What is Sukkot?

Image: A sukkah in New England, in the USA. Public Domain via wikimedia.

After the intensity of the High Holy Days, Jews celebrate a completely different kind of holiday. (What, more holidays? Yes!)

Beginning on the fifth day after Yom Kippur, we celebrate Sukkot, the “Feast of Booths.” It’s a holiday of celebration, rest, and hospitality, when we build little shacks in the back  yard or on the roof of the apartment building and have friends over to eat for seven days. The first and last days are solemn days of rest.

It began as a harvest celebration, held at that nervous moment in the Middle East when the summer crops were in and the rain had not yet begun to fall. Winter rains are crucial not only for crops, but also for the survival of animals and people when the cisterns have run dry. In the climate of Israel, summer rains are rare; the year’s moisture falls in autumn and winter. Without water, everyone and everything dies.

So there they were, desperate for rain, with the last of the harvest in their hands. No surprise that the people prayed. The interesting thing is that our own story, the Exodus, is woven into the holiday as well. This is a holiday with a double meaning, and a doubled set of commandments:

You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. – Exodus 34:22

You shall live in booths for seven days; all that are citizens in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God. – Leviticus 23:42-43

So Jews all over the world take the days right after Yom Kippur to build a sukkah, a little booth, in their yard. on their balcony or on a roof, to “dwell” (eat and sleep) in to remember our tenuous existence in the wilderness.  For those in a cold climate, that means building a sturdy little sukkah and bundling up to sit there. For those in warmer climes, it’s a laid-back time of outdoor living. For all of us, it is a reminder of the fragility of life, of our vulnerability, a time of closeness and friendship, appreciation and joy.

For the tachlis [practical information] about the holiday and how to celebrate, see 7 Questions about Sukkot and Sukkot Hospitality.




What is a Machzor?

Image: Calligraphy from the Worms Machzor, 13th century. Public domain.

The Machzor is the book of services and prayers for the Jewish High Holy Days, covering the services from Erev Rosh Hashanah [Rosh Hashanah evening] to the close of Yom Kippur. It is different from the Siddur [Prayer Book] used during regular weekday and Shabbat services in synagogue.

The word machzor is from a root meaning “return.” These are special services that return annually.

There are many different machzorim in print, and many others that have been compiled by congregations for their own use. In any machzor, there are certain things you can expect to find, although not necessarily all of them are in every machzor:

  1. THE BASIC SERVICE – The core prayers of the service will remain. To learn more about those, read What Goes on in a Jewish Service?
  2. PIYYUTIM – (pee-you-TEEM) – Special poetic prayers written just for the holy day. These include the Unetaneh Tokef, about which I have written more in The Hardest Prayer in the Book and Life is Unfair. Now What? Another famous prayer is Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King.]
  3. ROYALTY, MEMORY, & SHOFAR – This is a small service embedded in the Rosh HaShanah daytime service, including Biblical verses and poetry, and the blowing of the shofar.
  4. VIDUI – The vidui is a confession of sins.
  5. KOL NIDRE – This legal formula (no, it isn’t a prayer!) opens Yom Kippur service. It is so dominant in the minds of many Jews that many refer to the entire evening service with the shorthand “Kol Nidre.” For more about this text and its many meanings, read What Does Kol Nidre Mean? 
  6. AVODAH – “work” – A Yom Kippur service that recalls the purification of the sanctuary in Temple Times.
  7. MARTYROLOGY – Also known as Eleh Ezkarah “These I remember” it is a recitation of names and stories of Jewish martyrs.
  8. JONAH – On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the Book of Jonah, which is usually included in machzorim for that purpose.
  9. NEILAH – The closing service of Yom Kippur, which takes place as the sun is setting.

You don’t need to acquire a machzor; it is supplied by the congregation. However, one way to prepare for the High Holy Days is to read and study a machzor.

May you have an insightful and fruitful High Holy Day season!

Is There One Right Way?

Image: A confused child. Photo by Sergey Nemo, via pixabay.com

There is a story about a woman who was teaching her daughter-in-law how to make brisket. She said, “Always have the butcher cut off the narrow end of the brisket. Otherwise it won’t be kosher.” Now, the daughter-in-law had taken an Introduction to Judaism class before her conversion, and she thought that sounded odd. She called her rabbi and asked about it.

“That IS interesting,” the rabbi said. “Ask your mother-in-law who taught her to do that.” And the mother-in-law said that her mother had taught her just exactly that (and what is wrong with that rabbi, anyway, that she doesn’t know the rules of kashrut?)

“Ahh,” said the rabbi, who was going to be visiting the Home for Jewish Parents the next day. “I’ll get back to you.” And the rabbi made sure to visit the grandma-in-law while she was at the Home the next day.

