hours. It was pretty ridiculous, actually. When they were still deliberating, there was a sub-headline on the Times of Israel that read “Mayor says explosion from small bomb on back of vehicle, but police maintain unclear if terror attack or accident.” I was like, “Oh really? They’re investigating the possibility that someone ‘accidentally’ planted a bomb on the back of the bus…? My taxes are paying for this?”
About ten minutes later, the news reported that the police had confirmed a terror attack, and quoted the Jerusalem police chief as saying, “When a bomb explodes on a bus, it is a terror attack.”
YOU DON’T SAY.
I assume part of the confusion was that they had no intelligence about it whatsoever–which apparently means they usually do, which is both reassuring and extremely not reassuring–and the fact that no terrorist organization rushed to claim responsibility. Hamas, Islamic Jihad and their ilk are usually more than happy to gloat about it as soon as they can, but they did not claim responsibility, they just praised it.
I had just been noting, rather cautiously, that the wave of stabbings seemed to have ebbed a little bit. You know, just in time for us to uncover some new Hamas tunnels. Well, it’s that time of year, and we’re due for a war, right? It’s been two years since the last one.
Well… thank God for Passover. Seder night is this coming Friday, and while this holiday may drive the Jewish people collectively insane, it has its advantages. One, we are too busy panicking about getting our houses, kitchens, and pantries ready for the holiday to put much thought into what it means that someone managed to bomb a bus in Jerusalem, or to dwell on the memories from the Second Intifada such an image might invoke.
Two: Passover is a holiday of perspective.
Because when we sit down to tell the story of the Exodus, we zoom out of our current situation and the turmoil we are dealing with now, and we see it for what it is: yet another small blip in the 3,000-year-long story of the Jewish people, fraught with suffering but crowned with triumph.
Recounting the Exodus is about changing our mindset.
For so much of history my ancestors performed the Seder ceremony huddled over meager tables, saying the verses in hushed tones, strangers in strange lands under the shadow of the massacres so common around Easter time. “We were slaves, but now we are free,” they whispered, hiding from the watchful eyes of the Roman soldiers, or the spies of the Inquisition, or the Nazis. How did they live with this paradox? How could they celebrate their freedom when they were anything but free?
But they were free.
Because the kind of freedom we celebrate on Passover is a deeper kind of freedom than simply not being slaves, or enjoying equal rights, or having the opportunity to pursue our own destiny. It is a profound inner freedom, a freedom that cannot be shackled by any kind of chain. It is an inherent sense of knowing who you are, recognizing your place and your role in the grand scheme of things, and knowing that you matter. It is the courage to remain who you are in the face of threat and great pressure to abandon your identity. It is the faith that you are part of a story that will have a happy ending one day.
Before the tenth and final plague in Egypt, God commanded the Israelites to sacrifice a lamb. Tie the lamb outside your house for three days, He commanded, and then slaughter it and paint its blood on your doorpost. That night, I will smite every firstborn in Egypt. But I will pass over the houses whose doorposts are painted with the lamb’s blood, and let your firstborns live.
That’s the source of the name “Passover.”
But why this whole ceremony? Didn’t God know whose firstborns He should kill without needing to “check” the doorpost?!
So here’s the thing. Egyptians worshiped sheep. They saw them as Divine beings. So God commanded us to take this Egyptian god, tie it up in front of our homes for three days, and then slaughter it, eat it, and smear its blood on our doorposts–all out in the open.
This was a supreme act of defiance. One who was willing to perform this act was demonstrating that he no longer subscribed to the belief that the Egyptians and their culture held any power over him. He answered to one authority only: God.
That act, the paschal sacrifice–and the Seder that evolved around it–has become the ultimate symbol of what it means for us to be free. And we have continued performing it year after year, even under the worst of conditions, to continue to remind ourselves of that freedom, that no one can take away from us.
Looking at things from that perspective, we can find some comfort and hope. Because the truth is that our situation now is better than it ever was. With all the hatred and all the turmoil around us, we have a thriving Jewish state. With all the terror and warfare, we are still suffering a lot less violence from our nasty neighbors than we did in years past.
“And it is [that promise] that has stood for our ancestors and ourselves, for not only one has risen to destroy us, but in every generation, they rise up to destroy us, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, saves us from their hands.”
That is the most poignant line from the Passover Haggadah. In this version of the song by Yonatan Razel, he changes the words to present and future tense, because of how relevant they still are, two thousand years after they were first written.
