How To Chanukah

Chanukah begins this year (2015) at sundown on December 6.

I was all set to write a series of how-to posts about Chanukah, but when I looked to see what else was available, I realized there was no way I could best the offerings on  So here are some links to great Chanukah how-tos:

How to Light the Chanukah Candles (VIDEO)

Chanukah 101 (The Basics!)

Traditional Chanukah Foods

Chanukah in the Synagogue

I hope these meet your needs for basic Chanukah materials! Now some goodies from past years:

Chanukah Videos! (Music, silliness, fun, laughter. It’s good for you.)

A More Meaningful Chanukah

The Evolution of Chanukah – How did it get to be such a big deal?

Why the Insistence that Chanukah is a Minor Holiday?

And yes, it’s early, but since I’m already getting questions, I thought it was time to start posting resources. Enjoy November, enjoy Thanksgiving, and when the time comes, enjoy Chanukah!


Bloom Out of Season

This confused little iris is in my front yard. It was supposed to bloom in the spring or summer, but here it is in mid-November. I suspect it wanted to bloom in the summer, but it couldn’t for lack of moisture. So now, after a good soaking, it’s in bloom.

Even in nature, sometimes things happen out of season. We can fish for reasons (maybe it was the drought?) or we can accept that not everything happens when it is “supposed to.” One way to see this iris is to take it as a challenge to the whole idea of “supposed to.” Why shouldn’t it bloom now? Am I enjoying it any less? If it had bloomed in summer, I wouldn’t have appreciated it nearly as much.

Things happen “out of season” in our lives, too. Sometimes it’s easy to see those things as special, indeed miraculous.I once helped a woman in her 80’s learn the Haftarah blessings for her adult Bat Mitzvah service. When she chanted those blessing and her Haftarah, everyone in the synagogue marveled.

But what about the boy who decides he isn’t ready for a Bar Mitzvah just yet? It is also a miraculous thing for him to have the insight that he’s not ready – maybe next year, maybe when he’s 16. It takes courage to step off the conveyor belt, to say, “Not just yet” when all your friends are in the flow. I had a student who had done exactly that: he refused to have his service at 13, waiting until he was 16. He chose to take Intro to Judaism and to work with a tutor for his preparation, and then he stood before his congregation and proudly led the service. His insight and courage were no less miraculous than the great-grandmother I had coached a few years earlier.

Sometimes we realize that there’s a bit of teshuvah we didn’t do during the High Holy Days,  Our minds and egos can be very tricky, making us “forget” something important until Yom Kippur is past.  Despite all the liturgical talk about the “gates” being “closed,” it’s never a bad time to make teshuvah. So what if Chanukah is almost here? Like the iris, your act of teshuvah  will have the beauty of its own time.

I went to rabbinical school with many young people who were going at the “right time” in their late twenties and early thirties. A few of us were late bloomers. While we couldn’t offer Am Yisrael (the Jewish People) as many years of potential service as our younger counterparts, we brought other gifts: congregational experience, management experience, parenting experience, experience. We bloomed out of season, but for all that, we had much to offer.

Have you ever bloomed out of season? What was that experience like for you? Is there a bloom within you that needs to come out? I invite you to share all this in the comments section!

Halloween and the Jews

Here comes Halloween! For some Americans, this is THE holiday, more than July 4, more than Thanksgiving, more than even Christmas. People plan their costumes months in advance, lay in supplies of candy for trick-or-treaters, and decorate their front yards.

The origins of the holiday go far back in European history. Some say it originated in the Gaelic festival of Samhain, which was then re-cast into the Western Christian calendar of All Hallows’ Eve, a prelude to All Saints Day on November 1. (Notice the influence of the Jewish calendar here, with an Eve/erev the night before a festival day!)

Can you see where I’m going with this? Halloween isn’t a Jewish festival, and its origins are pagan and Christian. What’s a Jew to do about Halloween?

My own practice is to have some candy ready, should little children stop by. It isn’t a Jewish holiday, but hospitality is a Jewish value, and I’ll be darned if I am going to turn children away from my door in disappointment. I don’t decorate, I don’t make a big deal of it, but if someone rings my doorbell in search of a goody, they’ll get a goody. This isn’t my holiday, but I can practice Jewish hospitality in the midst of it.

