What is Yizkor?

April 19, 2014

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If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.

Jewish tradition makes time and space for long-term mourning for those especially close to us. The service of Yizkor (literally, “Remember”) is held four times annually in most synagogues: on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and at the end of Sukkot and Passover. There are psalms and readings appropriate to mourning, and at the end of the service, the service leader reads or chants El Male Rachamim and leads the congregation in the Kaddish.

The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.

There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents.  However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!

Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.

Image by Bill Barber, some rights reserved.

 


What is Chol HaMoed?

April 18, 2014
Matzah brei serving

Matzo brei – a Chol HaMoed treat.

In the middle of Passover and Sukkot, you may hear the term “Chol HaMoed” or “Hol HaMoed,” and you might wonder, “A Whole What???”

That’s what Jews call the middle days of Passover and Sukkot. Both festivals run for a week. The first day (or two) of the holiday is called a “Chag” and is extra special, almost like Shabbat. Same for the last day: ideally, one is home from work and attends synagogue.  The middle days of the week  are still special but do not have so many restrictions: some businesses in Israel might be open, and Jews in Diaspora go to work. “Chol” means “Ordinary” and “HaMoed” in this context means “of the festival” – these are more ordinary days of the holiday.

Now, just to confuse things, you may also encounter this term: Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach. That’s the Shabbat in the middle of Passover, when it doesn’t fall on one of the “Chag” days. It has its own special Torah and Haftorah readings. There’s also one of those for Sukkot in some years. For information on this particular year, consult a Jewish calendar.

There’s a special greeting for these not-so-ordinary days in mid-festival: if someone says to you, “Moadim l’simchah!” it means “Festival of Joy.” You can reply with the same words, or you can just say, “Same to you!”

Note: There’s a trick for saying that “ch” sound in Hebrew. What noise does an angry cat make? The “ch” sound is a little bitty short version of that. If you truly can’t do it, use an “h” sound instead. 

Image: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


What’s Simchat Torah?

September 25, 2013

Simchat Torah (seem-CHAT toe-RAH) or (SEEM-chas TOE-rah) is a joyful day on the Jewish calender.  It concludes the fall series of Jewish holidays. Some things to know about Simchat Torah:

Simhat Torah Flag

Children can’t dance with the Torah in their arms, so they carry flags to celebrate (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)

MEANS – “Rejoicing of the Torah.” Many Jews literally dance with the Torah scrolls on this day.

WHEN - This holiday falls after Sukkot. For Diaspora Jews, it is the second day of Shemini Atzeret. For Israeli Jews and Reform Jews, it is the day after Shemini Atzeret. (Either way, it’s the 23rd of Tishrei, which in 2013, begins at sundown on Sept 26.)

WHAT DO WE DO? – We finish reading the end of the Torah Scroll, then quickly begin reading it again! In many congregations, this activity is accompanied by dancing, parades, and banners.

WHY? - We love Torah, and we want make sure we never stop reading it. Therefore we make a very big deal about beginning again. Also, since the Torah has to be rolled back to the beginning, and that’s a big deal anyway, why not make a party of it? This is an opportunity to express our love for Torah.

Details differ among Jewish communities, and your congregation may have special customs of its own. For instance, when I was a rabbinic intern at Congregation Etz Chaim in Merced, CA, we used to unroll the whole Torah scroll and take a “tour” of it before rolling it up again.

Does your congregation have a special Simchat Torah custom? Share it with us in the comments!


What’s Shemini Atzeret?

September 24, 2013
English: Jerusalem, Western Wall - Jewish holi...

Jerusalem, Western Wall during Sukkot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shemini Atzeret means “Eighth Day of Assembly.”

It is mentioned in the Torah in Leviticus 23:39, “and on the eighth day [of Sukkot] there shall be a solemn rest.” This is a little complicated, because Sukkot has seven days. So what is the eighth day?

Think of Sukkot as a great party (because it is a great party, after all.) Ancient Jews called it “HaChag,” THE Holiday, because it was the most joyful holiday of the entire year. Now, think about the last great party you attended. Did you leave early, or find yourself staying long after the official ending?

Shemini Atzeret is one more day of rejoicing before the rains start and fall comes and things get cold and dark. In the Diaspora, for reasons I’ve discussed before, it goes on for two days, the second of which is Simchat Torah.

This year (5774, or 2013, if you insist) Shemini Atzeret starts on the evening of Wednesday, Sept 25, continuing until sundown on Sept 26.

I hope you’ve had a great Sukkot!


It’s Half-Past Sukkot – Do You Smell Rain?

September 21, 2013
Areas with Mediterranean climate

Areas with Mediterranean climate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Israel and the California coast both have a “Mediterranean climate.” We have rain in the winter, and it is dry in the summer.

