What is Shabbat Nachamu?

August 8, 2014
"The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl" by Victor Raphael

“The Heavens Spread Out Like a Prayer Shawl” a meditation on Isaiah 40:1 by Victor Raphael

We’ve been through a lot in the past few weeks, haven’t we? This year, it wasn’t just in the liturgy and the calendar: it’s been a hard time for Israel, for a lot of people in the Middle East, and for the world. So this week, I will likely listen with tears in my eyes when I hear the familiar words of Isaiah: Comfort, comfort, My people!

This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Nachamu.” It takes this name from the beginning of the Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) this week, Isaiah 40:1: Nachamu, nachamu ami! [Comfort, comfort, My people!] After the terror of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish People turn to God and to one another for comfort.

There’s a lot of midrash on this passage: who is comforting, who is comforted, and how? The rabbis speculate whether it means comfort as in “There, there” or comfort as in “strengthen.” There is even a midrash that suggests that it is God who needs comforting, after the terrors of Tisha B’Av!

The problem of suffering has puzzled human beings forever. Often suffering comes to those who have done nothing wrong. Sometimes wicked people thrive. How shall we make sense of it all?

I read this line in my own way. I think Isaiah is telling us that to get comfort, we need to give comfort. There is much undeserved suffering in the world, and I am not qualified to judge who “deserves” or does not. What I know is that a lot of us are hurting. This Shabbat, when we feel we need comfort, may each of us reach out to someone else and say, “Take heart.”

Shabbat shalom.


A Jewish Valentine’s Day?

August 5, 2014
"Love Ring" by Daniel Lee

“Love Ring” by Daniel Lee

Did you know there’s a Jewish Valentine’s Day? There was never a Jewish “St. Valentine” but there’s an ancient holiday of love.

Tu B’Av is a minor but fun Jewish holiday. After the mourning of Tisha B’Av, this is a lovely little day to be happy and to celebrate love.

  • Tu B’Av = Fifteenth of the Month of Av. In Hebrew, the letters that form the number 15 can also be pronounced “Tu.”
  • Today in Israel, it’s called Chag HaAhavah, the Holiday of Love, and it’s a favored day for weddings. Think of it as Jewish Valentine’s Day.
  • In Temple times, in Jerusalem, the grape harvest began on the fifteenth of Av and ended on the tenth of Tishrei, Yom Kippur. On both those days, single girls dressed in white and went to dance in the vineyards in the afternoon. It was a traditional time for courtship.
  • There are no big religious observances for the day. However, it’s a good day to get married, a good day to fall in love, and a great day to tell your loved ones “I love you.”

In 2014, Tu B’Av falls on August 10-11 (begins at sundown, runs until sundown.) For future years, check the Hebrew calendar at http://hebcal.com.

 


Weather and the Jewish Year

July 31, 2014

 

A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.

A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.

Queentimely wrote in response to a recent post:

I don’t know how many readers you have in the southern hemisphere, but it might interest those in the north to be reminded that it’s actually winter here — cold (in Melbourne terms), blowy and dark early.

Excellent point!

One of the quirks of living in California is that the climate and the seasons match that of Israel pretty closely. That’s very handy for us, because the Jewish calendar is rooted in the seasons of the Land of Israel. I am prone to forget that for most of the world, it isn’t so tidy.

For instance, Jews worldwide begin praying for rain on Shemini Atzeret, the day after the close of Sukkot. In both Israel and California, that day falls at about the earliest date one might reasonably expect some rain. Therefore the weather is perfect for eating and sleeping in the sukkah: not too hot, not too cold, and certainly not too wet. However, if one is celebrating in Minnesota or in Sweden, the sukkah is apt to be downright soggy and cold, because autumn had already arrived weeks before.

The same goes for Passover: it’s a spring holiday, hence the parsley and the egg on the seder plate. However, the 14th of Nisan may be a bit early for spring in some northern climes. In the southern hemisphere, Jews sit around the seder table in the fall.

So why not simply attune the holidays to the local climate? Long ago, when Jews were forced into Diaspora, outside the Land of Israel, we decided to keep our calendars aligned with that of our homeland. So Jews in Spain, Jews in South America, Jews in Australia, and Jews in Finland keep the same calendar, no matter what the weather is doing in their local neighborhoods. Just as we face towards Jerusalem for prayer, we align the Jewish year with that of the Land of Israel, because it is, and always has been, home.

So, readers: if your climate or seasons are radically different from that of Israel, how does it affect your observance of the calendar? If you have celebrated the Jewish Year in the far North or south of the equator, I hope to hear from you.


Welcome to the Month of Av

July 28, 2014

Francesco Hayez, "Destruction of the Second Temple" 1867, photographed by marsmet543

Francesco Hayez, “Destruction of the Second Temple” 1867, photographed by marsmet543

Av (ahv) is the eleventh month of the Hebrew year.