Not only one rises to destroy us… and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, will save us from their hands
This letter was written two years ago, a few months after Josep and I renewed our correspondence after a long time we’d been out of touch. He hadn’t recalled much of the information I’d given him on the Jewish holidays many years ago, except for this one detail about Purim: that it involves wearing costumes. In fact, this stood out to him so much that he seemed to be under the impression that all Jewish holidays involved wearing costumes. My theory is that this is because of the picture you will see in a moment, which apparently seared this information into his memory for all eternity, for reasons that are fairly self-evident. 😛
I posted this letter last year, but it messed with the formatting somehow and I decided to remove it and repost it this year. (And it will appear in the book–edited to suit the medium, and sans pictures, unfortunately!)
An easy and meaningful fast to those observing the Fast of Esther, and a joyful Purim to all!
I don’t know what gave you the impression that dressing up in costumes is a thing we do for every holiday. Eitan was correct, it really is only for Purim! Could be that you got that impression because I was particularly fond of that tradition and used it as an outlet for my theatrical silliness. …Hence the Hassidic Jack Sparrow when I was 17. 😀
I used to take the opportunity to express some personal joke from that year. But I guess my life has become more boring as I got older, because my costumes have gotten simpler and more tame, and I’m out of personal jokes to dress up as… this year H decided to dress up as Darth Vader (don’t ask me why… I think he saw someone with that costume last year), so I’m going along with the theme as Princess Leia. (I told Eitan he should be Chewbacca. He was not amused.)
Anyway, let me set you straight: the common denominator in Jewish holidays is not costumes, it is food. 😀 There’s a joke that all Jewish holidays follow the same theme: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” It’s true for almost all of the holidays, and Purim is not the exception. 🙂 Much as we joke about it, it really is reflected solidly in halakha (Jewish law): every celebration is marked with at least one festive meal, including most holidays, weddings and circumcisions. On Shabbat, we are required to eat three festive meals. 🙂 It’s one expression of the concept of channeling the material world to bring us to greater spiritual heights. We use the worldly pleasures and enjoyment to help us connect to the spiritual.
So, Purim! 🙂 The holiday commemorates the story of Queen Esther and and the Jews of Persia (which you can read about in your Bible under the Book of Esther–give it a read, it’s not long. I’d say read Wikipedia on it, but the article in Catalan has some glaring inaccuracies! Read the English one if you need a summary!) (And then go fix the Catalan one! 😛 ). If you want a very brief summary… repeat after me… “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat” 😛
The remarkable thing about the Book of Esther is that even though it is clearly a story of God rescuing the Jews from a terrible fate (…as per usual…), it does not mention God’s name even once. One might think that it was Esther’s actions that saved the Jews, or her uncle Mordekhai’s advice. One might even go so far as to argue that it was all just a bunch of lucky coincidences–the right people being at the right place in the right time…
But we know that there is no such thing as a coincidence. 🙂 And that is the main theme of Purim: “things are not what they seem”. This is where the tradition of dressing in costumes comes from–as well as the tradition of eating foods that have some kind of “hidden” element in them, the most famous of these being hamentaschen:
(I usually make my mother’s oatmeal hamentaschen, which are way better than the standard fare. 😀 I have very fond memories of helping her bake them back in Pittsburgh in my childhood and Rehovot in my adolescence.)
Purim is a celebration of the Divine game of hide-and-seek; of God “hiding” himself in the mundane, behind science, behind history, behind strong and charismatic people, and waiting for you to recognize Him behind these disguises.
Purim is also about Jewish unity. One of the things the “bad guy”, Haman, says to King Ahashverosh (Xerxes) about the Jews is that they are “scattered and separate among all the nations” (Esther 3:8). We strive to counter that “separateness” Haman noted, by expressing our unity and love for one another, by giving charity, sending food to one another, and having a big feast (of course…) with our friends and family. These things are not just recommendations or traditions; they are mitzvot, commandments, required by Jewish law on Purim day! Most people send each other gift baskets, usually of sweets.
The other commandment of Purim is to hear Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) cantillated aloud in the synagogue both night and day. Like this.
