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Overview of Festivals

 RH

NOW IS THE TIME

The first mitzvah given to the Jewish people (Exodus Chapter 12) is the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh, establishing the beginning of each new month.  This mitzvah is the basis of all Jewish religious life.  How strange that this seemingly innocuous commandment has such an elevated status. Our sages teach us that by sanctifying the New Moon, we sanctify time itself.  We become the masters over time. Time does not have control over us.

In a modern society, with its deadlines, its fast food, its rat race, this mitzvah has more relevance than ever before.  Entrenched within Judaism is the concept of “time out.”  On a weekly basis, on Shabbat, we set aside all worldly matters to concentrate on feeding our souls, on spending time with our families and resting our weary bodies.  Throughout the cycle of the Jewish year we have opportunities to stop, reassess and reflect on our relationship with G-d and with our fellow man.  Each festival has its own unique characteristics, which assist us with our personal growth and discovery.  They also help with the development of national unity and other national qualities.

The Jewish calendar works cyclically in order to continually give us the opportunity to develop these specific traits.  As a person’s circumstances change, so do their needs and their thoughts.  Where once an idea may have seemed irrelevant, when it is viewed in a new context it may become pertinent.  G-d gives us the opportunity to tap into these necessary spiritual tools annually, through the Festivals.  Perhaps it will be this year that we will take the messages imbued within the Festivals and make them our own!

THE JEWISH YEAR

The Jewish year is, in fact, a combination of the lunar and solar cycle.  Even though the months are based on the lunar cycle, the Torah demands that the festivals fall in particular seasons, for example Pesach in the spring.  The seasons are, of course, determined by the solar cycle.  Therefore, we must compensate for the 11day difference between the lunar year and the solar year, so that the festivals fall in the correct season.  To compensate for this difference we add an extra month, Adar II, making a leap year seven times in a nineteen year cycle.  In our current year 5765, we have a leap year!

 

ROSH HASHANAH

Tishrei is called the Month of Giants, Yerach Ha Eitanim, because of the many and awesome festivals that fall in this month, beginning with Rosh Hashanah.

 Date: 1st and 2nd of Tishrei.

  • Names:
  1. Yom HaDin – the Day of Judgment.
  2. Yom HaZikaron – the Day of Remembrance.
  3. Rosh Hashanah – the Head of the Year.
  4. Yom Teruah – the Day of Blowing [the shofar].
  • Historical events:
  1. The creation of man took place on Rosh Hashanah.
  2. Sarah, Rachel and Chana, who had previously been barren, conceived on Rosh Hashanah and later gave birth to Isaac, Joseph and Samuel respectively.
  3. Joseph was released from an Egyptian prison and brought before Pharaoh.  He later became the viceroy of Egypt.
  4. Abraham brought Isaac to the future sight of the Temple to sacrifice him in accordance to G-d’s command. A ram was offered in his stead and it is for this reason that we use a ram’s horn for the mitzvah of shofar.
  • Mitzvoth:
  1. One must hear the sounding of the shofar.
  2. Cessation from work.
  3. Eating festive meals.
  • Customs:
  1. We eat sweet foods, such as apple and honey as an omen for a good and sweet year.
  2. We go to a river on the afternoon of the first day to recite tashlich, during which we symbolically cast away our sins.
  3. One tries not to sleep in the afternoon lest “his mazal (good fortune) also sleeps during that year.”  Furthermore, how can one sleep when the books of life and death are open before the A-mighty?
  4. We greet friends and family on the first night with the traditional prayer that they “be written and sealed for a good year.”
  5. We attempt to examine our deeds, reconcile with those we have wronged and give more charity in preparation for the festival.

THE TEN DAYS OF REPENTANCE

 

  • Date: 1 – 10 Tishrei
  • Includes: Rosh Hashanah, the Fast of Gedaliah, Shabbat Shuvah and Yom Kippur.
  • Purpose: During these ten days repentance is accepted more readily than at any other time of the year.
  • Customs:
  1. We increase and improve our observance of mitzvoth.
  2. We give more charity.
  3. We try to placate and reconcile with those we have upset and harmed.
  4. We improve and enhance our prayer.