It’s often mentioned as the “unluckiest” or “saddest” month of the year, based on a mention in the Talmud in Taanit 19a: “When we enter Av, our joy is diminished.”

Av has a number of sad anniversaries in it. Foremost of those is the 9th of Av, Tisha B’Av, on which we remember the destruction of both the first and second Temples, as well as the Expulsion from Spain in 1492. These were the greatest disasters in Jewish history before the 20th century.

Av is also a hot, dry time in the Land of Israel, when water is even more precious than usual and when the sun beats down even in the relatively cooler places like Jerusalem and Sefat. 

Rosh Chodesh Av (the 1st of Av) began July 27 at sundown in 2014.

In 2015, it will begin at sundown on July 16.

In 2016, it will begin at sundown on August 4.

What are your associations for this time of year?


Welcome to Tammuz!

June 27, 2014
Ishtar & Tammuz

Ishtar & Tammuz

Tammuz 5774 begins this weekend, on the evening of June 28, 2014.

Welcome to Tammuz! We observe it in the summertime, just as did the ancient Babylonians, who named it after their god Tammuz.

One of the quirks of the Jewish calendar as we know it today is that it is in some ways a hand-me-down from ancient Babylon. Before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, we know that Jews followed a lunar calendar that began its months on the new moon and that had adjustments to keep the agricultural holidays in their proper seasons. We have a few month names from that calendar in the Torah, but most of the months seem to have been like modern Hebrew days. They went by number, “In the First Month” etc.

But the names of the months we use today came back from Babylon with our ancestors. So the month of Tammuz still carries the name of a long-forgotten idol. In ancient Babylon, the month was dedicated to the god, and it began on the first new moon after the summer solstice. The shortening days and the blistering heat made a setting for a period of ritual mourning for the god, who was understood to die and be resurrected annually, similar to the Greek Persephone and Ra/Osiris of Egypt. He’s even mentioned in the Tanakh as one of the foreign gods sometimes worshipped in Jerusalem, much to the distress of the prophets:

Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord’s house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then he said to me, ‘Have you  seen this, O son of man? turn yet again, and you shall see greater abominations than these!” – Ezekiel 8:14-15

There are no holidays in Tammuz, only one fast: on the 17th of Tammuz there is a fast from sunrise to sundown in memory of breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, the beginning of the end for Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE. That day begins the “Three Weeks” leading up to Tisha B’Av, when we recall the destruction of the temple and other disasters.

Tammuz isn’t a happy month. Traditionally, the sin of the Golden Calf is supposed to have taken place in Tammuz. There are also some notable yahrtzeits (anniversaries of deaths) in the calendar this month:

This is usually a quiet month in synagogues. Behind the scenes, preparations for the High Holy Days are underway. Many people take vacations now, and it is also the season for congregational trips to Israel. It is quiet, but a time of gathering energy, of things just over the horizon. Stay as cool as you can.


What’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot?

June 3, 2014
A New Jew receives the Torah

A New Jew receives the Torah

Tikkun Leil Shavuot is one of the ways to celebrate the festival of Shavuot. It is an all-nighter Torah study session on Erev Shavuot.

In Exodus 19, God tells Moses to tell the people to prepare themselves for something that will happen on the third day. They are to wash their clothes and purify themselves, and to abstain from sex. The third day, God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses atop Mt. Sinai with terrifying lightning and thunder.

There is a midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:57) that the Israelites went to bed early on the second night, in order to be well rested for the giving of the Torah. They were so tired (from all the bathing?) that they overslept and Moses was nearly late going up the mountain to receive the commandments. Tikkun Leil Shavuot  “repair of the night of Shavuot” is a way of expressing our hunger for Torah, that unlike our ancestors, not only will we not oversleep, we will stay up all night, studying Torah in order to be ready to receive it.

The first Tikkun Leil Shavuot took place in Salonika, in the Ottoman Empire (now in Greece) in the 16th Century. It was hosted by Rabbi Yosef Caro (author of the Shulkhan Arukh and a great Sephardic mystic.)  Today, in many Jewish communities, Jews gather to stay up late or even all night, to study together.

It may sound like a crazy thing to do, but I have some wonderful memories from Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which I’ve written about in another post, Why I Love Shavuot.

Whatever you do this Shavuot, I hope that you do something to celebrate this least-famous Jewish holiday. If your community has a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, go for a while (not everyone stays all night.) If you don’t have one available, invite a friend over to read from the Torah and ponder it together. If you don’t have a friend, get out a commentary or look at some of the great learning resources online. Or if nothing else, have some cheesecake!

Soon I’ll post more about online resources. Shavuot sameach – Happy Shavuot!