(Geez, where was YouTube seven years ago?!) Don’t bother watching the whole thing. I’m having it start you at the beginning of chapter 3; you’ll notice something odd at about 10:27 minutes… that’s what happens every time the name of the bad guy of the story, Haman, is mentioned during the reading. 🙂
Since the obligation to hear the Megillah is equal for men and women (unlike the obligation to hear the Torah, which is only for men), women can read the Megillah for themselves, and in my community we have a reading by women for women. I learned how to cantillate from the Torah and Megillah from my mother, and I usually participate in these readings. (I also read part of my Torah portion at my bat mitzvah, but just at the party, not as part of the service.) This year, like last year, I’ll be reading chapter 8. 🙂
Purim being a very joyful holiday, there is a tradition to get drunk during the feast… which I am not a big fan of. 😛 I never particularly liked drinking. I’ll enjoy the occasional wine or sweet liquor, but only a little. The only time I ever got drunk I was eighteen months old. Yes, I said months. But that’s a story for another time. 😛
In most of the world Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar. In cities that were walled at the time of the reign of Ahashverosh and Esther, however, such as Jerusalem and Hebron, it is celebrated on the 15th. This is called “Shushan Purim” (Shushan=Sussa, the royal city where the events took place). Why the difference? Because apparently the big war between the Jews and their enemies took place on different days depending on location; in the walled cities, it took place a day later.
Adar II began this past Friday, so Purim is coming right up next week! This coming Shabbat, then, is known as “Shabbat Zachor”–the Shabbat where we read a passage from the Torah called “Zachor,” “Remember.” Here is the passage:
Remember that which Amalek did to you on the road, on your way out of Egypt. That he encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear God. And it shall come to pass, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all the enemies surrounding you, in the land which the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess it, that you shall obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens. Do not forget.
All men are required by Jewish law to hear this passage read in the synagogue on Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim.
The commandment mentioned in this passage is one of the most difficult to swallow in the entire Torah. What could possibly be so awful about a particular nation that God would command us to commit genocide against them–men, women, children, and even livestock, completely obliterating any trace of their existence? Is God such a vengeful God that He would have us collectively punish a nation just because of something nasty their ancestors did to us once?! Isn’t this against the very concepts of justice and human rights that the Torah was supposed to be introducing to the world?! And why did God place the responsibility to obliterate Amalek in our hands? Isn’t He perfectly capable of collapsing civilizations through means other than warfare?
And anyway, who is this Amalek? Why is it so important to remember what they did to us in the desert?
And what does any of this have to do with Purim?!?!
To quote you upon exiting your first Jewish prayer service: “So many questions.” 😉
Last things first: the connection between Purim and the commandment of wiping out Amalek is very clear. Haman, the villain of the Purim story, was an Amalekite. Specifically, he is called “Haman the Agagite.” Agag was an Amelekite king who was defeated by King Saul in Samuel I 15. In that chapter, King Saul spared Agag’s life and that of some of his livestock. This was a direct violation of the commandment to wipe out Amalek, and he was severely punished for it; it was the sin that caused God to revoke his crown and pass the kingship to David!
So it seems that Haman’s very existence was the result of Saul’s failure to fulfill this commandment.
But mentioning the commandment before Purim is not just because it is relevant to the story of Purim. We read that passage to help us understand that Haman’s evil plot against the Jews of Persia was not a once-off event. It was not a fluke, and Haman did not stand alone. He was just another manifestation of an epic spiritual battle that has been raging in our world since the dawn of humanity.
There is a movie called “One Night with the King” that tells the story of Purim. As movies go, it’s not the greatest, but it does have its moments. One interesting moment in the movie depicts Esther going to see what Haman is up to. She comes across him rallying his followers against the Jews. You will recognize the significance of the imagery right away. (The movie should start at the beginning of the relevant scene, which begins around 1hr 6min into the movie. You’ll get the idea within a minute or two, but listen to what Haman is saying about the Jews and what they represent, especially around 1hr8min.)
Here’s a screenshot in case you missed this:
What’s interesting is that using the image of the swastika is not just a cheap reference to Nazism. The swastika actually has its origins in that part of the world. It is an ancient Eastern symbol. The Nazis appropriated it because they claimed that the Aryan race had its origins in that part of the world, too.
Not that the film is a paradigm of historical accuracy in its use of symbolism; it also employs the Jewish star, and as we’ve discussed, that wasn’t actually an exclusively Jewish symbol until very recently. But this “interpretation” given by the movie hints at what Jews have been saying for 70 years: that the Nazis, like Haman, were the spiritual heirs of Amalek.
In high school we were taught that one of the principles of Nazi ideology was that the Jews invented morality and the idea of human rights, human conscience, mercy, and ethics. As high school students we were like, “Um… this is a bad thing?”