For California Jews, this means that we experience the seasons as if we lived in Israel.  At the end of Sukkot, we will change a phrase in our daily Amidah prayer from a prayer for dew (the summertime prayer) to a prayer for wind and rain.  And sure enough, a trifle ahead of schedule, there is rain in the forecast for Northern California. Ideally, it would wait a few days, but still — pretty close!

I love the way the calendar reconnects me to the natural world.  The new day comes when the sun sets, not when the clock clicks over a line. I can look at the night sky, and know where I am in the Jewish month. Certainly, I can look everything up on hebcal.com, but the daily observance of Judaism pushes me to open my eyes, take a walk outside, and notice the world.

Some may say, “Ah, this is because the Jewish Calendar has its roots in the agricultural calendar of the Ancient Near East.” That’s true. But as with many things in Judaism, while it may have its roots in something impossibly long ago and far away, the effect of the observance in the here-and-now is fresh and urgent. Torah calls out to us to pay attention: pay attention to the world of which we are a part, pay attention to the people around us, pay attention to our own words and behavior.

Pay attention!


The Secret of the Sukkah

September 20, 2013

Sukkah

In the spring of 2002, I broke up housekeeping and got ready to move to Jerusalem. I kept only a few boxes of things that were precious to me: photos, books, some family memorabilia, and a few valuable objects including some papers. I knew that I’d be moving around for the next few years, so I got a storage bin in my home town and paid rent on it.  I could quit worrying, I thought: my things were safe and would be there when I was finally ordained.

However, a couple of years later there was a fire in the storage building. Everything in my unit was ruined by smoke and water. All the photos and albums were stuck together with black goo.  The books were mush. Most of it was not replaceable and did not have any “value” in the sense that insurance companies calculate such things. The only thing to do was pick through for a few salvageable bits and toss the rest of the stinking mess.  

We want life to be predictable, but it is not. We want to be “careful” and keep bad things from happening, but that’s not how life works. Between natural disasters and human error and the other zillion ways things can go wrong, a person could go crazy worrying. We can ask, “why do bad things happen to good people?” but really, the answer is that sooner or later, bad things happen to everybody.

The secret of the sukkah is that it is a temporary structure. It takes the terrible uncertainty of life and puts it front and center. In the sukkah, all you have is “now” because tomorrow it will be taken down (or blow over.) And it teaches us that “now” can be beautiful and joyful in its own right. 

The megillah [scroll] for Sukkot is Ecclesiastes. You might ask, “Who wants to sit in the sukkah and read grumpy old Kohelet?” But you see, he knows what the sukkah knows: most of what we think is important is temporary, volatile, fragile. No one in their right mind would try to hoard goodies in sukkah; better to share them than have it all blow away.

Sukkot is a festival of rejoicing. Enjoy the sukkah, enjoy the food, enjoy the friends. Enjoy them right now. We cannot predict tomorrow, but if we live life as fully as we can, at least we will know that we did not waste the golden moment.


Sukkot Vocabulary 101

September 19, 2013
Welcome to the Sukkah!

Welcome to the Sukkah!

Sukkot may be the kick-back holiday of the Jewish year, but it is also a holiday with its share of special words. Here are some of the main ones you may hear. When I give two pronunciations, the first will be Sephardic Hebrew, the second the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation.

Remember, all “ch” sounds are like the German in Bach or a bit like a cat spitting. If you can’t make that sound, just go for an “h.” Pronouncing it as a K is not cool.

GREETINGS

Sukkot sameach! – (soo-COAT sah-MAY-ach) or (SOOK-us sah-MAY-ach) means “Happy Sukkot!”

Chag sameach! – (CHAG sah-MAY-ach) Happy holiday!

Gut Yuntiff!- (Goot YUN-tif) – Happy holiday!

and you might still hear Shana tovah! (sha-NAH toe-VAH) – Happy New Year!

PEOPLE & THINGS

Sukkah – (soo-KAH) or (SOO-kah) is the little shack or booth with furniture in which we hang out for the holiday. Think “play house.”

Etrog – (EH-trog) is a citron. It looks like a big lemon. We shake it with the lulav. If it has a little twig sticking out of it, do NOT break it off. Your host might cry, because a broken pitom (PEE-tohm) renders most etrogim un-kosher.

Lulav – (LOO-lahv) is technically the closed frond of a date palm. It also is used to denote a bouquet of that palm frond with a branch of aravah (willow) and hadass (myrtle). During Sukkot, some Jews hold the lulav and etrog together, say blessings, and wave them around in 6 directions.

Ushpizin – (oosh-pee-ZEEN) or (oosh-PEE-zeen) means “visitors.” It refers not to the regular visitors, but traditionally to seven exalted guests one hopes will visit the sukkah: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. Modern Jews may also welcome Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Miriam, Deborah, Tamar, Ruth, and others. Pictures of them may decorate the sukkah.

If you could invite anyone in history to your sukkah, whom would you invite?

 

 

 


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