Lag B’Omer: Jews count 33rd day in the Omer with bonfires, parades

Lag BaOmer, New York

Lag B’Omer in Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Several seconds, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, MAY 18: Enormous bonfires blaze against the night sky across Israel and in Jewish communities worldwide, for Lag B’Omer (or Lag BaOmer; spellings may vary). During daylight hours, celebrants venture outdoors for picnics and children’s activities, while the commemorations of Lag BaOmer are twofold: the holiday marks the end of an ancient plague and, duly, the passing of the mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. On Lag BaOmer, thousands of Jews gather in Meron, Israel, at the tomb of Bar Yochai.

s'more Lag B'Omer

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Literally 33rd day in the Omer, Lag BaOmer marks traditional anniversaries in the Jewish calendar. Between Passover and Shavuot, Jews are, per the Torah, obligated to count the days. (Learn more from Judaism 101.) The omer is a unit of measure, and each night from the second of Passover until Shavuot, Jews recite a blessing and count the omer in both weeks and days. During this period, men and women recall a plague that struck during the time of Rabbi Akiba; haircuts, weddings and parties are put on hold. On Lag BaOmer, the mourning restrictions are lifted.

Fun fact: S’mores are permitted on Lag B’Omer! Read more at Aish.com.

The Talmud relates that during the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a plague hit Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, because of their disrespectful conduct toward one another. On Lag BaOmer, the dying ceased and, among the surviving students, was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Later, he became the most esteemed teacher of the Torah in his generation. He penned the classic mystic text, the Zohar, still revered by those who study Kabbalah. Today, the importance of love and respect is emphasized on Lag BaOmer, as is the great “light” that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai brought to the world.

Some also are emphasizing Lag BaOmer as an anniversary of the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire. In Israel today, Lag BaOmer is marked in varying ways. In 2004, the Israeli government began designating Lag BaOmer as a day for honoring the Israeli Defense Forces reserves.

Fast of Esther and Purim: Jews celebrate bravery and victory with jovial traditions

Child Purim dressed up

In Israel, a young person is dressed up for Purim. Photo courtesy of PxHere

(Purim begins at sunset) WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16: For many observant Jews, the dawn-to-dusk period on Wednesday is a time of self denial: It is the Fast of Esther, related to the story of Purim. Unlike other Jewish fasts, which typically last from sunset to sunset, today’s fast lasts only from sunrise to sunset—and for a joyful reason. While other fasts involve mournful remembrance, the Fast of Esther recalls a story of victory.

Here’s the story of today’s fast:

About 2,500 years ago, a beautiful young woman named Esther was taken to the house of Ahasuerus, the king of Persia. When Esther became queen of Persia, she hid her true Jewish identity.

Queen Esther’s husband, King Ahasuerus—who did not know that his wife was Jewish—was swayed by an evil advisor (Haman), who wanted to rid Persia of all Jews. When Esther was informed of this tragic plan, she knew she had no other choice; Esther asked her fellow Jews to fast with her in hope of divine favor, and she courageously revealed her true religious identity to her husband. Queen Esther’s brave act could have resulted in her death, but King Ahasuerus was partial to his wife—and he spared the lives of all the Jews.

Today’s classification as a “minor fast” speaks of an event that has brought great inspiration to Jews for thousands of years. In the Middle Ages, for example, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition looked to Queen Esther and drew strength from her bravery.

Haman's pockets, Purim

Hamantaschen, the traditional treat of Purim. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

PURIM: THE BOOK OF ESTHER AND G_D

The story of Purim is found in the pages of the book of Esther, in the Hebrew scriptures of the Bible. Many Jews still observe the Fast of Esther from dawn to dusk—and then, with the start of Purim at sundown, fruit-filled cookies are served, outrageous costumes are donned, plenty of wine is consumed and comical skits entertain audiences. In the synagogue, readings from the book of Esther evoke hissing, booing and stomping, as Jews “blot out” the name of the villainous Haman. Some Jews even write Haman’s name on the bottom of their shoes, so as to literally stomp on his name!

Did you know? The name of G_d is not mentioned in the book of Esther, and many Jews interpret this as indication that G_d works in ways that are not always apparent. On Purim, disguises and costumes serve as symbolism of G_d “hidden” behind the scenes.

The carnivals and masquerades of Purim are accompanied by the four primary obligations of the day: to listen to a public reading of the book of Esther in the evening and the morning; to send food gifts to friends; to give charity to the poor; and to partake in a festive meal. (Find interactive tools and more at Chabad.org.)