Sivan Tov!

May 29, 2014

Happy Rosh Chodesh Sivan!

If you are thinking “What’s Rosh Chodesh?” <– click the link

Sivan is the ninth month of the Jewish Year, counting from Rosh HaShanah in the fall. It’s pronounced “see – VAHN.” In the Bible, though, where the year is counted from the first of Nisan, it is referred to as “the third month” (Exodus 19:1.)

Sivan begins at sundown on May 29 in 2014.

Its name comes from the Akkadian simanu, meaning “season.”

Sivan is the month of Shavuot, the festival on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai (6 Sivan).

What will you do with your month of Sivan?

 


Iyyar Tov!

May 1, 2014

JudischerKalender-1831 ubt

Hebrew Calendar, 1831


Happy Rosh Chodesh Iyyar!

If you are thinking “What’s Rosh Chodesh?” <– click the link

Iyyar is the eighth month of the Jewish Year, counting from Rosh HaShanah in the fall. It’s pronounced “ee YAR.”

Its name comes from the Akkadian ayyaru, meaning blossom. Look out your window: if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, the plants are blooming!

Iyyar is the month of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel (5 Iyyar).

During Iyyar, we count the omer, and we celebrate Lag B’Omer.

What will you do with your month of Iyyar?

 
Image © 2004 by Tomasz Sienicki [user: tsca, mail: tomasz.sienicki at gmail.com] (Own work (photo 13 November 2004)) [CC-BY-2.5, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What are “the Yoms?”

April 29, 2014

Declaration of State of Israel 1948

David ben Gurion reads the Declaration of the State of Israel, 1948


Every spring, after Passover, the Jewish calendar marks four days to commemorate events in modern Jewish history:

Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day  usually on 27 Nisan (click on the link for more info on Yom HaShoah)

Yom HaZikaron – Israeli Memorial Day usually on 5 Iyar (yom ha-ZEEK-a-rohn)

Yom HaAtzma’oot – Israeli Independence Day the day immediately after Yom HaZikaron, usually 6 Iyar (yom ha-atz-ma-OOT)

Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day, marking the day in 1967 when the city was reunited, on 28 Iyar (yom Yair-oo-shah-LIE- eem)

Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day are always paired. In Israel’s short history (less than 70 years, at this writing) the price of independence has been the deaths of too many of its citizens. Unlike Memorial Day in the United States, which is seen as many as “the first day of summer vacation,” Yom HaZikaron is a true day of mourning in Israel, because nearly every citizen spends the day remembering one or more loved ones who have died in defense of their country.

The mourning of Memorial Day turns to exuberance at sundown, when Yom HaAtzma’oot, Independence Day begins. Israelis and Jews worldwide celebrate the birth of the Jewish State with speeches, picnics, fireworks, and general celebration.

Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, also marks a dramatic moment in modern Jewish history. Under the 1947 UN Partition Plan, Jerusalem was to be a “international city” for ten years, after which the citizens of Jerusalem would vote to decide whether they would be part of Israel, or part of a new Arab state. While Jewish leaders agreed to this plan, Arab leaders rejected it. Immediately after the signing of the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948, armies from all its Arab neighbors invaded. By the end of the War of Independence, Jerusalem was a divided city, the western portion in Israeli control and the eastern portion and the “Old City” under occupation by the Jordanian Armed Forces. No Jews were allowed to remain in the Jordanian-controlled areas, the synagogues were demolished and the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives was plundered.

Such was the situation in Jerusalem until 1967, when increasing hostility between Israel and its Arab neighbors boiled over into the Six-Day War. Israel sent word to King Hussein of Jordan that it would not attack Jerusalem or the West Bank  unless provoked. With encouragement from Egypt, the King ordered the Jordanian army to shell civilian locations in Israel; Israel responded by opening a new front against Jordan on June 6. The next day, Israel succeeded in capturing the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall, bringing the holy site back under Jewish control for the first time since 70 CE. Yom Yerushalayim marks the reunification of the city.

The four “Yoms” (Days) recall the dramatic course of Jewish history in the 20th century.

Image: Rudi Weissenstein, in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A Pile of Stones

April 27, 2014

194306927_c188cdc26f_z

Somewhere in the sand

between the Sea and Sinai

there is a pile of rocks, a memorial.

Every year I stumble against it

trip over it

and the sharp stones hit a nerve.

I’ve only lately finished the matzah

only lately begun picking the soft white manna

from the grocery shelves again

enjoying my freedom

and then

wham!

I trip over those damned rocks again.

They recall all those souls, ground to gravel

Reduced to ash.

I cannot bear to think of them

And I cannot bear to forget them, either.

So I sit on the sand

aching

re-stacking the stones.

Image by Nick Brooks, some rights reserved


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