 

THE FAST OF GEDALIAH

  • Date: 3 Tishrei, except when it falls on Shabbat, in which case it is postponed to Sunday 4 Tishrei.
  • Length:  Dawn to nightfall.
  • Historical events: Gedaliah ben Achikam, the Jewish governor of Israel appointed by the Babylonians after the destruction of the Temple, was assassinated by a Jewish man named Yishmael ben Netanya on the day after Rosh Hashanah.  His death brought to an end the First Jewish Commonwealth in Israel and the exile of its citizens until the return of Ezra many years later.

 SHABBAT SHUVAH

  • Date: Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
  • Name: The Shabbat of Return.  The name is taken from the Haphtarah wherein the Prophet Hosheah calls on us to return to G-d.
  • Customs: The rabbi delivers a lengthy address dealing with matters of repentance and self-improvement.

 

YOM KIPPUR

  • Date: 10 Tishrei
  • Names: Yom HaKippurim – The Day of Atonements.  The name is in the plural because both the living and the dead receive atonement on Yom Kippur.
  • Historical events: Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the second set of the Ten Commandments after Hashem had forgiven the Nation of Israel for building and worshipping the golden calf.  This date was set for posterity as a day of pardon and forgiveness.  The Mishnah in Taanit says “there were no better days for the Jewish people than the 15th Av and Yom Hakippurim.  On these days the girls of Jerusalem would go out into the fields, wearing borrowed white clothing so as not to embarrass those who did not have, to find suitable husbands.”  The Talmud says that the reason why Yom Kippur was such a joyous day is precisely because it is a day of forgiveness and pardon.
  • Mitzvoth: (i) The Torah requires us to “afflict our souls” on Yom Kippur.
  • The Sages enumerated five afflictions
    1. We may not eat or drink.
    2. We may not bathe or wash.
    3. We may not wear leather shoes.
    4. We may not anoint ourselves with perfume or fragrant oils.
    5. We may not indulge in marital relations.

                  (ii) Cessation from work.

    • Customs:
    1. White clothing is worn as a symbol of purity and sanctity.
    2. The shofar is sounded at the conclusion of the fast to herald the departure of Hashem’s Holy Presence.
    3. The evening after Yom Kippur is a minor Yom Tov and one should eat, drink and rejoice.  It is considered a pious deed to begin the construction of the succah on the evening after the fast.

     

    • Purpose: During Yom Kippur we try to reach the lofty spiritual heights of angels.  Just as angels do not eat, so too we refrain from eating.  Just as angels spend their days in prayer, we spend Yom Kippur absorbed in prayer.  We wear white just as the angels do, as white represents purity and holiness.

SUCCOT

  • Date: 15 to 21 Tishrei
  • Consists of: Two days of Yom Tov and five days of Chol HaMoed (intermediary days of the festival).  The final day of Chol Hamoed is called Hoshanah Rabbah.

 

  • Names:
  1. Chag HaSuccot – the Festival of Booths.
  2. Chag Ha’asif – the festival of ingathering (of the harvested crops).
  3. Zman Simchatenu – The season of our rejoicing.
  • Historical events: According to one opinion in the Talmud, Succot recalls the booths built by our ancestors in the wilderness.  Another opinion suggests that the succah recalls the miraculous “clouds of glory” that accompanied the Jews in the desert and protected them from harm.
  • Mitzvoth:
  1. Cessation from work on Yom Tov and from unnecessary business practices on Chol Hamoed.
  2.  We are required to live (eat, drink, socialize, study, etc.) in succot (booths) for the duration of the festival.  The succah must contain at least three walls, made of any material and a roof made of greenery such as palm branches and the like.
  3. Each day of the festival, except on Shabbat, we are required to perform the mitzvah of holding and shaking the arbah minim (four species).  These four plants have been said to symbolize the four types of people, which make up the Jewish Nation.  They are taken together to represent that all of us, united, are needed to make up a strong nation:  The Etrog (citron) – has taste and a pleasant smell.  This represents those who are learned and strictly observant. The Lulav (palm) – has taste but no smell, represents those who have learning but are not practising. The Hadasim (myrtle) – have a pleasant smell but are tasteless.  These are the good deeds of those who possess no scholarship. The Aravot (willow) – have neither smell nor taste.  These are those who are neither learned nor possess good deeds. Our sages also teach that the four species symbolize four parts of the human anatomy, all of which should be dedicated to Holy purposes. The Etrog (citron) resembles the heart.  We must dedicate our emotions to sacred pursuits and we should not allow negative traits, such as anger and greed to get the better of us. The Lulav (palm) resembles the spine.  One should use his physical strength to serve Hashem.  The Hadasim (myrtle) resemble the eyes.  We should not look at that which is immodest, but use our eyes to seek out good. The Aravot (willow) resemble the lips.  One’s speech should be elevated and not crass and rude.
  4. The four species are picked up before the Hallel prayer each morning and the relevant blessing is recited.
  5. We are required to celebrate with good food, drink and festive get-togethers.