While traditional Purim costumes reflect the various roles in the story of Esther, Jewish organizations continue to make merry on this ancient holiday by including cultural themes that tie Purim with the 21st century: themes like Harry Potter, “Star Wars” and Marvel superheroes, for example, have gained popularity in recent years.

The signature treat for this holiday is Hamentaschen, or Haman’s pockets, which consists of sweet pastry filled with prunes or poppy seeds. FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis tells the story of baking these delicious triangular treats in her family—and provides her own recipe for these cookies.

WANT MORE?

An array of Purim recipes can be found at AllRecipes. Thirsty? Try making your own apricot-infused bourbon for Purim.

Yom Kippur: Jews repent, end High Holidays on holiest day of the year

Jewish Yom Kippur

Jews break the Yom Kippur fast. Photo by Sam Litvin, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15: From the sweet wishes of Rosh Hashanah and through the High Holidays, Jews arrive tonight at what is often referred to as the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur.

 

A solemn observance, Yom Kippur (also called the Day of Atonement) is believed to be the final opportunity to make amends before one’s fate is sealed for the coming year.

Did you know? Throughout history, when Jews were forced to publicly convert to another religion, the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service would annul those vows.

For 25 hours–this year, from sunset on September 15, the official start of Yom Kippur–Jews uphold a strict fast. Intense prayer accompanies the fasting, and many Jews spend hours repenting. Having asked forgiveness from others and made amends in the days preceding Yom Kippur, Jews ask forgiveness from God on Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre, or “All Vows,” gathers the larger Jewish community and begins Yom Kippur evening services; Ne’ilah, a service during which the Torah ark remains open and the congregation stands, is the final plea to God for forgiveness. A blast from the shofar follows the final prayers.

Why is Kol Nidre so significant? Kol Nidre is a deeply emotional experience for many Jews. At the start of Yom Kippur, amends are made and the community symbolically opens itself to regular members as well as others who rarely attend services. There is a long and complex history to the traditions of Kol Nidre—and there are many examples in Jewish fiction of moving scenes set at Kol Nidre. Overall, Kol Nidre represents a fresh resetting of commitments and promises within the community.

YOM KIPPUR: SOLEMNITY AND CELEBRATION

Most years, Jewish house of worship to capacity on Yom Kippur: Main seating areas can often be expanded on special occasions, and Yom Kippur is the main holiday when all the partitions separating rooms are removed. Overflow seating sometimes is added in other parts of the building and the majority of the Jewish community shows up for at least part of the long series of services.

UPDATE 2021: While many synagogues are reporting that in-person Yom Kippur services will take place this year, pandemic regulations will be followed and most temples won’t be filled to capacity. Alternatively, some synagogues will be offering virtual services. (The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports on available online services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.)

Although Yom Kippur is a solemn day, it is also one of celebration: Celebration of the anniversary of God forgiving the Jewish people for worshipping the golden calf. According to Jewish scholar and ReadTheSpirit contributing writer, Joe Lewis:

By traditional calculation, Moses brought the second tablets to the people on Yom Kippur. God’s nature is revealed to Moses as a God of mercy and compassion, patience and kindness (Ex. 34:6), and this idea is central to the liturgy of the day. We end the day with a blast on the shofar, eat our fill, and make plans for the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), which is only five days away.

Rosh Hashanah: Happy (Jewish) New Year 5782!

shofar boy rosh hashanah

A boy blows the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Photo by Len Radin, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 6: Sound the shofar and wish your neighbor L’shanah tovah: “For a good year!” It’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year—and it’s also the start of the High Holidays.

For two days, Jews around the world attend services, seek forgiveness and joyfully enter the annual High Holy Days. Sometimes called the Days of Awe, this period culminates in Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement, which starts at sunset on Wednesday, September 15 this year.

What are the High Holidays? Sometimes referred to as “High Holidays,” or “High Holy Days,” this is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and, often, the days in between the two holidays. One description of this period says, in essence, that G_d opens the books of judgment as the new year begins and finally, on Yom Kippur, the judgment for the year is “sealed.”

NEWS 2021: In light of the continued pandemic, many ask: Is it safe to attend Rosh Hashanah services this year? In this article, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency explores that question.

apple juice, apples, rosh hashanah

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel

APPLES AND HONEY FOR A ‘SWEET’ NEW YEAR

For Rosh Hashanah, honey and apples are the most famous holiday foods in the United States; other foods, including dates and pomegranates, have ancient associations with the New Year and still are enjoyed in Jewish communities around the world. The honey-and-apples symbol, often seen on holiday cards and other Rosh Hashanah media, is a reminder of the joy in welcoming a “sweet” new year.

