Fast of Esther, Purim: Jews celebrate joyous festival of triumph

Purim Israel

Celebrating the festival of Purim in Holon, Israel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

(Purim begins at sunset) MONDAY, MARCH 6: For many observant Jews, the dawn-to-dusk period today is a time to observe the Fast of Esther, related to the story of Purim. Yet today’s fast lasts only from sunrise to sunset, and for a joyful reason: the Fast of Esther recalls a story of victory!

Here’s the story:

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.


purim hamantaschen

Hamantaschen, a popular treat on Purim. Photo by ulterior epicure, courtesy of Flickr

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.

(Try this recipe for hamantaschen—with sprinkles!—from Food Network.)

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


An array of Purim recipes can be found at AllRecipes.

Hanukkah: Jews celebrate light and freedom, remembering the miracle of the oil

Hanukkah lighting menorahs

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET SUNDAY, DECEMBER 18: The first night of Hanukkah arrives for millions of Jews worldwide. Although not as religiously significant as some other Jewish holidays—Yom Rosh Hashanah, Kippur or Passover, for example—Hanukkah is widely celebrated, and is easily recognized even by non-Jews.

IN THE NEWS: In New York, a first-of-its-kind “pop-up Hanukkah bar” (Maccabee Bar) will open this year, hosted by a restaurant called Ollie’s and open for the eight nights of Hanukkah. Read more here. How will Hanukkah 2022 be unique? Find out in this article, from


Each evening during Hanukkah, Jewish families light candles on a menorah 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—but, 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.

Latkes for Hanukkah. Photo by Tim Sackton, courtesy of Flickr


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.

During Hanukkah, families often enjoy playing a game of dreidel. 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), sufganiyot (doughnuts) and other deep-fried foods.

NOT CHRISTMAS: The 8-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah is not like Christmas. For example, far-flung Jewish relatives don’t rush home for these holidays as Christian families migrate for Christmas day. However, the whole point of lighting the Hanukkah candles, each night, is to remember connections stretching back thousands of years. Often, parents and their children enjoy the ritual together to establish this tradition for future generations.

With this article from Forbes, learn more about the major differences between Hanukkah and Christmas, as well as five ways to rethink religious inclusion in the workplace during this season.


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.”


Tired of the same latkes? Food Network offers 14 different latke recipes.

For kids, try this craft: a paper menorah, with instructions courtesy of HGTV.

Adults can craft, too! Make a gilded menorah from an animal figurine—learn how at

Experts claim that tie-dye is one of the decade’s biggest trends, and HGTV has a tutorial on how to set a tie-dye Hanukkah tablescape, complete with napkins, a runner and candles.

Sukkot: Jews gather beneath sukkahs for the Feast of Booths

sukkah for Sukkot

A sukkah, decorated for Sukkot. Photo by Shawn Anderson, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET SUNDAY, OCTOBER 9: Jewish families around the world spend time in temporary outdoor shelters to celebrate the ancient harvest festival: Sukkot. Following the Jewish High Holidays each year, Jews enter a joyous “Season of our Rejoicing.”

The tradition calls on Jews to construct and dwell in temporary structures, called sukkahs, in memory of the ancient Israelites’ living quarters during their 40 years in the desert. Agriculturally, Sukkot is a harvest festival and, as such, many sukkahs are decorated with autumn crops. In the U.S., it is not uncommon to see sukkahs decorated with gourds, pumpkins, squash and other foods associated with fall. Traditionally, work is halted on the first and second days of Sukkot, with the days in between being reserved for relaxation (though work is permitted on these days).


Though sukkahs may look vastly different, the builders try to abide by specific rules. A sukkah must have at least 2.5 walls covered with a material that cannot be blown away by wind; the roof must be made of something that grew from the ground and was cut off, such as tree branches, corn stalks or wooden boards. The roof materials of a sukkah must be left loose, so that rain can get in and, preferably, the stars can be seen at nighttime. (Learn more from Judaism 101.) A sukkah may be any size so long as a family can dwell in it, and many Jews spend as much time as possible in the sukkah. It is common to eat meals in the sukkah, and some Jews even choose to sleep in it.

