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!

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.”

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.

The Three Weeks: Jews enter period of mourning for Temples, history

Temple Jerusalem model

A model of the temple in Jerusalem. Photo by gkadey, courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET SATURDAY, JULY 20: A solemn period—including a time of fasting—begins for Jews around the world tonight, in a tradition known as “the Three Weeks.” Beginning on the 17th of the month of Tammuz and ending on Tisha B’Av, Jews lament the destruction of the First and Second Temples and the historical misfortunes of the Jewish people. Each day is met with a higher degree of lamentation than the last (with the exception of Shabbat). There is also great hope, however, in this time of sadness: As the past and present are examined, Jews look to the future.

During the Three Weeks, observant Jews refrain from holding weddings, listening to music, celebrating in public, embarking on trips, having hair cut or shaved, and wearing new clothing. Learn more from Aish.com. A fast is undertaken on the 17th of Tammuz and on the Ninth of Av. (For guides, stories, multimedia and more, visit Chabad.org.) The period is known as “within the straits,” from the Book of Lamentations.

According to traditional texts: The Three Weeks encompasses the days when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans and both Temples were destroyed. The holy Temple that had stood in Jerusalem for 830 years was destroyed. This is also a period when Jews recall Moses breaking the original Ten Commandments.

During this three-week period, Jews try to increase good deeds and charitable works, while intensifying Torah study.

Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut: Jews mark memorial, independence days

Young people lined up on stage, outdoors, with blue banners and Israeli flags on building behind stage

A ceremony for Yom HaZikaron, Ramla, Israel. Photo by U.S. Embassy Jerusalem, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET TUESDAY, MAY 7 and SUNSET WEDNESDAY, MAY 8: Commemorations in Israel begin at sunset on Tuesday, May 7, this year, for Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. In the Israeli calendar, Memorial Day (or Yom HaZikaron) is followed by the celebration of Independence Day (or Yom Ha’atzmaut), as a way to begin the celebration of freedom with a day-long solemn remembrance of the cost of that freedom. In the Jewish calendar, these days traditionally fall on the 4th and 5th days of lyar, the eighth month of the year.

Israel gained its independence in 1948, and an elaborate ceremony occurs each year on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. During this ceremony, members of the Israeli Parliament speak, dramatic presentations celebrate the nation’s history and soldiers march with the flag of Israel while creating formations like a Menorah. Traditionally, 12 torches are lit to represent the 12 tribes of Israel.

NEWS: Jewish communities worldwide mark Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. This article, from the Jewish Journal, highlights a variety of related events taking place in Florida this year.

During the day, many Jewish families celebrate similarly to the American Independence Day, with picnics, family gatherings and a generally festive air. (My Jewish Learning details some of the customs associated with Yom Ha’atzmaut.) In many areas, Israeli folk dances are organized in the streets at night.

READINGS

An Israeli government website now provides an inspiring list of readings for individuals and families marking these observances. Some are widely known and used, but—even if you regularly mark these occasions—you may find some interesting texts here that you haven’t seen before.

Here is the Israeli selection of readings for Remembrance Day.

And, here is the list of readings for Independence Day.

Passover: Jewish families worldwide gather for the Seder and a joyous festival

Note: The morning of April 19 in 2019 begins the Fast of the Firstborn, in which observant firstborn sons fast to commemorate the salvation of firstborns in ancient Egypt.

Table set with food items, fancy and plates

A table set for the Passover Seder. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET FRIDAY, APRIL 19: The intensive search for chametz is over, and tonight, Jews begin the joyous festival of Passover—the most widely observed of all Jewish traditions. After weeks of painstakingly ridding their homes of chametzany grain product associated with fermentation—Jews join family and friends for a Passover Seder (ritual meal). It’s the 15th day of Nisan in the Jewish calendar, and tonight, the seven- or eight-day festival of Passover begins, commemorating the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. (Jews in Israel observe Passover for seven days, and Jews of the Diaspora observe eight.)

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. 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 a recitation of the Haggadah.

Did you know? In Jewish families, young and old get involved in cleaning out the chametz as a way of remembering this key part of the 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 common element on Seder tables.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. The omer, a unit of measure, is used to count the days from Passover to Shavuot.

MATZO: THE 18-MINUTE CHALLENGE

Bowl of matzo soup on wood table

Matzo ball soup, common fare for Passover. Photo by Amy Ross, courtesy of Flickr

Baking matzo is no easy feat: 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.

Many Jewish families switch to different dishes, eating utensils and cooking equipment to avoid any contact with traces of foods containing chametz. Chametz is defined as anything involving biological leavening, which includes simply wetting grains and letting them stand for more than 18 minutes. Five grains, in particular, are identified: wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats.