Literally “head of the year,” Rosh Hashanah was never referred to by name in the Bible. Instead, references in Leviticus were made to Yom Teruah, “the day of the sounding of the shofar.” In the synagogue, 100 notes are blown each day of the New Year festivities; some refer to this noise as a “call to repentance.” Traditionally, Jewish teaching associates Rosh Hashanah with the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve.

A lesser-known Jewish tradition related to Rosh Hashanah is tashlikh, or “casting off.” After filling their pockets—most often with small bits of bread—devotees walk to flowing water and empty their pockets, thereby symbolically “casting off” the sins of the old year.

Sweet recipes: Looking to bake up something sweet and scrumptious this Rosh Hashanah? Check out Chabad.org, AllRecipes, Epicurious, Food Network and Martha Stewart.

‘Trying Extra, Extra Hard to Get Along’

Every year, since its founding, ReadTheSpirit magazine has covered the Jewish High Holy Days. Central themes are taking stock of the previous year, reconciling broken relationships, asking forgiveness and preparing for a better new year. We asked Jewish scholar and contributing writer Joe Lewis to write about his reflections. Joe writes …

I’ve been reading one of the complicated medieval acrostic poems added to the “additional” liturgy for Yom Kippur. Many people know that Jewish tradition involves three daily liturgical units, with an extra one on special days such as holy days. The extra liturgical unit recalls the special sacrifices of a holy day in the time of the Temple.

On Yom Kippur, the extra liturgy includes several extra poems—extra extras.

One of the longest and most complicated of these recalls the special sacrifices of Yom Kippur as outlined in the Mishnah, the early compilation of Jewish law and tradition. Even if he knew his duties well, the High Priest had to take a week-long refresher course and practice, practice, practice for the rituals of this day, with its immersions and changes of clothing and the tricky balancing of a pan of glowing coals in one hand and a ladle of incense in the other. Don’t try this at home!

What you can do at home is, like me, refresh your understanding of the ingeniously elliptical Hebrew poetry.

You might think I’m one of those people who’d like to see the Temple rebuilt. In its time, it was a world-wide tourist destination and well worth a visit; and none of us knows how its rituals might stir modern skeptical religious natures. Some think its time will come again, soon. Others, though, consider all references to the sacrificial system—even the “additional” liturgy through which it is recalled—outdated, even distasteful or downright primitive. I’m neither of those.

For me, the Temple ritual symbolizes a way of connecting with the divine. I can mourn its loss, and like any mourner can dwell on every memory I can recover, without wishing for its return. What’s more, the loss of the Temple ritual is a valuable symbol in itself. Unlike the many tragic sufferings forced on the Jewish people throughout our long history, it’s one tragedy that (our sages taught) we brought upon ourselves through causeless hatred.

The weeks leading up to Yom Kippur are a time to make peace for offenses between people; then we can seek God’s forgiveness for our sins with hearts free of bitterness. Dwelling on the loss of our ancient form of prayer should remind us that unless we make peace—with our neighbor whose lawn sign offends us, with our more distant neighbors whose neighborhood we find unfamiliar and consider enviable or unsafe, with neighboring peoples whose intentions we fear and mistrust—we can lose all that we cherish.

There’s no better time to try extra, extra hard to get along with others!

Passover: Virtual seders and gatherings create change in another year for Pesach

passover meal

Photo by ehpien, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET SATURDAY, MARCH 27: Tonight, Jews begin the most widely observed of all Jewish traditions: the seven- or eight-day festival of Pesach, also known as Passover. (Jews in Israel observe seven days; Jews of the Diaspora observe eight). Passover commemorates the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, which is recalled during an elaborate meal that takes place on the first night of Passover, known as the seder. While the first night of Passover would typically involve gathering for an in-person seder, continuing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions will prevent most families and friends from gathering in-person this year.

Fortunately—as many news sources are pointing out, ahead of the holiday—there is hope! Many who had little to no knowledge of the concept of virtual gathering have, since last year, gained hours of experience on these platforms. In 2020, worldwide pandemic lockdowns were in their infancy as Jews faced a unique Passover; in 2021, many have learned the ins and outs of these get-togethers.

This year, experts recommend assigning Haggadah reading roles ahead of Passover; swapping recipes weeks in advance of the feast, so that meal participants can enjoy the same foods; and coordinating virtual cooking sessions ahead of Pesach, so that culinary endeavors can turn out successfully. (Read more tips from Forbes.) Going a step further, Jewish Exponent suggests cooking dishes that appear bright and vibrant on-camera (recipes are in the article), and pre-arranging foods that won’t require a host or hostess to continue leaving the table.