NEWS: The Winnipeg Free Press examines Sukkot today, focusing on “Sukkot in a Global Context.” Read more here.

Another custom associated with Sukkot involves the Four Species. The four species—the etrog (a citrus fruit native to Israel), the lulav (palm branch), aravot (two willow branches) and hadassim (three myrtle branches) are used to “rejoice before the L_rd.” With the etrog in one hand and the branches bound together in the other hand, blessings are recited. The branches are waved in all directions, to symbolize that G_d is everywhere.

Looking for autumn recipes, tips on building a sukkah and more? Check out the resources at My Jewish Learning, and 

Rabbi Lenore Bohm reflects on Yom Kippur

Illustration generated by AI via DALL-E 2

We’ve been thoughtfully preparing for this day.

Author of Torah Tutor

On the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, we read the section in the Torah in which Moses prepares to die. In many ways, Yom Kippur prompts us to ask the same questions that we imagine Moses might have asked as his life drew to a close. But in addition to retrospection, we engage in introspection: not only what did we do, but why did we do it? Have our choices served us well? The gift of this moment, this day, this year, this life: Have we served it well?

The questions that permeate end-of-life reflection are rehearsed (pre-hearsed) at the end of each year. The High Holy Days mean so much because they give us time to consider which experiences brought us joy and satisfaction and which found us despairing and sorrowful. Were there transformative moments that left us inspired, or did we become more callous and cynical, quashing others’ gentleness of spirit or our own openness of heart? We assess whether our characters were strengthened this year or our senses dulled. Whom did we embrace?  Whom did we shun?

Regret and remorse may have their place, but they are not the essence of the season. Rather, we strive to look at life with fresh eyes and trust that the new year will grant us opportunity to renew our purpose, hope and belief.

Zora Neale Hurston wrote in Their Eyes Were Watching God: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer them.” Yom Kippur is designed to generate questions, and, if providence allows, the year unfolding will reveal some answers.

Yom Kippur Questions for Reflection

During the past year, have my relationships deepened or become more transactional?

When responding to others, has abundance or scarcity been my starting point?

When challenged, have I been reflective or reactive?

Have I trusted myself and invested in my growth?

Have I been careful with the earth’s resources?

Have I spoken out in the face of injustice?

Many of these questions focus on self; some focus on others. This is the season of gauging intentions and assessing obligations. How do I balance my duties to myself and to others? In the rest of the year, I make excuses for my shortcomings. In the rest of the year, I try to save face.

On Yom Kippur, can I be less defensive?

Yom Kippur in Australia?

In the late 1990s, I spent two wonderful years working with Beit Shalom, a small congregation in Adelaide, South Australia. In the southern hemisphere, of course, the High Holy Days occur at the beginning of spring. This seasonal difference allowed me a different experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: lengthening, not diminishing days; warmer, not cooler temperatures; flowering, not withering plants; more, not less physical activity. All these aspects of springtime Holy Days provided me with a less obvious impetus for introspection, but a more visceral connection to themes of renewal and growth.

In the northern hemisphere, the Holy Days coincide with the beginning of the school year and a return to schedules and routines. It always seemed fitting to celebrate the Jewish New Year  when the academic year and other serious undertakings were commencing.  It also made intuitive sense to think “deeper” thoughts in September and October which coincided with more time spent indoors reading and studying, and with the physical and psychological preparation necessary for the more demanding winter months.

I had to completely reorient myself to welcoming the New Year with more sunshine, brighter colors and longer days. I had to make a real effort—a worthwhile effort as it turned out—to think about the year coming to a close, and to reflect on ways to appreciate the holidays in a variant context.

It was not difficult, it was revelatory. I experienced the warming sun as God’s loving embrace of the world and me, imperfect and struggling though we were. I saw the buds expanding as an unlikely act of grace—small and constricted sprouts blooming into colorful and distinctive flowers.

Growth and possibility! Potential and transformation!

The welcoming feel of spring with its youthful ambiance: this is also the message of the Holy Days – to invest in the world’s and one’s own revival; maturation and blossoming despite fear, loss, and disappointment. To feel new and newly minted, to believe that change, new life, beginnings and growth are possible: this is also what the Holy Days are about.

