Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah: At home, Jews prepare feasts, sing and dance

Torah scroll opened

A Torah scroll. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET FRIDAY, OCTOBER 9 and SUNSET SATURDAY, OCTOBER 10: The days of eating (and, for some families, sleeping) in the sukkah are coming to a close for many Jews, although some extend eating in the sukkah just one more day during this time, as all Jews celebrate Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. For Jews in Israel, these two holidays combine into one day; for Jews of the Diaspora, Shemini Atzeret is followed by Simchat Torah by one day.

Celebrating at home in 2020: As Jews around the world look for ways to mark these holidays at home this year, Chabad.org offers 10 tips for “an Amazing Simchat Torah @ Home.” Among their tips: prepare festive feasts, craft flags, parade around with a Chumash and get a head start on the year.

Traditionally, Jews begin praying for rain on Shemini Atzeret. The rainy season in Israel begins soon, and for agricultural purposes, the Musaf Amidah prayer is recited, for rain, on Shemini Atzeret.

Great happiness continues on Simchat Torah. Most years, synagogues around the world  hold processions that are followed by joyful dancing and singing. Torah scrolls are carried through the aisles, and even children join in by carrying toy or paper versions of the scrolls, making their way around the building in a series of seven circuits (hakafot). The primary celebration of Simchat Torah begins in the evening, when (traditionally), the ark is opened: congregation members sing and dance, and in many regions, the singing and dancing is taken to the streets and lasts many hours.

FOR MORE ON THESE HOLIDAYS: Enjoy this introduction by Debra Darvick, author of This Jewish Life.

Tisha B’Av: Jews practice safe fasting, more, on year’s saddest day

Western Wall prayer Tisha B'Av

A Jewish man at the Western Wall, the sole remaining portion of the Second Temple. Photo courtesy of PxHere

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, JULY 29: Three weeks of reflection prepare men and women for this, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar: the Ninth of Av, known as Tisha B’Av. (In 2020, The Three Weeks began on July 9.) Observant Jews who are healthy enough to undertake the 25-hour fast will follow five traditional prohibitions: No eating or drinking; no bathing; no use of creams or oils; no leather shoes; no marital relations. The final meal consumed before the start of the Tisha B’Av fast traditionally consists of a hard boiled egg and a piece of bread, dipped into ashes.

2020 update: This year, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the rituals and traditions of many religious and secular holidays. According to this article from the Times of Israel, there may be extra exceptions this year in regards to fasting for Tisha B’Av.

The desolate tone of Tisha B’Av is in recollection of the tragedies that befell the Jewish people on the Ninth of Av—including, most prominently, the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The ark—the cabinet where the Torah is kept, in the synagogue—is draped in black; the book of Lamentations may be read.

MOURNING AND GRIEF: ACROSS THE MILLENNIA

Today, the observance of Tisha B’Av gets mixed response, as modern-day Jewish families balance the demands of contemporary life with this call from the past.

Author Debra Darvick wrote in a column: “Tisha B’Av, a Jewish day of mourning that falls during the summer, marks the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. … I have attended services sporadically, more out of a sense of responsibility than any feeling of true mourning. How do I mourn something absent from Jewish experience for nearly two millennia?” (Debra also wrote about the holiday for her book, This Jewish Life.)

9 AV: FROM THE FIRST TEMPLE TO THE FINAL SOLUTION

Historically, the First Temple was destroyed on 9 Av 586 BCE; the Second, on 9 Av 70 CE. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians; the Second Temple, by the Romans. According to Jewish tradition, 9 Av is associated with other tragic milestones, as well, which have been added to this annual day of remembrance.

Also on 9 Av: The Romans quashed Bar Kokhba’s revolt and destroyed the city of Betar, killing more than 500,000 Jewish civilians; Jews were expelled from England in 1290 CE; Germany entered World War I, the aftermath of which led to the Holocaust; and SS commander Himmler formally received approval from the Nazi Party for “The Final Solution.”

Passover: Jews prepare seders for a Pesach ‘different from all other nights’

Passover seder table

A table set for a Passover seder. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, APRIL 8: Tonight, Jews begin the joyous festival of Passoverthe most widely observed of all Jewish traditions. Yet while families traditionally observe the first night of Passover with family and friends over a seder, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing Jews to celebrate differently this year.

PASSOVER AMID THE 2020 PANDEMIC

Each Passover, Jews around the world ask the same question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This year that question will be answered in a unique way, as social distancing and “shelter in place” restrictions are causing seders to be more simple, basic and small. In a positive light, this situation in some ways relates to the first Passover, as was written recently 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.”

Are virtual seders permitted during this year, during the world’s pandemic? Well—yes and no. In Orthodox practice, the use of electronic devices is forbidden on yom tov, or religious holidays, yet many rabbis are granting permission for this year’s Passover. In Israel, a group of Sephardic Orthodox rabbis issued a letter that approved videoconferencing programs for this year, but several Orthodox rabbis are opposing this, saying that the answer to this question is still “no.” Branches within Judaism vary opinion on this issue, but to learn more, check out this article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency or this story in the Jerusalem Post. 