PASSOVER: ONE YEAR IN, OUR VIRTUAL GATHERINGS HAVE EVOLVED

Matzo. Photo by Rebecca Siegel, courtesy of Flickr

Each Passover, Jews around the world ask the same question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This year, that question will once again be answered in a rare manner, as social distancing restrictions continue. Yet in a positive light, this situation in some ways relates to the first Passover, as was written at Chabad.org: “On the very first Passover, in Ancient Egypt, each family was sequestered in its home. No one was permitted to step outside. Outdoors, a plague swept through the land, but in each Jewish home, there was light and hope.”

While stricter Jewish families may not participate in a virtual Passover seder, many Jews will be gathering in this way, this year.

While vaccinations are providing a sense of hope to many, most in-person gatherings are still discouraged. To prepare for a second Passover “in isolation,” Chabad.org offers a list of pro tips.

Freedom can still be celebrated at Passover in spite of the continuing pandemic, states an article in STL Jewish Light. For a commentary on the deeper meaning of freedom and Passover, check out the story here.

This year, Passover will begin just as Shabbat ends—leaving many in a difficult situation regarding Passover seder preparation. News sources such as Aish.com and Jewish Exponent are recommending preparing as much of the meal as possible ahead of time—with tips on how to do it.

For tips on creating a spring-inspired Passover table, plus access to free printable Passover conversation starters, check out these links: Passover table and conversation starters, from HGTV.com.

In memory of a man who, for more than 40 years, bought millions of dollars of New York’s leavened bread products before Passover—and passed away last month–the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has a tribute article.

EGYPT, SLAVERY AND CHAMETZ

 

Among the events in the biblical story recalled during the seder, Jews give thanks to G_d for “passing over” the homes of those whose doors were marked with lamb’s blood during the biblical Plague of the Firstborn, for helping them to escape safely from Egypt’s army and for eventually leading them to freedom.

Haggadahs are available in a variety of commentary themes, such as this edition, which is commented on by Elie Wiesel. Photo by Edsel Little, courtesy of Flickr

Why is it so important to get rid of leavened products during this time? According to Exodus, as the Israelites left Egypt they moved so quickly that their bread was not able to rise. To this day, unleavened matzo bread is a staple element on seder tables and a symbol of this ancient festival.

As matzo is such an important element of Passover, many Jews are trying to revive the art of homemade matzo. Baking matzo is a challenge; only 18 minutes are allowed between the mixing of flour and water to the finishing of baking. Elaborate measures are taken to ensure the mixture does not rise.

FAST OF THE FIRSTBORN TO COUNTING OF THE OMER

During the day today, Jewish families may observe the Fast of the Firstborn. Tonight, after sunset, Passover will commence. As Passover begins, seders—ritualistic meals with readings, stories, songs and spirited discussion—are held in Jewish households everywhere.

Throughout the holiday period, and in more traditionally observant households, the dishes and baking tools used for the Passover seder are reserved only for this time and have never come into contact with chametz. The Passover seder is an extended meal that often lasts several hours, and is filled with ceremonial prayers, rituals, specific foods and drinks and careful table settings. During the seder, the story of the Exodus is recalled through readings from the Haggadah.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. On the second day of Passover, keeping track of the omer—an ancient unit of measure—marks the days from Passover to Shavuot.

Tu B’Shvat: Plant a sapling, green the earth for the Jewish New Year for Trees

“In order to serve God, one needs access to the enjoyment of the beauties of nature—meadows full of flowers, majestic mountains, flowing rivers. For all these are essential to the spiritual development of even the holiest of people.”

-Rabbi Abraham ben Maimonides, cited by Rabbi David E. Stein in “A Garden of Choice Fruits,” Shomrei Adamah, 1991

Tu B'Shvat New Year trees

Trees in Israel. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 27: Winter is still in full swing in the Northern Hemisphere, but today in Israel, a vital component of nature is honored: It is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for Trees. Known also as Jewish Arbor Day, it’s customary (in places where the ground isn’t frozen) for Jews to plant a tree today—and this tradition has done wonders for the Holy Land (keep reading to find out why). The purpose of Tu B’Shvat is to calculate the age of a tree for tithing and for eating.

Many observant Jews have long followed a passage from Leviticus that forbids the eating of a tree’s fruit for the first three years of its life, and so by following this easy-to-remember holiday, Jews can keep the biblical instructions. (Read more, plus lots of related articles, at Chabad.org.)

