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).

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.) 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, Chabad.org and Aish.com. 

Rabbi Lenore Bohm reflects on Yom Kippur

Illustration generated by AI via DALL-E 2

We’ve been thoughtfully preparing for this day.

By RABBI LENORE BOHM
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.

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For more on Rabbi Lenore Bohm …

VISIT RABBI LENORE’S RESOURCE PAGE: Go to TorahTutorBook.com 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.

YOM KIPPUR: THE HOLIEST DAY

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.”

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

Illustration generated by AI via DALL-E 2

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By RABBI LENORE BOHM
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.

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Meet Rabbi Lenore Bohm …

VISIT RABBI LENORE’S RESOURCE PAGE: Go to TorahTutorBook.com 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.

 

 

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.