“I always made brisket that way because I had a short pan!” said the grandma-in-law. “We didn’t have money to buy either a whole brisket or a new pan, so I always just had the butcher cut me off a piece!”

Every Jewish family has its own way of doing things. Some cut the challah; others tear it. Some put a mezuzah only on the front door; others put one on every door but the bathroom door. Some have roasted chicken for Passover; others have roast lamb.

Be a little skeptical any time that someone tells you there’s only one correct way to do something Jewish. It is true that there are some things that are so firmly part of the tradition that you don’t want to mess with them: don’t bring bread to a Passover seder, for instance. But there are other things that may be a firm tradition for only part of the Jewish people (e.g. some Sephardic Jews eat lamb on Passover, Ashkenazi Jews regard lamb as forbidden for the seder.)

There are also some things that are only “Jewish law” for a very limited community or even a single family. We refer to those things as minhag hamakom [custom of the place.] Inside that limited community, those practices carry a great deal of weight, but outside they are not required. Often, those practices begin as something practical (as in the brisket story) or as someone’s private piety. Others copy, and then it becomes “Jewish Law” for that community.

If you are curious about a practice, you can always ask, “Where did you learn that?” You can also ask a rabbi about it. It is always good to know why you are doing something – otherwise practice devolves into superstition.

Some family customs are beautiful and worth keeping. Others may be due for a little update. A little curiosity and a little study can reveal all sorts of interesting things about that “one right way” to do something Jewish!

5777: Jewish Years Explained

Image: Street sign in Jerusalem “Happy New Year St.” Photo Mt Scopus Radio  Some rights reserved

We’re about to begin the year 5777 and sooner or later, someone will wonder, “5777 years from WHAT?”

The simple answer: 5777 years from the creation of the world, as determined by counting back years in the Bible. The setting of this date is credited to Maimonides, who mentions it in his book, Mishneh Torah: Sanctification of the Moon, 11:6, written about 1178 CE, but it may have been in use for some time before that. This kind of numbering is called Anno Mundi meaning “Year of the World.”

You and I both know that human beings weren’t created on the sixth day after the Big Bang. We could get into a very interesting discussion about “days” in the context of creation (literal days? or something more metaphorical? or is the Creation story not really about time at all?). And then we could look at some of those times listed in the Bible – (Noah lived how long?) We could stomp off harumphing about how the Bible and science are completely incompatible.

The truth is that religion and science had a battle long ago, and many of us decided that scientific method was better at addressing the “how” of the world, so we quit looking to the Bible for science. Torah explores the meaning of creation, a question that science can’t and won’t address.

BUT – long before we abandoned the notion of a six day Creation a few thousand years ago, we Jews began numbering the years by a certain pattern. We remember many things in terms of their placement in Jewish time. Also we are “a stiff-necked people” and we cling to some things just to be stubborn. So even though it is a bit anachronistic, we still number our years by the old system. On Rosh Hashanah morning, the shaliach [service leader] will announce the arrival of the year Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy Seven.

So the more complex answer to the question, “Why 5777?” is “Tradition!”


5 Books? Much More? What is Torah?

Image: A group of Jews studying Torah together (Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved)

What does the word “Torah” really mean?

Jews use the word in multiple ways, and it can be very confusing to those who haven’t spent a lot of time inside the community. Let’s unpack those multiple meanings:

FIVE BOOKS – The first five books of the Bible are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They are what is written in the Torah Scroll that you see in the synagogue. We have gone to great lengths to preserve the written words exactly as they have come down to us. The words are Hebrew. Some of them are hard to translate. More of them are hard to understand. Some of them are extremely upsetting. But we preserve them all.

ORAL TORAH – The “Oral Torah” is a body of literature that has come down to us from ancient times. The idea is that Moses didn’t write everything down; some laws and interpretations of the law were handed down from Moses, to Joshua, and on down to us:

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples and make a fence for the Torah. – Pirkei Avot 1:1

Originally it was not written down – hence the name “Oral Torah” – but periodically our community faced a crisis in which the leaders feared the knowledge might be lost, and that wisdom was recorded. Oral Torah includes the Talmud and other writings.

A WAY OF LIFE – Beyond any written sources, many communities and families hand down understandings of how Torah is to be lived. While scholarly members of those communities usually can tie those understandings back to written sources, the majority of Jews simply live the traditions as they were taught them. We see this in the way a particular community understands the practice of keeping kosher: this many hours between meat and milk, this way of preparing the kitchen for Passover, these heckshers (rabbinical certifications) are acceptable and those are not. Another community will disagree: no, more hours between meat and milk, etc. A third community or household might say, no, the point of kashrut is to move us towards vegetarianism or veganism! In all cases, the speakers will regard what has been handed down to them, or what they have adopted after study as Torah.

