Tu B’Shevat for Beginners

January 7, 2014

There’s a wonderful Jewish holiday coming soon – 15 Sh’vat, also known as Tu B’Shevat.  It’s coming at sundown on January 15, 2014.

It’s not a huge big deal, unless you choose to make a big deal of it. However, if you are around a synagogue, you may hear about it. If you know Jews who are very concerned with the earth and its care, you may hear about it.

All Jewish holidays have changed through history. This one may have changed the most, because it has gone from being an accounting device (really! see below) to being Jewish Earth Day. What hasn’t changed is its other name: The New Year of the Trees.

Here are the basic facts for Tu B’Shevat:

1. THE NAME.  “Tu B’Shevat” means “15th of Shevat.” Tu is a way of pronouncing the letters that make up the number 15 in Hebrew. (For more about Hebrew numbers, check out this article in Wikipedia.) Shevat is the month in the Jewish calendar that includes the deep winter in Israel, generally January and a bit of February.

2. ORIGINAL MEANING. Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah?  And a secular New Year on January 1? This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting of plants in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated.  At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.

3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.)  These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit.  The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.

4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Roman and Ottoman periods.

5. JEWISH EARTH DAY.  In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.

Image from Flickr Commons, no known copyright

7 Questions About Sukkot

September 17, 2013
English: Etrog, silver etrog box and lulav, us...

Etrog, silver etrog box and lulav (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OK, yesterday I talked about the heart of Sukkot: it’s about hospitality, welcoming guests, being a guest, sharing food, being outdoors with other Jews and with friends and neighbors.

And I am pretty sure that someone was thinking, yes, but that’s not really Sukkot. You want the terminology and stuff, right? So now we’ll talk about that.

WHAT IS SUKKOT? Sukkot [soo-COAT] is the plural of Sukkah [soo-KAH], which is the Hebrew name of the little booth we build for the holiday. You may also encounter the Yiddish pronunciations, [SOOK-us] and [SOOK-uh]. It’s also the Jewish harvest holiday that follows the High Holy Days.

WHEN IS SUKKOT? Sukkot is a fall harvest holiday. It begins on 15 Tishrei, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. It lasts for eight days (seven days in Israel). It will begin on the evening of Sept 18, 2013. On the first two days and the last day of Sukkot observant Jews do no work.

WHY DO WE DO THIS? Sukkot started as a harvest holiday. Nowadays it is a chance to foster our relationships with friends and family. Remember, we just spent the last six weeks mending our relationships — now it’s time to enjoy those improved relationships! The little sukkahs also remind us of our temporary dwellings in the wilderness, and of the impermanence of most possessions. The observance of Sukkot is commanded in Leviticus 23:40-43.

HOW DO WE OBSERVE SUKKOT?  Sukkot is unique in that we actually build the place where we celebrate it fresh every year. A sukkah (soo-KAH) is a little shed built to very precise directions, open on one side with a very flimsy roof of branches or reeds. We build it outside and eat meals in it. Some people actually sleep in their sukkah. Many Jews entertain guests in the sukkah, and in Israel, many restaurants also have them for customers to enjoy. It’s customary to decorate the sukkah with hangings, artwork, and home-made decorations.

WHAT IS A LULAV? Observant Jews also “wave the lulav.” It’s a bouquet of palm, willow, and myrtle, held alongside an etrog (citron) and waved to all the compass points, with a blessing. If you want to learn about waving a lulav and etrog, you can find more information here.

ARE THERE ANY MOVIES ABOUT SUKKOT?  Yes!  There’s a very funny Israeli film Ushpizin which is set in a very traditional community in Jerusalem during Sukkot. Ushpizin [oosh-pee-ZEEN] or [ush-PEE-zin] are visitors to the sukkah.

WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE A SUKKAH? Most synagogues build a sukkah. Calling them to ask about activities in the sukkah is a great way to learn about your local synagogues. Even if it is not practical to have a sukkah at home, however, you can do some similar activities:

  • Go on a picnic with family or friends.
  • Get out in nature! Go for a hike!
  • Invite friends over that you haven’t seen for a while.
  • Reach out to someone you think might become a friend.
  • Reach out to someone who seems lonely.
  • Get to know your neighbors.
  • Reconnect with someone you’ve been meaning to call.
  • Rejoice in the natural world, however you best do that!

Sukkot is a great time to practice the mitzvah (commandment) of Hachnasat Orchim, Hospitality.  Whether you spend this Sukkot as a guest or as a host or (best of all!) a little of both, I hope that you are able to spend some time with friendly people, enjoying the fall weather!


Sick of Synagogue?

September 16, 2013
The main idea is, get outdoors!

The main idea is, get outdoors!

The High Holy Days are behind us.

One common feeling at this point in the fall cycle of holidays is to be really sick of sitting in synagogue.  Yep, me too.

The good news is that the next holiday isn’t primarily a synagogue holiday. Sukkot is celebrated in the YARD.

Or on the balcony.

Or on the roof.

You can celebrate Sukkot anywhere you can build a temporary shelter.

Or — to keep your first round of Sukkot very simple – anywhere you can put a few lawn chairs and a card table.  Or a blanket on the grass.