 

SHEMINI ATZERET AND SIMCHAT TORAH

  • Date: 22 and 23 Tishrei
  • Names:
  1. Shemini Atzeret means the “Gathering of the eighth day [from the beginning of Succot].”  The word atzeret also denotes “stopping” or a “cessation” from work.
  2.  Simchat Torah means the “Rejoicing of the Torah” for on this day we complete the annual reading of the Torah and begin it afresh.
  • Mitzvoth/purpose of the festival:
  1. Unlike Succot, Shemini Atzeret and its second day in the Diaspora, Simchat Torah [in Israel both days are combined into one], have no unique mitzvoth from the Torah.  The Talmud describes Shemini Atzeret as a “festival in its own right,” in other words it is a separate festival to Succot, although it is attached to it.  This is proven, inter alia, by the fact that the lulav and etrog are not held on Shemini Atzeret (the Torah mentions only the seven days of Succot when referring to the four species) and by the fact that the sacrifices brought on Shemini Atzeret were entirely different to those brought throughout the Succot festival.  Furthermore, the obligation to dwell in the succah is only for the seven days of Succot.  Nevertheless in the Diaspora, for a technical reason, we do eat in the succah on Shemini Atzeret, but we do not recite the blessing for dwelling in the succah.
  2. Cessation from work as on all Yom Tovim.
  3. In the words of our sages the purpose of this festival may be understood by means of a parable: A king prepared a grand banquet to be held over the course of seven days.  During these days he rejoiced with his closest admirers and friends.  When it came time to part company he said to his closest friends: “Please, I beg of you, stay with me for one extra day, for your departure is so difficult for me to bear!”  Similarly Hashem begs us to remain with Him just one more day to celebrate for one final time before we return to our mundane lives.
  • Customs:
  1. On Simchat Torah, both at the evening and morning services, we make seven Hakafot (revolutions) around the bimeh while holding and dancing with the Sifrei Torah.
  2. The Torah is read in the evening, a practice that is unique to Simchat Torah. It is said of the holy Vilna Gaon, the renowned leader of 18th century Lithuania, that “he would walk before the Sefer Torah in a state of immense joy, splendour and glory.   He would clap his hands together, sing and dance with all his might.”
  3. Every man is entitled to an aliyah and all children receive an aliyah called Kol HaNea’rim (all the children).
  4. One man is selected to receive the honour of concluding the reading of the Torah and is referred to as the Chatan Torah (the bridegroom of the Torah) and another man is honoured with the first reading of the new cycle and is referred to as the Chatan Bereishit (the bridegroom of Genesis). The two Chatanim sponsor a lavish meal to which all congregants are invited.

 

CHANNUKAH

 

  • Date: From 25 Kislev for 8 days
  • Name: Chag Ha Orim – the Festival of Lights.
  • Historical events:  After the death of Alexander the Great his empire was divided into three.  Judea fell into the hands of the King of Syria Antiochus IV, who was a devout Hellenist, an ancient Greek religion.  He prohibited the Jews from studying Torah, from observing Shabbat and circumcision.  He actively forced Hellenism on the Jews.  On 25th of Kislev 168 BCE, he sacrificed to Zeus from the Holy Altar in the Temple.

 

In the town of Modi’in, the priest Mattathias Hasmonean and his five sons rose up against Antiochus.  Mattathias died, but Judah his son led a brigade called the “Maccabees” (Hammers) in a three-year guerilla war.  This lead to the defeat of the enemy and the recapture of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. On the 25th of Kislev 165 BCE, exactly three years after the desecration of the Temple, Judah the Maccabee was able to rededicate the Temple. (“Channukah” means dedication.)

 

A problem remained of finding unprofaned oil with which to light the Menorah, the great candelabrum that was lit daily by the priests in the Temple.  Only one jug of oil remained intact, which was only one day’s supply and to press new oil from olives would take eight days.  Miraculously, however, the one day’s supply burned for eight days.