Here’s why I don’t dress up or decorate for Halloween:

  • “Trick or Treat” does not match up with Jewish values. Sure, the treats can be hospitality, but the threat of mischief – even jokingly – smacks of extortion.
  • Judaism already has a costume holiday for jokes and mayhem. Come Purim, I’ll dress up and get crazy and do it within the tradition.
  • I grew up Catholic, observing All Saints Day. For me, Halloween’s Christian origins are real and apparent.
  • I’m busy! I have Shabbat every week, I am still recovering from the High Holy Days and Sukkot, and before long it’ll be Chanukah. Really celebrating the Jewish year gives me plenty of holidays already.

I can hear some readers saying, “Oh, rabbi, don’t be such a spoilsport! It’s a secular holiday!” or even “Rabbi, it’s easy to say all this, you don’t have young children.”  I hear that. It’s hard to stand back from colorful, fun celebrations. But just as I can enjoy my neighbor’s Christmas lights, I can enjoy her Halloween decorations without needing some of my own.

There are many holidays I don’t celebrate because they aren’t mine: BeltaneChinese New Year, Eid al Fitr, or any of the many Hindu festivals, and Easter. I live in the wildly diverse Bay Area, and I have friends who are Wiccan, Chinese-American, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. I might be invited over for a holiday, and that’s cool. I’ll return invitations come Passover.

Ultimately, the decision is up to you and your family. But let me suggest a question you might ask: if you make time for Halloween, do you make time for Shabbat? Are you going to make just as big a deal of Purim? What are your plans for Chanukah? For Passover?

We have our own round of holidays and festivals, and they can keep a Jew pretty busy.

Chodesh Tov: It’s Cheshvan

Chodesh Tov!  [Happy (new) month!]

That’s the traditional greeting for every new month. The moon is key to the Jewish calendar, and every new moon is a new month, a Rosh Chodesh.

At sundown on October 12, we entered a new month, Cheshvan of 5776.

The month of Cheshvan is the quietest month of the Jewish year – no holidays, no fasts, just quiet. And really, after the last six weeks, it’s time for a little quiet. The only exception is the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd, which is celebrated in Israel on the 29th of CheshvanSigd falls on the 50th day after Yom Kippur (just as Shavuot is 50 days after the first night of Passover) and in Ethiopian Jewish tradition, it is the day to celebrate God revealing Godself to Moses. For more about Sigd, there is an excellent article in the Times of Israel.

The name Cheshvan is short for Marcheshvan, the older name for the month, which comes from waraḫsamnu, the Akkadian (Mesopotamian) name meaning “eighth month.” (In Mesopotamia, the month we call Nisan is the first of the month, which is how the months were counted in Biblical times, too.)

At some point in the past someone noticed that Mar is Hebrew for “bitter,” and the tradition arose that Marcheshvan was “Bitter Cheshvan.” Indeed, there are bitter dates in the month:

12 Cheshvan – Assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin (1995)

16 Cheshvan – Kristallnacht (1938)

Bitter though those dates may be, I wish you a gentle month of Cheshvan in 5776.


The Most Beautiful Sukkah

I wrote this story a couple of years ago. 

There was once a man in Anaheim named Yacov who built a beautiful sukkah. It had an expensive carpet, and golden furniture, and Israeli art on the walls. It was so beautiful, that the man decided after the holiday that he wanted to keep his sukkah forever.

Still he worried. What about the golden furniture? What about the carpet?

So he put a door on his sukkah, and a great big lock, and he locked that sukkah up tight. He slept on a pallet in the sukkah every night.

The sukkah was a kosher sukkah.  It had a flimsy roof of palm fronds. He worried about that roof, and thought to himself, “Thieves may come in by that roof!” So he got some lumber, and he put a roof on the sukkah that was more secure. He closed that roof up tight. And he slept in the sukkah every night.

And when he was in the sukkah, he noticed that he could no longer see the stars, or the moonlight, and he felt a little sad, but he had to keep his sukkah safe! For he loved his sukkah very much, and he slept in the sukkah every night.