Yes, it’s nice to have a sukkah. And if you have any connection at all to a Jewish organization, you can go sit in their sukkah, but if you want to get at the heart of the holiday, call up some friends and take them with you. Or go to the park.

This holiday is all about appreciating nature and the harvest. Yes, food. Eaten outdoors. With friends. Or strangers soon to be friends.

Maybe someone  you met at synagogue, who could also use a little outdoors time now.

The beauty of Sukkot is that whether you live in an apartment or a mansion, you celebrate it in a temporary shelter outdoors. If you don’t have a yard, take a picnic to the park. If you don’t have a sukkah (yet) the lawn chairs I mentioned above are fine. Or a beach umbrella. Just grab your stuff, pack some food, call a friend, and GO. You’ll figure it out.

The heart of Sukkot is hospitality and enjoyment, and a recognition that most of the stuff we build in this world is temporary, anyhow.

Sukkot starts on the evening of Wednesday, Sept 18. But don’t stress – it goes on for a week. There will be time.

Sukkot is the kick-back Jewish holiday. We’ve mended our relationships, now we get to enjoy them. No hurry, no worry, just share some food and enjoy the season.

I’ll keep posting about the Jewishy stuff, the sukkah, the lulav, the history — that’s all interesting. But remember, the heart of this holiday is hospitality.

Prepare to enjoy yourself!


Ten Things to Know About the Jewish Days of Awe

September 2, 2013
Apples and Honey

Apples and Honey (Photo credit: slgckgc)

This post is part of an ongoing series “Especially for Beginners” in which I will try to give simple explanations for words and concepts in Jewish life. There is always a lot more to learn than in these little posts. If you want more, follow the links. To see what other topics I have covered in this series, click “Especially for Beginners” in the Category cloud on the right side of your screen.

Things to know about the Days of Awe:

  • The Days of Awe are the ten days from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
  • The Hebrew for the Days of Awe is Yamim Noraim [yah-MEEM no-rah-EEM].
  • The Days of Awe are a time for concentration on teshuvah [turning, repentance], for mending relationships and adjusting the trajectory of our lives.
  • Many Jews approach others during the Days of Awe to apologize for misdeeds, slights, and misunderstandings in the previous year.
  • The teshuvah of the Days of Awe should be not only personal, but communal. Jewish groups, and the Jewish People as a whole confess their wrongdoings and make changes.
  • Sometimes the Days of Awe are referred to as the Days of Repentance.
  • The Shabbat that falls during the Days of Awe is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance.
  • Synagogue services during the Days of Awe are unusual. They have their own music, and they are frequently much longer. They are not typical of services the rest of the year. Hence this is not a good time to “shul-shop” [look for a synagogue.]  During services, someone may sound the shofar, the ram’s horn.
  • Synagogues often charge or sell tickets for the most crowded services, but most larger communities have services that are free or low-cost. Call a local synagogue or Federation to find out about your options, and do so well ahead of time (a month ahead is about right.)
  • The simplest greeting for the Days of Awe is “Shanah Tovah!” [sha-NAH toe-VAH]. It means (roughly) “Happy New Year!”

How can a beginner participate in the Days of Awe?

  • Attend services.  If you cannot find a free service and do not want to pay, know that many services do not charge for some of the less-attended services: Selichot, Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur afternoon services. Shabbat services (other than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur) are open to visitors as they are all year long.
  • Read about the Days of Awe, either online or in a book. The Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days is a place to begin.
  • Participate in making teshuvah. For more about that, read Teshuvah for Beginners and The Jewish Cure for Guilt.
  • Eat the traditional foods of Rosh Hashanah: Apples, honey, sweets, pomegranates (for a sweet new year.)
  • Fast all or part of the day on Yom Kippur. See Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur.
  • Wish your Jewish friends “Shanah Tovah!”
  • Consider signing up for a Taste of Judaism or Intro to Judaism course at your local synagogue. They often begin right after the High Holy Days.

I wish you a Shanah Tovah, a Sweet and Good New Year!

 

 


Why is the Jewish Calendar so Weird?

August 31, 2013

Time Selector

Elul, the month of looking inward, is almost over.  Wednesday night is Erev Rosh HaShanah, the evening of the New Year.

Jewish “days” start at sundown, because in Genesis 1 it says, over and over, “It was evening, and it was morning.”  This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with it.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

There is no doubt about it, we are a stiff necked people, as the God of Israel comments to Moses in Exodus 32:9.  Only a stiff necked people could insist on their own cockeyed timetable for thousands of years of diaspora, tripping over other people’s holidays and calendars and clocks and whatnot.  Ask anyone who asked for Rosh HaShanah off this week:  it’s a nuisance.  Yet we stick out our stiff necks and insist on it year after year after year, annoying our bosses, confusing our neighbors, and making some paranoid types certain that we are Up to Something, an international conspiracy, perhaps.

Why not accomodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Pay attention, because some years, like this year,  Rosh HaShanah is “early.” Mind you, it always comes on the first day of Tishrei, but if you usually live on the Gregorian calendar, this year 1 Tishrei comes on the evening of 4 September, which is unusually early in September. Pay attention, because while in the “regular” world it is 2013, in the Jewish world, it is about to be 5774.

Notice the passage of time.  Notice the cycle of seasons.  Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention.

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:  “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”


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