  • Mitzvoth:
  1. Both in Shul and at home we light the candles of the Menorah for eight days, to remind us of the miracles of Channukah.
  2. Following the ruling of Bet Hillel, we light one candle on the first night, two on the second night and so on.  We do this because we always ascend in levels of holiness.
  3. We add an extra candle called the “Shamas” (attendant light) to use to light the candles of the Menorah.  We do this because we are not allowed to use the light of the Menorah for any utilitarian purpose, i.e. to read by or to light the room. So we place the “Shamas” nearby to use for any other purpose.
  4. The Menorah should preferably be lit nearby a window so that it can be seen.  This is to publicize the miracle of Channukah, “Pirsumei Neis.”
  5. Each household should have at least one Menorah, with the one person that is lighting to have all those present in the home in mind.
  6. Beautiful songs, specially composed for Channukah are sung after the lighting of the Menorah to add to the festive spirit of the occasion.
  • Customs:
  1. Doughnuts or potato latkes are eaten on Channukah to remind us that the miracle took place through oil.
  2. It is customary to give gelt (money) or more recently presents to the children.  We are told in Mishlei 6:23 that “רוא הרותו הווצמ רנ יכ” – For a candle is a Mitzvah and the Torah is light!  What the Greeks tried to do was cut the Jews off from their source of life and light, which is the Torah.  We redress this by giving gifts and thus spreading light and joy and also as an inducement to the children to study Torah.

 

TU B’SHVAT

  • Date: 15th Shvat
  • Names: Rosh Hashanah Le Ilanot – The New Year for Trees.
    1. Each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding number assigned to it, e.g. א=1, ב=2 etc….15 would then be made up of a “Yud” (10) and a “Heh” (5) but because this spells the name of G-d other letters are substituted i.e. ט “Tet” (9) and a ו “Vav” (6), giving us the name וט (15) Tu B’Shvat.
    2. The Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah chapter 1 mishnah 1, says “there are four Heads of the year: the 1st of Nissan is the head of the year for Kings and Festivals, the 1st of Elul is the Rosh Hashanah for the tithes of animals (every year you had to give a 10th of your new born animals to the Kohanim. The cut off point was Elul.) On the 1st of Tishrei is the Rosh Hashanah for years for the sabbatical year, for the jubilee year, for the planting of trees and for vegetables i.e. the tithe on vegetables.  The 15th of Shvat is the new year for trees, i.e. for the tithing of trees.”
  • Historical events:  By tradition, the date marks the end of the heavy rainy season in Israel. This would be the time that the sap from the roots would rise to the branches.  The wood, chopped at this time, was ready for use in the Temple by Pesach.  It also served as the date from which the age of trees was calculated, in determining when the tree’s fruit were to be brought for the offering of the first fruit. After the destruction of the second Temple in 70CE, the Jewish people went into exile and the Temple stood desolate.  The fruits could no longer be brought to the Temple, thus the date fell into disuse.

 

In 1492 the Jews of Spain were expelled and scattered. One group of visionaries made their way to Israel.  They felt that this was the start of the Messianic era.  The fact that they had been able to come to Israel was proof enough for them that redemption was near.  They revived the festival of Tu B’Shvat and gave it a new meaning.  Just as the tree was gathered at the season for use at Pesach, so too was the New Year for Trees a symbol of redemption and liberation of the Land of Israel, in anticipation of a future Pesach, a festival of ultimate liberation from exile.

  • Customs:
  1. These visionaries created, for this occasion, a new kind of seder night, which revolved around the fruits of Israel, instead of matzah.  Today many people keep the custom of a Tu B’Shvat seder or at least eat the fruits of the Land of Israel, which are: olives, dates, grapes, figs, pomegranates, wheat and barley, on this day.
  2. Adults and children alike plant thousands of saplings around Israel.  With the resettlement of Israel at the beginning of the century, swamps were drained, homes were built and crops and trees were planted, giving new significance to Tu B’Shvat.

 

PURIM 

  • Date: 14 Adar
  • Name: Purim is derived from the word “pur” which means a lot, in the sense of drawing lots.  Haman drew lots to decide on the month and day he would destroy the Jewish people of Persia.  He was overjoyed when the lot fell in Adar, as he knew that the 7th of Adar was Moshe Rabbeinu’s yartzeit. Haman felt that this would be bad mazal for the Jewish people.  What he failed to understand was that this was also Moshe’s day of birth, which would indeed bring the Jews much good mazal.