According to Hitler, yes. Because he believed that the “natural order” was racial anarchy. Basically that humans should be like animals, the stronger “clans” taking up as much territory as they could. He believed that this whole business of “kindness” and “compassion” disturb that natural order.
And who introduced these ideas to humanity and infected the world with this terrible idea of having a conscience? The Jews, of course. And the only way to rid the world of these ideas was to rid the world of that race that introduced them, that embodies them, that represents and continues to perpetuate them.
In a sense, he was right. The ideas of human rights, conscience, ethics, morality–those are Jewish ideas and were spread by us and by our “daughter religions,” Christianity and Islam, in a world that was a lot more like what Hitler envisioned. These days people associate religion with violence and intolerance, as though religion brought these concepts to the world, when in fact it is the exact opposite; though Christians, Muslims and sometimes Jews fell short of our ideals, the fact is that the world is far less violent and intolerant than it used to be, and that is largely thanks to the widespread adoption of monotheism and the principles of the Abrahamic faiths.
But this is where Hitler was twisted. He thought that we were much better off before. That violence and intolerance were a natural part of life and the world was better off with humans in constant conflict with one another and the strong ruling over the weak. And it was the Jews, he argued–correctly!–that “perverted” the world from this “ideal” state.
That is why it was more important to him to destroy Jewish lives than to save German ones. He thought the German race was the superior one, but he wasn’t sure, and he was okay with it getting destroyed if the natural order was restored. Because more than he wanted to rule over a master race, he saw it as his life’s mission to restore the world to its “natural order.” And if that meant allowing other, stronger “races” to destroy his, so be it–as long as he rescued the world from the pestilence of Jewish conscience.
This is very different from the general view that he was this evil, megalomaniacal madman consumed with hatred and spite.
Hitler really thought he was saving the world.
Amalek, as a concept, is precisely this ideology. “Social Darwinism.” “Survival of the fittest.” The idea that only the strong should be allowed to prosper, and that it is against the natural order of things to help the weak. There is no place in this world for mercy and compassion. There is only power.
This is the antithesis of everything Judaism stands for.
“He encountered you on the way and cut off those lagging to your rear, when you were tired and exhausted; he did not fear God.” The Amalekites had no respect for human dignity. They prayed on the Israelites “at the rear”–the old, the weak, and the weary, for no reason other than the fact that they were weak. As a nation, they may have gone the way of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Persians, and the Romans… but our battle with Amalek–the idea–is eternal.
It is, on the symbolic level, an externalized version of the battle between good and evil I described in this post about human nature. Amalek, yetzer hara (the “evil inclination”), the snake from the story of Adam and Eve, the Satan… in a way, these concepts are all different facets of the same thing. They are all illusions of darkness that are meant to help us learn to receive the Light.
I think this story is an archetypal allegory of the epic battle between Israel and Amalek that has waged ever since. History has shown us that the “spiritual heirs of Amalek” often target the Jews as their first victims. “It often starts with the Jews; it never ends with the Jews,” the grim saying goes.
While the truth of this idea resonates for me, it does not allay my discomfort with the practical, non-symbolic aspect of this commandment. Some may argue that when it came to Amalek, there was no such thing as an innocent civilian…. but really? Newborn babies? Sheep? Cattle? I can stomach the idea that as a culture it was dangerous and needed to be wiped out… but isn’t there a gentler, more compassionate alternative than genocide? :-/
Thankfully, the actual Amalek nation having disappeared from the face of the earth long ago, it is not really a practical issue. Still, it’s something to struggle with… as we’ve elaborated in the past.
May we all merit to see the obliteration of the ideology of Amalek in our days.
Before I go, I just want to once again draw your attention to my husband’s podcast, Jewish Geography. Occasionally I read a letter to Josep as a segment on the show, and every time I do, I add a link to the relevant podcast at the top of that post. Last week he featured me reading “The Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies!” and despite the bleak subject matter, it is a rather entertaining listen. 😉 Don’t forget to subscribe!
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.)
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.
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.
The children bring home a pile of paper chains, mobiles and other decorations from school.
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?
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.
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 & Simḥat 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 Simḥat 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, Simḥat 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 Simḥat 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.
Bunch of guys parading around with palm fronds. Yeah, that looks about right. No one ever said you had to be normal…↩
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., ש.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.
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. 😉
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.
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! 😛 )