Then a neighbor complained to the city, and a building inspector came. The building inspector said to Yacov, “Yacov! You have no permit for this structure!” And Yacov said very importantly, “This is a sukkah! You can’t penalize me for a sukkah! It’s my religion! First Amendment!”

The building inspector said, “I think I need a note from your rabbi.” And Yacov lay awake in the sukkah that night.

The next day, Yacov went to his rabbi, and said, “Rabbi, I built the most beautiful sukkah. Would you come and see my sukkah, and tell the City of Anaheim that they have to let me keep it?”

The rabbi said, “Yacov! It’s almost Chanukah! What are you doing with a sukkah?”

Yacov said, “Rabbi, come see it. It’s the most beautiful sukkah ever.”

So the rabbi shook his head, and visited Yacov’s house. He saw the structure in the yard, with the big lock on the door and the protective roof above. “Is that your sukkah?” he asked.

“Yes, and it’s beautiful!” Yacov said, beaming. “Come in and see!”  He unlocked the door, and opened it, and the rabbi peered into the dim interior. He saw the golden furniture, and the art, and the carpet. He saw the pallet on the floor. He looked up at the roof. He sighed.

“Yacov, my friend, this is not a kosher sukkah.”

“What? It’s the most beautiful sukkah in the world!”

“No, Yacov, I cannot see the stars. And whoever saw a sukkah with lock on it?”

“But I have to keep it safe, Rabbi! I love this sukkah, and I am going to keep it forever!” The rabbi sighed again, even deeper.

“Yacov, my dear, the day you decided to keep it forever, it stopped being a sukkah. The sukkah is here to teach us that nothing is permanent. We cannot keep anything forever. We must appreciate beauty in the here and now, for we do not know what wind will come tomorrow. What treasure have you been neglecting, while you tried to keep the sukkah?”

Yacov began to cry, and the rabbi cried with him. They sat on the golden furniture and cried.

So Yacov took the sukkah apart, and put away the furniture. He rolled up the rug and went inside, where his wife was waiting, and his children.

How is a Sukkah like a Christmas Tree?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, this Sukkot has been different – the day before Yom Kippur I had to make a sudden trip to the emergency room, and while I was out for Erev Sukkot, putting up my sukkah was pretty much out of the question. Some very kind friends offered to do it, but I felt that since I was the one who knew where “the stuff” was, and who wanted to be engaged with it, it was better to leave it be.

What I didn’t realize until I returned home was that most of the sukkah stuff was in boxes in the living room. I had done lots of the preparation a few weeks ago, and since then had been ignoring the boxes piled in every corner. Now I have all the stuff, but — oh, well, next year, right?

Sukkot, if you really get into it, is the closest Jewish holiday to the decoration-mania we see around us when Dec 25 approaches. A sukkah isn’t just “a booth” – it’s a life size play house which you can decorate as gaudily as you like. Every year I change my garden pergola into a sukkah. The boxes and parcels in my living room contain:

  • a rolled-up rug
  • marine netting
  • a 10×10 bamboo mat
  • 125 tiny bungee cords
  • several strings of LED lights
  • indoor-outdoor extension cord
  • ornaments in the shape of fruits, vegetables, and birds
  • posters
  • a tablecloth
  • battery operated “candles”
  • and some other stuff.

If any of you are thinking “that sounds a little like Christmas tree decorations” you are quite right. In fact, I’m pretty sure that some of those fruits and veg were designed as just that, but they look wonderful and sparkly in my sukkah, lit by the soft white LEDs.

If at one time you loved decorating a Christmas tree, but you are now a Jew so you don’t do those, consider the sukkah. You can go just as bananas on a sukkah as you can on a tree, and when you finish, you can sleep in it. 

Yes, I have chosen my patio furniture with the sukkah in mind. I have a “couch” which I can drag into the sukkah for a comfortable night. I have a card table that fits so we can eat in the sukkah, and comfy chairs so we can hang out.

But this year, I shall go to synagogue and sit in the community sukkah and rejoice. The decorations will keep for next year.

(Photo courtesy of Dawn Kepler. Notice the lights, the ornaments, the decorations…)