Historical events: King Ahashverus of Persia was ruler of the civilized world in his time.  In many of these 127 provinces, and specifically in Shushan the capital of Persia, lived Jewish people who had been exiled from Israel after the destruction of the first Temple. His Prime Minister Haman had a personal vendetta against the Jews and he ordered their destruction, on the 13th of Adar.  King Ahashverus was married to Queen Esther, who was Jewish and who was persuaded by her Uncle Mordechai to intercede with her husband on behalf of her people.  To help her with this difficult task, Esther and the Jewish people fasted.  After this Esther approached King Ahashverus who rescinded the evil decree. The day, earmarked for tragedy, became instead a time of celebration.

  • Mitzvoth:
  1. We are obligated to listen to the Megillah twice during Purim, once in the evening and again in the morning. We must hear every word as well as the blessings before and after the reading. By listening to the Megillah we are publicizing the miracle of Purim (Pirsumei Neis).
  2. We are obliged to send two ready-to-eat foods to at least one friend. This mitzvah is mentioned in the Megillah and was first practiced by the Jews in Persia after the downfall of Haman to increase unity in the Nation and to perform acts of loving kindness to one another.  One who is able to send gifts to more than one friend is to be praised.  These gifts are called Mishloach Manot.
  3. We are obliged to give one gift each to at least two needy Jewish people. These gifts are Matanot la’evyonim. The gifts may be food or money, provided they can be used on the day. More money should be spent on this than on gifts to friends and the Purim feast, as the Rambam writes: “ There is no greater joy and splendour than making happy the hearts of the needy and the downtrodden, and one who does so is emulating the Divine Presence.”  The money used for this mitzvah may not be taken from one’s regular pledges to charity.
  4. After we have completed all of the other mitzvoth of Purim, we get together with friends and family to celebrate the holiday by partaking in a lavish feast, Seudat Purim. On Purim we were saved from physical annihilation and therefore our celebration is a very physical one. Good food is consumed together with more wine than usual. The meal usually begins in the late afternoon and runs into the next day (Shushan Purim). Purim is celebrated on the 15 Adar in Jerusalem and other ancient walled cities, as it was in Shushan, the capital of Persia. This is because the Jews there needed an extra day of battle to deal with the followers of Haman.
  • Customs:
  1. Special foods are eaten on Purim, which have symbolic connection with the events of the festival.  The most famous food is “Hamantaschen” (Yiddish for “haman’s” pockets), which are triangular shaped cakes made of sweet dough, filled with poppy seeds.
  2. Plays and skits known as “Purimschpiels” are also popular on Purim with everyone donning fancy dress.
  3. The fancy dress often includes masks to indicate G-d’s veiled presence in the Purim saga.

 

PESACH 

  • Date: 15 to 22 Nissan
  • Names:
  1. Pesach (Passover) refers to the fact that the Angel of Death  “passed over” the Jewish homes in the final plague of the killing of the firstborn Egyptians.
  2. Chag Hamatzot (The festival of Unleavened Bread) refers to the bread that was not able to rise as the Jews hurriedly departed from Egypt.
  3. Zman Cherutainu (The Season of our Freedom) refers to the redemption from the 210 years of slavery in Egypt.
  4. Chag Ha Aviv (the Spring Festival), this is the name given to Pesach because it falls out in Nissan, which is described in the Torah as the beginning of springtime in Israel.
  5. The Torah commands us to destroy all leaven in our possession prior to Pesach so that we will not transgress the prohibition of owning or eating chometz during the festival.  We are also prohibited to own or eat chometz from mid-morning on the day before Pesach.
  6. On the first two nights the Shul services are kept short so that we can return to our homes early to begin the Sederim.There are four mitzvoth that apply to every individual on these evenings:
  • Historical events:  G-d miraculously saved the Jewish people from harsh slavery in Egypt.  This was a turning point in the Jewish peoples’ history.  A new nation was born.  A nation who was now free to serve their Creator.

 

  • Mitzvoth (in summary):
  • To eat matzo.
  • To learn about and teach the story of the Exodus to ourselves and our families.
  • To eat maror, bitter herbs.
  • To drink four cups of wine.

These four mitzvoth form the central body of the Haggadah, around which many customs and practices have been added throughout the centuries, such as the recitation of the Hallel, the eating of the karpas, etc.

