Sukkot, a Hebrew word meaning “booths” or “huts,” refers to the Jewish festival of giving thanks for the fall harvest, as well as the commemoration of the forty years of Jewish wandering in the desert after Sinai. Sukkot is celebrated five days after Yom Kippur on the 15th of Tishrei and is marked by several distinct traditions. One tradition, which takes the commandment to “dwell in booths” literally, is to build a sukkah, a booth or hut. A sukkah is often erected by Jews during this festival, and it is common practice for some to eat and even live in these temporary dwellings during Sukkot.
Simchat Torah, Hebrew for “rejoicing in the Law,” celebrates the completion of the annual reading of the Torah. Simchat Torah is a joyous festival, in which we affirm our view of the Torah as a tree of life and demonstrate a living example of never-ending, lifelong study. Torah scrolls are taken from the ark and carried or danced around the synagogue seven times. During the Torah service, the concluding section of Deuteronomy is read, and immediately following, the opening section of Genesis, or B’reishit as it is called in Hebrew, is read.
Chanukah, meaning “dedication” in Hebrew, refers to the joyous eight-day celebration during which Jews commemorate the victory of the Macabees over the armies of Syria in 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent liberation and “re-dedication” of the Temple in Jerusalem. The modern home celebration of Chanukah centers around the lighting of the chanukiah, a special menorah for Chanukah; unique foods, latkes and jelly doughnuts; and special songs and games.
Purim is celebrated by the reading of the Scroll of Esther, known in Hebrew as the Megillat Esther, which relates the basic story of Purim. Under the rule of King Ahashuerus, Haman, the King’s prime minister, plots to exterminate all of the Jews of Persia. His plan is foiled by Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai, who ultimately save the Jews of the land from destruction. The reading of the megillah is typically a rowdy affair, punctuated by booing and noise-making when Haman’s name is read aloud.
The History and Origins of Passover Pesach, known as Passover in English, is a major Jewish spring festival, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The ritual observance of this holiday centers around a special home service called the seder (meaning “order”) and a festive meal; the prohibition of chametz (leaven); and the eating of matzah (an unleavened bread). On the eve of the fifteenth day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, we read from a book called the hagaddah, meaning “telling,” which contains the order of prayers, rituals, readings and songs for the Pesach seder. The Pesach seder is the only ritual meal in the Jewish calendar year for which such an order is prescribed, hence its name.
The seder has a number of scriptural bases. Exodus 12:3-11 describes the meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs which the Israelites ate just prior to the Exodus. In addition, three separate passages in Exodus (12:26-7, 13:8, 13:14) and one in Deuteronomy (6:20-21) enunciate the duty of the parents to tell the story of the Exodus to their children. The seder plate contains various symbolic foods referred to in the seder itself.
The story of Joseph gives us the background for how our people ended up in Egypt. It begins with our patriarch Jacob and his 12 sons. One of the sons, Joseph, was the most favored by his father, which caused tension between Joseph and his brothers, who sold him into slavery. The brothers told Jacob that a wild animal had killed Joseph. In truth, Joseph ended up in Egypt where he had many adventures, one of which landed him in jail. Through his ability to interpret dreams, Joseph became an advisor to Pharaoh, managing the country’s food supply so that the people would be fed during the predicted seven years of famine.The famine extended into the land of Canaan where Jacob and his family lived. Joseph’s brothers went down to Egypt in search of food and came before Joseph, but they did not recognize him. Eventually Joseph identified himself to his brothers and invited them and the entire household of Jacob to come down to Egypt so they would survive the famine.
Many generations later, a new Pharaoh arose “who knew not Joseph.” This Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews and ordered all of their newborn baby boys killed.A newborn, Moses, was saved by the ingenuity of his mother and sister when he was set adrift in a basket in the Nile. As his sister Miriam watched, she saw that Pharaoh’s daughter discovered the baby and decided to raise the Hebrew child as her own. Miriam offered to arrange for a Hebrew nurse (Moses’ mother) to feed and care for the child.
Moses grew up, and one day he witnessed an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave. So angered by this sight, Moses killed the overseer. Subsequently, he saw two Hebrew slaves arguing and tried to stop them.They turned to him, and one said,”Will you kill me as you killed the Egyptian overseer?” Realizing that there was a witness to the murder and becoming concerned for his life,Moses escaped into the desert. On that journey, God appeared to Moses in a burning bush that was not consumed, and told him to go back to Egypt and deliver the Hebrews from slavery.
With his brother Aaron, Moses went before Pharaoh to demand that the Hebrews be set free. Pharaoh continually refused, and the plagues descended upon Egypt. With the 10th plague, the killing of the firstborn, Pharaoh relented and allowed the Hebrews to leave. In their haste, the Israelites took unleavened dough that baked on their backs into matzah.
The Passover Seder reminds us of our ancestor’s journey down into Egypt, our enslavement there and our eventual flight to freedom. In Jewish tradition, because of the centrality of this story, we are not simply to remember these events but to recount them as if we ourselves had experienced them.
Shavuot is a Hebrew word meaning ‘weeks’ and refers to the Jewish festival marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Shavuot, like so many other Jewish holidays began as an ancient agricultural festival, marking the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. Shavuot was distinguished in ancient times by bringing crop offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Torah tells us it took precisely forty-nine days for our ancestors to travel from Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai (the same number of days as the Counting of the Omer ) where they were to receive the Torah. Thus, Leviticus 23:21 commands: ‘And you shall proclaim that day (the fiftieth day) to be a holy convocation…’ The name Shavuot, ‘Weeks,’ then symbolizes the completion of a seven-week journey.
Special customs on Shavuot are the reading of the Book of Ruth, which reminds us that we too can find a continual source of blessing in our tradition. Another tradition includes staying up all night to study Torah and Mishnah, a custom called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which symbolizes our commitment to the Torah, and that we are always ready and awake to receive the Torah. Traditionally, dairy dishes are served on this holiday to symbolize the sweetness of the Torah, as well as the ‘land of milk and honey’.
Shavuot is celebrated seven weeks after Passover (when the barley harvest begins). These seven weeks are called the Omer and are counted ceremonially. This counting, called s’firat ha-omer, begins on the second day of Passover.The source for this practice is found in the book of Deuteronomy, “You shall count off seven weeks…then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks to Adonai your God” (Deuteronomy 16:9-10).The counting of the Omer takes place daily after the evening service.
Once the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the mitzvah of bringing the first fruits of the harvest was lost, the Rabbis were concerned that the observance of Shavuot might disappear. It was during this time period (2nd century C.E.) when the Rabbis determined that the revelation of Torah at Sinai coincided with Shavuot.
Recognizing that Shavuot has both agricultural and religious roots, the holiday is known by several different names: Shavuot, Z’man Matan Torateinu and Chag HaBikkurim. Z’man Matan Torateinu translates as “the season of the giving of our Torah”; and Chag HaBikkurim means “the festival of first fruits”.
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