What do Jews do on this day dedicated to trees and fruit? Plant trees, and then eat plenty of fruit, of course! Customarily, devotees either eat a new fruit today or eat one of the Seven Species abundant in the land of Israel. Since the Seven Species consists primarily of grains and sweet fruits, today’s meal is usually a sweet one. For Jews who can’t plant trees today, the tradition of collecting money to plant trees in Israel is popular.

ISRAEL: A LAND ABUNDANT IN TREES

In modern-day Israel, Tu B’Shvat is celebrated as an ecological awareness day. Ecological organizations in Israel and the diaspora often promote environmental-awareness programs on this day, and trees are planted in celebration.

In the global green movement, Tu B’shvat has been attracting major media attention as Jews around the world remember, today, that “man is a tree of the field”—and non-Jews can take part in Tu B’shvat by reflecting on our connection with nature. (Green Prophet has an environmental perspective on Tu B’shvat.) A dedicated tradition of tree-planting can make a major difference. Israel was one of the few countries in the world to have more trees on its land at the end of the last century than it had at the beginning.

Hanukkah: Jews celebrate eight nights of light for the ‘miracle of the oil’

Menorahs Hanukkah

Menorahs lit for Hanukkah. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET THURSDAY, DECEMBER 10: Many world holiday traditions are being severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, but Hanukkah may be an exception—after all, much of the rituals are performed at home! While most synagogues will not be open for in-person services, families can still gather around a menorah, fry latkes in the kitchen and play a festive game of dreidel.

The first night of Hanukkah ushers in at sunset on December 10, this year, and lasts for eight consecutive nights and days. Though not as religiously significant as some other Jewish holidays—Yom Kippur, Sukkot or Passover, just to name a few—Hanukkah is widely celebrated, and is easily recognized even by non-Jews.

Each evening during Hanukkah, Jewish families light menorah candles in honor of the Maccabees’ victory over Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Greeks, in the 2nd century BCE. As the traditional story is retold: Once the Second Temple had been reclaimed from the Greeks, purified and rededicated, there was only enough sacred oil found to burn for one day. Yet, miraculously, the oil burned for eight days. In celebration, Jews today partake in foods fried in oil, light candles, play traditional games and sing songs.

THE MENORAH & THE DREIDEL

dreidel Hanukkah game

A dreidel. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Hanukkah is faithfully observed by most Jews with the lighting of candles in a nine-branched menorah, with one candle for each of the eight nights and one extra candle (the shamash), which is often placed separately from the others. The shamash must be used for “practical” purposes, so that the remaining candles may be used solely for publicizing the miracle of the oil.

While a menorah lights up a window, a game of dreidel is often played. The four-sided spinning top that is the centerpiece of the game has a Hebrew letter imprinted on each of its sides. The letters are an acronym for “A great miracle happened there.” Candies, money or chocolate gelt (coins) are often wagered in a game of dreidel.

Meanwhile, the sound of spattering, hot oil fills the Jewish kitchen, as devotees cook latkes (potato pancakes), sufganiyots (doughnuts) and other deep-fried foods.

NOT CHRISTMAS: The 8-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah is not like Christmas, so far-flung Jewish relatives don’t rush home for these holidays, as many Christians do for Christmas. However, parents and their children often enjoy the rituals together, to establish this tradition for future generations.

HANUKKAH: A LIFE PERSPECTIVE

In her inspiring book, This Jewish Life, Debra Darvick writes dozens of true stories about Jewish men and women experiencing the seasons in Judaism. In one section of her book, she explains the basics about Hanukkah’s commemoration:

“In 167 BC, Antiochus decreed the practice of Judaism to be an offense punishable by death. The Temple was desecrated, and the Syrians went so far as to sacrifice pigs in the Temple. A Jew named Mattathias and his five sons began a revolt not only against Antiochus, but against the Jews who were quite willing to take on the ways of the majority population and jettison Jewish practice. Three years later, the Maccabees (as the Jewish fighters were known) and their followers were victorious, and the Temple was once again in Jewish hands.”

She further explains:

“According to Jewish tradition, when the Temple was finally cleansed for re-dedication, there was but a single day’s supply of ritually pure oil for the ner tamid, the everlasting light that hangs in every synagogue as a symbol of God’s ever-presence. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, the time needed to press and ritually purify additional oil for the ner tamid.”

EXTRA RESOURCES

Looking for ideas to decorate your home for Hanukkah? HGTV offers 50 “haute” decorating and entertaining ideas (even if you’re only entertaining your immediate family).

For something sweet, try baking a batch of dreidel sugar cookies. (Instructions are also included for royal-icing decoration.)

Turn up the elegance with 11 tips for a guest-impressing Hanukkah table setting (even if, this year, the only guest is your spouse.)