  1. From the second night of Pesach we begin the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the Omer. The Torah instructs us to count 49 days from when the communal barley offering was brought, on 2nd day Pesach, until the festival of Shavuot. Originally the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot was a period of joy, as the Nation looked forward to the Festival of Shavuot.  However during the times of the Mishnah, 24 000 students of the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, died as the result of a terrible plague. The Talmud tells us that the students died over a 33-day period. Thus, for 33 days we observe customs of semi-mourning by not taking haircuts, shaving, celebrating weddings or listening to music. The basic South African custom is to begin this mourning period from Rosh Chodesh Iyar and to conclude 3 days before Shavuot, taking a break on the minor festival of Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer.

 

YOM HA’ATZMAUT

  • Date: 5 Iyar 5708, 14 May 1948
  • Name: Yom Ha’atzmaut, Day of Independence.
  • Historical events: After 2000 years of waiting and praying that some day we would return to our homeland, the Land of Israel, a miracle occurred. The partition plan was put to the United Nations whereby a Jewish state and a Palestinian state would be created side by side. In a historic vote, which saw for the first and only time America and Russia voted for the same thing, the resolution was passed to create a Jewish state. “Israel slipped into existence through a fortuitous window in history which briefly opened for a few months in 1947-8.  That too was luck; or providence.” (Paul Johnson: A History of the Jews). On Friday 14 May 1948 Ben Gurion declared the establishment of a Jewish State that would be known as the State of Israel.

 

The next day seven Arab armies declared war on the tiny, fledgling state, with no formal army, air force or for that matter much weaponry (modern or otherwise). The Israeli troops, in spite of the odds stacked against them, were able to secure victory in the War of Independence.

  • Customs:  The Chief Rabbinate of Israel permits celebrations on Yom Ha’atzmaut even though the 5th of Iyar falls during Sephirat HaOmer (the 33 days of mourning between Pesach and Shavuot).  These take the form of special prayer services for which unique prayers were composed.  There are usually other cultural activities where songs and poetry written about the State of Israel are performed.  It is a great privilege for our generation to be living during this time of national independence, a dream for our grandparents and a reality in our lifetime.

 

YOM YERUSHALAYIM
  • Date: 28 Iyar 5727, 7 June 1967
  • Name: Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day.
  • Historical events: The War of Independence of 1948/49 divided Jerusalem down the middle, with the Old City and particularly the Western Wall – the last remnant of King Solomon’s Temple – falling into Jordanian hands.  Jerusalem became two separate cities, divided by concrete walls, barbed wire and minefields.  Jews were barred from visiting holy sites.

In May 1967, the tenuous cease-fire between Israel and the Arab neighbours ended.  In the Six-Day War that followed, Israel captured all of East Jerusalem.  Israeli troops entered the Old City and their arrival at and liberation of the Western Wall is one of the most memorable events in Jewish history.  Upon his arrival at the Western Wall, Moshe Dayan, the defence minister said, “Today a people has returned to its capital, and the capital has returned to its people.  Never again will they be separated.”

  • Customs: The Chief Rabbinate of Israel permits celebrations on Yom Yerushalayim even though the 28th of Iyar falls during Sephirat HaOmer (the 33 days of mourning between Pesach and Shavuot).  These celebrations take the form of special prayer services for which unique prayers were composed.  There are usually other cultural activities where songs and poetry written about Jerusalem are performed.  “If I forget you, oh Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.  If I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my greatest joy.” (Psalm 137).

 

