Jewish Holidays and Practices
A Guide for Newcomers
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Basic Holiday Info
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Think Pieces and Sermons
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Food. Friends. Family. These seem to be the ingredients of a joyous holiday celebration. Like so many of the Jewish holidays, Sukkot epitomizes the value of hakhnasat orchim (the welcoming of visitors). Various programs encourage hospitality in the sukkah. Even the mystics have a say in the practice of ushpizin, where those who live in the past are invited into the present. Some even say that the sukkah itself helps to concentrate their spiritual energy. As a result, when we invite them into our midst, we get the opportunity to share in the energy, as well.
Perhaps the practice of ushpizin is also our way of acknowledging the role that our ancestors continue to play in our lives and our hope that the values that they taught and represented continue to live on through the lives we lead. Just as the Talmud suggests that when we teach something that we learned from someone else (bâ€™shem amro), we imagine his/her face in front of us, the ancestors who taught us certain important values are with us as we act on those values and welcome the strangersâ€”the visitorsâ€”in our community.
To the traditional characters of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David (which emerge from the Zohar text [5:103b]), feminists have added additional visitors such as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Perhaps we can add to the list: Mosesâ€™ wife Zipporah (â€śthe local ministerâ€™s daughterâ€ť); Ruth (the Moabite woman who cast her lot with the Jewish people); and Esther (whose interfaith marriage led to the saving of the Jewish community of ancient Persia). And donâ€™t forget Asnat, Josephâ€™s Egyptian wife whose children Efraim and Manasseh were accepted by their grandfather Jacob as his own and in whose names Jewish boys are blessed by their parents each Shabbat.
Because the Torah portion designated for Sukkot this Shabbat comes from Leviticus, we are forced to wade through sacrificial details. We are taught that the ancient sacrificial system was designed to bring us closer to Gd. And although the system doesnâ€™t exist any longer, our longing to come closer to Gd is not diminished. In this Torah portion, various details concerning the priestâ€™s role and the consecrated sacrifice are described. In Lev. 22:18, Gd directs Moses and acknowledges the role of the stranger in our midst who brings a sacrifice, who too wants to develop a relationship with Gd as a member of the ancient Israelite community. Just as the community has made room for the stranger in its midst, the priest must accommodate the strangerâ€™s sacrifice as well. It is no less acceptable to Gd.
So if these are all of our models, and these are the values that they represent, then we need to make sure that one thing is clear: All are welcome to dwell in the sukkah, whether it represents the thatched hut in our backyards or the entire Jewish community.
Note: This sermon by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky was first delivered at a synagogue on Yom Kippur 2000/5761:
As I look around this crowded sanctuary, seeing people who frequent this holy space only on occasion, I am always intrigued, wondering what motivates the infrequent shul goer to come to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. And certainly after a long day in services, what motivates that person to come back the following year. This is not merely a question that I ask of you. Nor am I trying to be critical or judgmental. Even as I articulate the question, I know that I am asking aloud the same question that I ask myself each year. What is it that motivates us to come here?
Is it guilt that brings us here? Is it habit? Is it the desire to be with family and friends? Even for those who come late or leave early, there is something special, something â€śother,â€ť something holy that bids us to draw close to this place. It is certainly not the spiritually imposed â€śquick loss weight planâ€ť! Maybe it is simply to hear the stirring strains of Kol Nidre at the beginning of the holiday or perhaps it is the blast of the shofar that marks its successful conclusion, successful, that is, because we are still here to listen to itâ€”something that, in itself, offers us pause.
We get dressed up. We make arrangements, we make plans. We juggle our busy schedules and struggle to fit our obligations into the remaining days of the week. Then we rush to the synagogue, dodging the cars that line the street and overflow the parking lot. But it is the one time of year in the Jewish calendar that seems to me to be rather counter-intuitive. Think about it: We spend a lot of time planning for something that we just donâ€™t look forward to doing.