THE SEDER

The Seder includes many steps and lasts for hours. (Stressing over the pressure of hosting a Seder? Take some advice from a cookbook veteran in this article from the Washington Post. Or, try a Passover app.) All adults present at the Seder are required to drink a total of four cups of wine during the Passover Seder, and further, the Mishnah commands that even the poorest man in Israel has an obligation to drink. Interspersed throughout prayer and stories are the breaking of matzah (unleavened) bread; the washing of the hands; the eating of the symbolic elements on the Seder plate; and, of course, the eating of the holiday meal itself. The whole evening ends with a joint exclamation: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

For the next seven days—or eight, in the Diaspora—Jews will partake of no chametz at any meal. Jews commonly enjoy foods such as potato starch cakes, Gelfite fish, chicken soup with matzah balls and generous amounts of egg.

SEDERS, THE LAST SUPPER—AND A COMMON LINK

Christians teach that Jesus’s final journey to Jerusalem was to observe Passover, forever linking the two sacred seasons. Yet while biblical scholars disagree on whether Jesus’s Last Supper was an actual Seder, “Christianized” Seders are widespread at this time of year—and the practice appears to be growing among evangelicals. Sometimes called “baptized” or “Messianic” seders, the traditional Jewish ritual is changed to turn the meal into a remembrance of Jesus’s Last Supper.

This practice has always been controversial in interfaith settings, though, and Jewish leaders note that the practice distorts their traditions. That’s why the world’s largest Christian church, the Catholic church, forbids its parishes to Christianize the Seder. Instead, Catholic leaders encourage their billion-plus followers to visit authentic Seders—or to invite a rabbi to lead a model Seder to demonstrate the ritual for Christians. Catholic bishops say that “the primary reason why Christians may celebrate the festival of Passover should be to acknowledge common roots in the history of salvation. Any sense of restaging the Last Supper of the Lord Jesus should be avoided.” Many Jewish leaders welcome this approach to sharing their traditional meal.

Invited to a Jewish Passover Seder? The proper greeting is “Happy Passover” or “Happy holiday,” which in Hebrew is “Chag samayach” (hahg sah-MAY-ahk). A Seder plate will be located on most Seder tables, on which are symbols of various aspects of the Passover story. A Haggadah (hah-GAH-dah), a text in Hebrew and English that tells the Passover story and its meaning for each generation, is read during the meal. There are hundreds of different versions of the Haggadah, with many focusing on different elements of the holiday or interpreting it from a particular perspective, such as feminism or ecology. Learn more at ReadTheSpirit’s helpful resource, Ask an expert what to do at a Passover Seder.

Looking for interactive resources, stories, recipes and hosting ideas for Passover? Check out ReadTheSpirit’s own Feed The Spirit column for a recipe for homemade matzoh balls, or visit Chabad.org, the Jewish Virtual Library, Aish.com and Wikipedia.

Care to read more?

Over the past decade our online magazine has published more than 100 Passover-themed stories, and we can heartily recommend some of our most popular holiday reading:

Debra Darvick shares Passover reflections from her popular book, This Jewish Life.

Our Feed The Spirit columns, over the years, have published delicious Passover stories—and some tasty recipes. Here’s a story that includes a vegetable Kugel you can make at home. And here’s a column with a great recipe for potato gnocchi, because that preparation can be made kosher for Passover.

Fanny Neuda’s Passover prayer was written more than 150 years ago and was recovered by poet Dinah Berland—and Dinah gave us her permission to publish that prayer 10 years ago! Since we first published that text, thousands of readers around the world have read that prayer in our pages.

Rabbi Bob Alper also is famous coast to coast as the rabbi who does clean standup routines—and often has appeared on stage with comedians who are Christian and Muslim to promote interfaith understanding. Bob has written many stories and two books for us over the past decade. Here’s one of our most popular Bob Alper columns about the stories he tells in Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This.

Tu B’Shevat: Honor sustainable agriculture and trees for Jewish New Year

Grove of trees from above

Fruit trees in Israel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10: It’s a New Year for Trees!

Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, falls on the 15th day of the month of Shevat. This year, it begins on Friday evening, February 10. An ancient commemoration of the start of the agricultural year, Tu B’Shevat is one of four annual Jewish New Years.

Why record the age of trees? In centuries past, farmers would mark the age of their trees in order to calculate their eligibility for fruit harvest and tithing. According to Leviticus 19:23-25, a tree’s fruit may only be eaten after its fifth year: in the first three years the fruit is forbidden, and in the fourth year, the fruit must be set apart for God. When the State of Israel was reestablished, in 1948, interest in the ancient festival surged. Jewish people were farmers, once again, and the fruits of the land of Israel were celebrated.

THE TU B’SHEVAT SEDER

Today, the TuBishvat seder is observed in many Jewish households and synagogues. Many partake in the fruits and nuts of Israel, while reflecting on the need for sustainable agriculture. It is recognized that man depends upon the fruits of agriculture.

Did you know? Tu Bishvat is also called “Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot.”

In recent years, the Tu Bishvat seder has become a popular custom, and many synagogues hold one; it’s an opportunity to eat fruits, nuts and other produce of Israel; to consider the miraculous process by which we sustain our own lives by eating agricultural products; and to explore our responsibility to sustainable agriculture and the planet that feeds us.