SHAVOUT

  • Date: 6 and 7 Sivan
  • Names:
    1. Chag Ha Shavout (the Festival of weeks) is so called because it is celebrated at the end of seven weeks counted from Pesach.  Its English title “Pentecost” which comes from the Greek word for “fiftieth” signifying that Shavuot is celebrated on the 50th day after the first day of Pesach.
    2. Zman Matan Torateinu (the season of the giving of our Torah) refers to the fact that G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people on this day.  Our Sages expound that this was the purpose of freeing the Jews from slavery in Egypt.  They were now free to serve G-d, through Torah and Mitzvoth.
    3. Atzeret (conclusion) because our sages regard Shavuot as the concluding festival of Pesach.
    4. Chag Hakatzir (the Harvest Festival) as this day marks the last grain harvest of the season as well as the harvesting of wheat.
    5. Yom Habikkurim (the Day of the First Fruits), it was on this day that the first fruits   were brought to the Temple as an expression of gratitude to G-d.  The best of the first fruits were brought to Jerusalem in beautiful ornamental baskets.
  • Historical events: After 210 years of slavery in Egypt, G-d physically freed the Jews in the most miraculous fashion.  He then took them into the desert in which they began their travels towards the Land of Israel.  The process of turning a group of slaves into a nation had just begun.  After seven weeks of intense spiritual work, the Jewish people were on the correct spiritual level to receive the Torah from G-d.  The revelation at Sinai and the subsequent receiving of the 10 commandments was witnessed by over a million people.  Our sages relate that all the souls of Jews in the future were also present as well as all the souls of those that convert to Judaism.
  • Custom:
    1. We read the book of Ruth on Shavuot.  Ruth converted to Judaism, and embraced the Torah.  Likewise we should embrace and celebrate our connection and devotion to Torah.
    2. Just as Mount Sinai was said to have been in bloom on Shavuot, we decorate our shuls with flowers.  We also decorate our shuls with fruit, which connects us to the agricultural aspects of Shavuot.
    3. It is customary to eat dairy products on Shavuot to remind us that the Land of Israel is one “flowing with milk and honey.”  With the Torah having just been given, the correct procedures of ritual slaughter of animals had not yet been learnt, so as not to come to sin the Jewish people opted rather to keep it simple and eat milk foods.
    4. The Jews were reputed to have overslept on the day of the giving of the Torah.  We therefore stay up all night and learn Torah to ensure that we are awake for the morning.  This is known as a “Tikkun Leil.”

 

TISHA B’AV

  • Date and name: 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av
  • Historical events:
    1. The Fast of the 17th of Tammuz is the beginning of the three weeks of mourning, which culminate in the Fast of the 9th of Av.
    2. The spies, who were sent by Moses to observe the Land of Israel, returned from their 40-day journey with a negative and demoralizing report.  The Torah states that “the Nation cried on that night,” which tradition tells us, was the night of the 9th of Av.  As a result of their lack of faith in G-d’s promise that it was a good and bountiful land, they were told: “You cried for no purpose, I will set this day as a time of crying for all generations!” (Ta’anit 29A).  It was subsequently decreed that they remain in the desert for 40 years until a new generation was ready to enter the Land.
    3. The Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in the year 3338 (422 B.C.E.), after having stood for 410 years.  This was followed by the exile of most Jews to Babylon.
    4. The Roman Emperor Titus destroyed the Second Temple in the year 3830 (70 C.E.), having stood for 420 years.  The Nation was exiled and, to the present day, has not yet fully returned to Israel.
    5. The great fortress of Betar, final stand of Bar Kochba, was captured and its inhabitants slaughtered by the Romans.

6.   The city of Jerusalem was ploughed by the Romans in fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy that “Zion will be ploughed like a field.” (Jeremiah 28:18). Besides these ancient tragedies, many other evil events have occurred on this day, including the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the beginning of World War 1 in 1914.  It was this “Great War” that decimated Germany and paved the way for the advent of the Nazi party and the Holocaust.

  • Restrictions:
  1. We may not eat or drink for the full 24 hours.
  2. We may not wear leather shoes.
  3. Marital relations are not indulged.
  4. We may not wash at all – except upon arising in the morning and after ablutions.
  5. We may not anoint ourselves with fragrant oils, perfumes, etc.
  6. We should not greet others, unless this will lead to argument.
  7. One may only learn those sections of the Torah and Talmud that deal with the destruction of the Temple or with the laws of mourning.
  • Purpose: The Rambam explains that the point of such Fasts is far more than simple commemoration of ancient tragedies, instead they are intended “to awaken our hearts to the ways of repentance.”  Judaism believes that nothing is haphazard – we would never have been exiled or persecuted had the fault not originated with us.  There is a spiritual cause and effect to every event, and these Fast days allow us to focus on the primary reason for our many years of wandering in the Diaspora.  In particular, the Second Temple was destroyed as a result of causeless hatred and bickering between Jews (Talmud, Yoma 9B) – it is therefore our task to rectify that fault by showing unconditional love to our fellow Jews and to stay far away from arguments. The Prophet Zacharia (Chapter 8:19) tells us that if we love truth and peace, this Fast and all the others that commemorate the Destruction, will become days of gladness and happy festivals.  May it be soon in our days!