The High Holy Days might best be appreciated in the context of both seasons, spring and fall.

May your Holy Day season, your year and your life be filled with thoughtful reflection and constant renewal.



For more on Rabbi Lenore Bohm …

VISIT RABBI LENORE’S RESOURCE PAGE: Go to to find more information about her ongoing work and her new book.

YOU MAY ALSO ENJOY her column about Rosh Hashanah this year.

Order a copy of her new book from Amazon.










Yom Kippur: Synagogues fill with the faithful each year

Yom Kippur students

Breaking the Yom Kippur fast in Texas, 2019. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET TUESDAY, OCTOBER 4: From the hope-filled celebration of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish families move to the solemn observance of what often is called the holiest day in the calendar: Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Most Jews aged 13 and older try to complete a 25-hour fast with nothing passing the lips—no liquids or foods of any kind.

Between the two major holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—a period sometimes called the Days of Awe—Jews reflect on the past year and make amends for their failings. They look toward the balance of the new year (which is only 10 days old on Yom Kippur) and pray that God will renew their spirits and guide them in good ways.


Visit any Jewish house of worship and you will see ways that the main seating area can be expanded on special occasions. On Yom Kippur, all overflow seating areas are opened so that everyone in the Jewish community can show up for at least part of the long series of services.

Services open with Kol Nidre, a deeply emotional moment when the larger Jewish community gathers, amends are made, and the community symbolically opens itself to regular attendees as well as others who rarely come to services. There is a long and complex history to the traditions of Kol Nidre, but overall, it represents a fresh resetting of commitments and promises within the community.

The rest of the Yom Kippur litugy also has beautiful moments that encourage repentance, recommitment to the faith’s ideals and remembrance of the core story that has led the Jewish people through thousands of years of challenges. Rabbis typically spend a great deal of time preparing their Yom Kippur sermons, recognizing that they are preaching to many men and women who only hear them on Yom Kippur.

While this holy day often is described as somber—Rabbi Lenore Bohm makes it clear that this holy day is not intended to dwell on suffering and sadness. On the contrary, she writes in her holiday column, “Regret and remorse may have their place, but they are not the essence of the season. Rather, we strive to look at life with fresh eyes and trust that the new year will grant us opportunity to renew our purpose, hope and belief.”

Rosh Hashanah: Happy (Jewish) New Year 5783!

rosh hashanah shofar

Blowing the shofar for Rosh Hashanah. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 25: Rich dishes made with honey, paired with blasts from the shofar, mean it’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year—and it’s also the start of the High Holidays.

Do you know someone who is Jewish? Wish him or her L’shanah tovah—“For a good year!”

On the first and second days of the Jewish month of Tishri, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated by Jews around the world. In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means “head of the year,” or “first of the year,” and many Jews use this period of time to make resolutions and commitments for self-improvement.

Compared with secular New Year celebrations, writes Rabbi Lenore Bohm in this inspiring reflection on the holiday, “the Jewish New Year, while joyful, is spiritual, thoughtful, and reflective.  We try to remember, not forget.  We visit the graves of loved ones. We look for opportunities to be especially generous and charitable. We gather with close friends and family for delicious, home-cooked meals.  We express hope that we have grown in the year gone by.” (You’ll also enjoy the list of holiday questions Rabbi Bohm lists at the end of her column, which all of us—whatever our faith—would benefit from asking.)

On Rosh Hashanah, work is not permitted and many more traditional adherents spend the day in the synagogue. The shofar, a ram’s horn blown like a trumpet, is one of the holiday’s most famous symbols—but Rosh Hoshanah also comes with special readings and prayers for a good new year.


rosh hashanah apple honey

An apple and honey, fare for Rosh Hashanah. Photo by Vladimir Gladkov, courtesy of Pexels

Of the sweet foods consumed on Rosh Hashanah, none is more popular than honey. Jerusalem, biblically referred to as “the land of milk and honey,” is yet another reason to eat honey on this special holiday. Jewish families like to serve apples or bread dipped in honey, or create dishes that incorporate these ingredients.

What are the High Holidays? Sometimes referred to as “High Holidays,” or “High Holy Days,” this is the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and usually the phrase includes the 10 days in between. 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.”