Leaders of six major Orthodox organization released a joint statement asking Jews to limit preparations for Passover to only essentials, and to limit rituals such as getting haircuts and purchasing new clothing. Read more in the Jewish News Syndicate.

Some Passover tasks are encouraged this year—such as thorough cleaning—while others, such as shopping for specific menu items in overcrowded stores, are discouraged. Fox News interviewed a rabbi and has the story.

Many Jews will share a seder over Zoom or other video-chat services, and while traditional meal preparations cannot be shared, words still can. Read more in the story from Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Get tips on hosting a virtual Passover seder, from USA Today and Forbes.

Hosting a solo seder? Get how-to tips from My Jewish Learning.

Public seders are prohibited in Israel this year, but many mega-seder hosts—such as Colel Chabad, the oldest continuously operating charitable organization in Israel—will instead deliver complete seders and Haggadahs to the needy, homebound and to those in forced isolation. Read this story, and more, at Chabad.org.

The London Beth Din has broken hundreds of years of tradition by telling British Jews that they can use some regular products for Passover this year, in efforts to help struggling or homebound Jewish families who are unable to shop for or find “kosher-for-Passover” items. The religious court published a list of products that can be used this year, instead. Read more at JewishNews.com.

EGYPT, SLAVERY AND CHAMETZ

Matzah ball soup, seder, Passover

A bowl of matzah ball soup for Passover. Photo courtesy of Vandenberg Air Force Base

Tonight begins the seven- or eight-day festival (Jews in Israel observe seven days; Jews of the Diaspora observe eight), as Passover commemorates the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. 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.

 

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.

Did you know? Matzo is made from flour and water that is mixed and baked in 18 minutes. 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 SEDER

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.

Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day: Marking 75 years since Auschwitz Birkenau Liberation

Circular wall of millions of old photos and written info beneath some

The Hall of Names commemorating the millions of Jews killed during the Holocaust, as part of Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, JANUARY 27: Seventy-five years to the day of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, members of the United Nations collectively bow their heads for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. After the horrors of the Holocaust, nations came together in 1945 to form what would become the United Nations—this year, celebrating its 75th anniversary, in October. (Learn more about the 2020 Holocaust Remembrance  from UN.org.)

Did you know? Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Nazi death camp. Soviet troops liberated the camp in 1945.

Member states of the UN have developed educational programs, conducted memorial ceremonies and instituted remembrances over the years. If you follow the UN link above, scroll down on the webpage to learn about a whole series of programs—including exhibits, a panel discussion, a film and a recital—that run through Thursday January 30 in New York.

Pew Research Shows: Education Is Essential

Researchers, educators and historians know that Holocaust Education is a global challenge. In the U.S., more public schools nationwide began including the Holocaust in standard curriculum after a public outcry after a 1978 TV miniseries. Today, most school systems in the U.S. include the subject—however, awareness of this vast genocidal campaign by Nazi Germany varies widely around the world.

In preparation for this year’s Remembrance Day, Pew Research published a January 22 summary of American knowledge about the Holocaust. The report says, in part:

Most U.S. adults know what the Holocaust was and approximately when it happened, but fewer than half can correctly answer multiple-choice questions about the number of Jews who were murdered or the way Adolf Hitler came to power, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

When asked to describe in their own words what the Holocaust was, more than eight-in-ten Americans mention the attempted annihilation of the Jewish people or other related topics, such as concentration or death camps, Hitler, or the Nazis. Seven-in-ten know that the Holocaust happened between 1930 and 1950. And close to two-thirds know that Nazi-created ghettos were parts of a city or town where Jews were forced to live.

Fewer than half of Americans (43%), however, know that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany through a democratic political process. And a similar share (45%) know that approximately 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Nearly three-in-ten Americans say they are not sure how many Jews died during the Holocaust, while one-in-ten overestimate the death toll, and 15% say that 3 million or fewer Jews were killed.

Read the entire Pew report, including charts that provide detailed break-outs of the data.

NOT JUST AN ANNIVERSARY AS DANGER RISES

ON JANUARY 23The New York Times covered The World Holocaust Forum 2020 in Israel, which also marked the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation.

THE DANGER OF RISING ANTI-SEMITISM is the theme of other reports, this week. Forbes magazine reports: “Such education and focus on collective action against antisemitism is crucial as the world witnesses an increase in antisemitic attacks globally.” The Forbes report is headlined: 75 Years After Auschwitz—Collective Action Against Antisemitism Is Still Needed.