Let me explain. I am afraid of this day. I am scared of it. Petrified, terrified. And it is this fear that tells me to stay away from the synagogue while at the same time forcefully draws me near to it. Where else should I go when I am so frightened? As I read and re-read each line of the liturgy, hanging onto one word or idea, often falling behind while the cantor and the rabbi rush forward to make sure that they get everything in, I am filled with dread. I am overwhelmed by the profound depth of the experience that I fear is missed by many. The words sear my soul. They become stones that weigh my soul down heavily. I become broken upon reading them, worrying that they were written specifically for me: â€śWho will die this year? Who by fire and who by water?â€ť
And if I close my eyes, which I dare not do, I can see the fluttering wings of the angel of death, the malach hamavet, hovering close by, waiting, just waiting to hear what takes place inside this sacred precinct. I know because she has come close to our family before and it took all the strength we could muster to force her away. She left unfulfilled but I know, she waits at the door, lurking mischievously for the opportunity to pounce on someone more deserving.
I am frightened because I know that she will have the opportunity to visit someone, somewhere, someplace before we will all come together again next year.
Time flies! Tonight we enjoy another milestone along the road of life, the beginning of a new year on the Jewish calendar. 5768 already?!
Way back in 5762 (or 2002 on the Gregorian calendar), JOI issued a newsletter containing “A Brief Introduction to the High Holidays” that some may find helpful to peruse at this time of year:
Literally translated as “head of the year,” Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a holiday when self-reflection and repentance counterbalance celebration….
According to traditional imagery, it is at this time that God as king and judge inscribes our names in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death for the coming year. Naturally, we don’t expect that the all-knowing creator of the universe has to actually write things down to remember them! But it’s a useful allegory: if this is our last year (and it certainly could be), are we satisfied with the lives we’ve led? If we could get a reprieve, what would we have to do in order to fix the wrongs we’ve committed, against ourselves and others?
We hope that you find these resources useful, and we wish all of JOI’s friends and family a very sweet and joyous New Year.
In the traditional Torah portion selection for the first day of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), Hagar and her son Ishmael are pushed out of Abrahamâ€™s tent and sent into exile. This is the memory that their ancestors carry with them throughout the generations. It is this burden of memory that we carry with us, as well. After all, all peoples have history; it is our memory that makes us unique as a people.
Unfortunately, this pattern of â€śpushing awayâ€ť has not been broken. We canâ€™t continue to push away with one hand and then reach out with the other (as Abraham and Sarah were also known for their hospitality). This is especially true in the case of interfaith families. Imagine what the world would be like today had Abraham not sent Hagar and Ishmael out on their own. Imagine what our communities would be like had we not sent out those of our children who had intermarried out on their own.
Regardless of the exact percentage of intermarried families raising Jewish children, we can still do better. Most are raising their children in what I like to call â€śAmerican Civil Religionâ€ť even when it does come with a smattering of holidays, irrespective of the religious tradition from which those holidays arise. Perhaps it is because our institutions are not readily open to themâ€”and when they are, it is only on our termsâ€”that they have chosen not to raise Jewish children.
Letâ€™s rein in our inner Abraham, the one that forced out Hagar and Ishmael. Tell them not to get on that horse. Tell them to stay awhile in our tent where they are welcome.
As a fan of the Food Network, I particularly enjoy their â€śFood Network Challengeâ€ť program where amateur and professional chefs go head-to-head in a competition to create the best new burger, Disney Princess cake, mac and cheese…you get the point. In the tradition of the â€śFood Network Challengeâ€ť and great cook-offs everywhere, Manischewitz has launched its Second Annual Simply Manischewitz Cook-Off.
The cook-off contest is timed to coincide with the High Holidays (submissions are due by September 21) and is part of Manischewitzâ€™s campaign to make their brand of kosher food more accessible to all shoppers, whether or not they keep kosher. The contestâ€™s website is easily accessible to newcomers, and since contest entries must be kosher, explains exactly what that means.
The Manischewitz brand, which has an infamous reputation for overly sweet kosher wine, is using this contest to show the North American public that kosher and Manischewitz are synonymous with delicious. Maybe it is time for the Jewish community to take a cue from Manischewitz and make its programs more enticing and accessible to newcomers. How can the Jewish community take advantage of secular pursuits, such as cooking, and partnerships when planning programming? I look forward to the day when I tune into the Food Network to watch â€śFood Network Challenge: Matzah Balls!â€ť