Fifteen traditions: Reader’s Digest reported 15 must-observe traditions for Rosh Hashanah this year.

Want to make a perfect brisket? It’s a holiday favorite in many Jewish homes, and FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis (with guest writer Debbi Eber) tackles the tips and techniques for a perfect brisket dinner.

Sweet recipes: Looking to bake up something sweet and scrumptious this Rosh Hashanah? Try the Huffington Post’s 21 recipes with honey and apples; or’s granola baked apples. For an entire menu of Rosh Hashanah recipes, check out AllRecipes, Epicurious, Food Network and Martha Stewart.

Reflecting on our lives as Elul prepares us for New Year 5783

Illustration generated by AI via DALL-E 2


Author of Torah Tutor

EVENING OF FRIDAY, AUGUST 26—My favorite Hebrew month is about to begin. It is  called Elul and it leads up to the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

I love Elul because it is all about reflection and discernment: How has the past year impacted me? Is my heart more open or closed? Are my boundaries more elastic or rigid? Have my relationships become more transactional or have they deepened? Have I laughed and embraced more or less frequently this year? Has abundance or scarcity been my starting point in my quest to be a generous person?

The list of questions goes on and I love them all. They release me from the accrued pettiness of the year coming to an end.

Elul reveals not what we want but what we need: spiritual grounding. Elul invites us to take seriously that obscure feeling of something lacking, of something being amiss. Elul suggests we name and place front and center the desire to be at home in our selves and in our lives.  Slow down, Elul begs; what is the goal, the finish line you are striving so hard to reach?

Here is the crux of the matter as articulated in The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), a prolific British writer on mysticism and spiritual growth:

“We mostly spend our lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have and to Do. Craving, clutching, and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual–even on the religious–plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest … But when we widen our horizon … a new coherence comes into our existence, a new tranquility and release.”

Elul is about widening our horizons and releasing our dis-eases and our mis-takes.

Each morning of Elul, we hear the sound (the cry) of the shofar. It is supposed to serve as a wake-up call to stir us out of our reverie and apathy. How have I grown complacent? What duties have I neglected? Can I reconcile my behavior with my values?

The idea isn’t to feel guilt or shame. It’s to promote self-awareness and renewal. If I want this year to be different, will I choose to be different? Free will is at the heart of the High Holy Day enterprise. I can choose to speak more, to chatter less, to (for)give more, to withhold less, to reveal more than revile, to be less certain, less judgmental, to open more widely my heart, my mind, my hands, my eyes, my doors.

Along with hearing the shofar, another custom of Elul is to recite Psalm 27 morning and evening. Psalm 27 is an interesting choice (made apparently in the 1700s) to accompany Elul.  It is not a paean to God’s forgiving nature or love of humanity.  The psalm does not demonstrate singular and unbending faith on the part of the author. To the contrary: Psalm 27 is full of uncertainty and apprehension. The psalmist hopes God will respond, but there is no conviction.

Why would this psalm be chosen to accompany Elul, a month preoccupied with preparation and self-accounting (called “cheshbon hanefesh”)?

I think this choice speaks to an appreciation of honesty as the linchpin of this month’s self-assessment. Not pretend piety or sanctimony, but truth-telling. Have I or haven’t I? Did I or didn’t I?

I love Elul because pretending makes me uneasy. Not that I don’t to it, but I’m always regretful when I do, and Elul won’t let me get away with it. The early spring holiday of Purim invites us to mask ourselves and to engage in parody. Elul, some six months later, incentivizes unmasking and frank, unpretentious confrontation of self.

Returning to this season is like letting go of a tightly held breath.

I release it and it releases me.



Meet Rabbi Lenore Bohm …

VISIT RABBI LENORE’S RESOURCE PAGE: Go to to find more information about her ongoing work and her new book.

Rabbi Lenore Bohm began her career among the first wave of women ever ordained as rabbis. Drawing on a lifetime of teaching the Torah to groups of adults, Bohm divides her book into the 54 portions read each year from the Torah, which are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. This is a perfect book for individual reading or small group discussion.

Order a copy of her new book from Amazon.