The Chicago Tribune published a related story, headlined: As 75th anniversary nears, families affected by Holocaust sound warning as anti-Semitism incidents rise.
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Hanukkah: Menorahs, latkes and dreidels mark Jewish season of light

Nine lit candles on a menorah, close-up from low perspective

A menorah lit for Hanukkah. Photo by saildancer, courtesy of pixabay

SUNSET SUNDAY, DECEMBER 22: The first night of Hanukkah arrives for million Jews worldwide. Although 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 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.

Stack of gifts in white paper with Hanukkah-themed tags, nighttime cityscape outside window in background

Gifts for Hanukkah. Photo by Heather Jessica, courtesy of Flickr

MENORAH IN THE WINDOW; LATKES ON THE TABLE

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.

HANUKKAH: AN AUTHOR’S 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.”

 

Kristallnacht: Remembering ‘The Night of Broken Glass’

Black-and-white photo of broken windows, two people walking by

The night after Kristallnacht. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 9: The sound of broken glass still echoes around the world on November 9, as communities remember the tragic events that took place in 1938 during Kristallnacht.

That is especially true across the U.S. after last year’s murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh just days before this annual memorial. Just two examples from this national conversation are this Religion News Service commentary and this piece in The Washington PostBoth of those were published in late 2018—and similar reflections are showing up this year.

Texas-based educator Deborah Fripp just published a column in The Times of Israel that included these words:

“Why do we need to teach the Holocaust? This week, as we mark the first yahrzeit[1] of the eleven people murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I want to explore this question from a different angle, an angle of hopeful action.

In the aftermath of Pittsburgh, and approaching the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the question of why we need to teach the Holocaust takes on renewed urgency. Antisemitism is not a thing of the past. The stories of the Holocaust suddenly feel less like sad history and more like stark warning: Do not ignore the rising shadow of hate in your community or it may engulf you.”

KRISTALLNACHT: WHAT HAPPENED

Literally “Crystal Night,” Kristallnacht was so called for the shattered glass that covered streets and sidewalks after thousands of Jewish synagogues and buildings were destroyed. Kristallnacht was a coordinated series of attacks by the Nazis in Germany and Austria; German law-enforcement officials were ordered not to intervene during the destruction. Jewish persecution moved into a dramatically public and violent phase, and while their schools, stores, hospitals and places of worship were being destroyed, Jews were beaten in the streets and detained for concentration camps.

The History channel website offers some horrific images of what unfolded in 1938.

Foreign journalists in Germany reported on the events, alerting their respective homelands of the shocking events: For the first time, the public fully understood the alarming intentions of the Nazi regime. International support of pro-Nazi movements declined almost overnight, and many reports compared Kristallnacht to the gruesome pogroms of Imperial Russia.

As was written in The Times of Kristallnacht: No foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenseless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday.

Kristallnacht marked a public turning point in the Nazi regime. The attacks on Jewish neighbors, businesses and houses of worship shocked the world; the Nazi regime’s intentions could no longer be denied. The 1,400 synagogues attacked on Kristallnacht, the 90 Jews murdered that night, and the 30,000 Jews detained for concentration camps foretold of the tragedies to come.

LEADING TO KRISTALLNACHT

In the 1920s, German Jews lived as other citizens: operating businesses, obtaining licenses and having access to education. Yet with the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, things quickly began to change. Hitler immediately introduced anti-Jewish policies and forbade inter-religious marriage. When Jews sought refuge, foreign countries began locking down admissions. In August 1938, residence permits for foreigners were cancelled; thousands of Jews were forced from their homes with nowhere to go, their possessions seized by Nazi authorities. It was with these expulsions that the ground was laid for Kristallnacht.

Among those expelled from Germany was the family of Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jew living in Paris with his uncle. When his family wrote, pleading for help, Grynszpan assassinated German diplomat Ernst vom Rath—stating that his protest had to be heard around the world. The following day, the German government removed Jewish children from public schools and halted Jewish cultural activities and publications. When word of vom Rath’s death reached Hitler, a pogrom was organized—an act that Hitler and his inner circle had been planning already, just awaiting a trigger like the shooting.

Kristallnacht ensued that evening.

Sukkot: Jews’ temporary structures mark ancient harvest festival

sukkah for Sukkot

Eating brunch in a sukkah. Photo by sikeri, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET SUNDAY, OCTOBER 13: Following the Jewish High Holidays each year, Jews enter a joyous “Season of our Rejoicing:” It is time for Sukkot, an ancient harvest festival.

Tradition calls on Jews to construct and then dwell in temporary structures, called sukkahs, during Sukkot, in memory of the ancient Israelites’ living quarters during their 40 years in the desert. As Sukkot is, agriculturally, a harvest festival, 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 reserved for relaxation (though work is permitted on these days).

DIY 101: HOW TO BUILD A SUKKAH

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.)

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

An etrog fruit, one of the Four Species. Photo by Marina, courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

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.

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.

Note: The two days following Sukkot are Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, which celebrate the spiritual aspects of Sukkot and the cyclical public reading of the Torah, respectively.