So if someone explains something to you by saying, “It’s Torah!” it is perfectly OK for you to say to them, “Tell me more.” Maybe they will point you to a verse in the book of Exodus. Maybe they will cite a passage from Talmud. Maybe they will say, “That’s what my rabbi / my grandmother taught me.” All are legitimate.

However, “legitimate” does not mean that it is written in stone. Talking to other Jews about Torah is one way to learn. Studying with a rabbi (or many rabbis) is another way to learn. Reading the texts for yourself, or better yet, studying them with other Jews, is an excellent way to learn. Experimenting with your own practice is another way to learn.

Ultimately, living a life of Torah means engaging with it, both Written and Oral Torah, and including the handed-down traditions that have no text. Engaging with it may mean saying, “Yes, I will commit to that!” or it may mean, “Goodness, no, that conflicts with everything else I know about Torah!” It may even mean saying, “I will commit to that for now, and continue to learn.”

Torah is a path towards holiness, not just a list of laws. In the book of Exodus in the story about receiving Torah on Mt. Sinai, there is a wonderful verse:

 וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית, וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע.

And he took the book of the covenant, and he read so that the people could hear, and they said, “All that the Eternal has said, we will do and we will hear.” – Exodus 24:7

“We will do and we will hear.” – This, after hearing a reading of Torah! This was the beginning of a process of Torah: hearing and doing and hearing and doing and so forth and so on, through all time.

Torah doesn’t stop. It isn’t a frozen thing. It is a way of life and a process of engagement with holiness. As Hillel said:

This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it. – Shabbat 31a



The Jewish Bible ≠ The Old Testament

Image: My bookshelves at home. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

If you find this or any other article on this blog offensive, you have options! Check them out at Hack On, Hack Off.

Something I hear on a regular basis: “The Jewish Bible is just the Old Testament, right?”

No. And while I always chalk it up to ignorance, understand that it’s at best an ignorant statement. I’m sure you don’t want to sound ignorant or say anything offensive, which is why I’m writing this.

Jews don’t think of the Tanach (ta-NAHKH) as the “old” anything. It’s the library of canonical books we refer to as “The Bible,” or “Scripture.” It’s our collection of holy books, including the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings (Psalms, etc.) We hold these books in deep reverence.

There is a Christian collection of books known as the “New Testament” that we don’t recognize as our holy scripture, any more than Christians recognize the Quran as their holy scripture.

Referring to our Bible as the “Old Testament” suggests that there is a new, better edition out. That is what Christians believe, and in a Christian context, that’s fine. At a Christian Bible study, it’s fine. It’s not fine to say it in a synagogue: it is like going to a Buddhist event and referring to the participants as “heathens.” It will definitely mark you as someone who doesn’t know any better.

Also, the Jewish Bible IS different from the Old Testament portion of the Christian Bible. The two are organized differently. They have been translated differently. For instance:

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14, King James Version

Assuredly, my Lord will give you a sign of His own accord! Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14, Jewish Publication Society translation, 1985

That’s just one of the more famous examples of a difference in translation. There are many more of them.

So, when you’re talking about the Jewish Bible, call it that, or use the Hebrew term “Tanakh.” That’s one way to show that you have done your homework.

Jewish Funeral: Why not send flowers?

Image: A Jewish cemetery. Note the pebbles left on monuments. Photo by Darelle, via pixabay.com.

“Should I send flowers to a Jewish funeral?”

Many readers search that question, or something like it. The simple answer is: NO. Flowers are not part of Jewish funeral traditions.

Instead of flowers, Jews appreciate a memorial donation to a charity or social justice organization. Often the family will name a particular fund or charity for memorial donations. If there is no charity named, then donate to the organization of your choice. The amount of the donation is unimportant; give according to your means.

Most organizations will mail a card to the family letting them know of the memorial gift. Give them a name and address in addition to the name of the deceased.

Why no flowers? 

  • First, it is Jewish tradition, going back millennia.
  • Second, there is a strong feeling in our tradition that in death people should all be treated equally. Having flowers at the funeral or on the grave would mean that wealthier folk would have a bigger “show” and poorer people would be shamed.
  • Third, a donation to a fund that will relieve suffering or make the world better is a more lasting memorial than flowers.

What else can one do to honor the dead?

  • Attend the funeral.
  • Visit the family at shiva. (See 5 Tips for Shiva Visits)
  • Visit the grave and leave a pebble on it as a mark that a visitor was there.
  • Attend any events in honor of the dead.
  • Call or visit the mourners periodically during the first year of mourning.

For more about Jewish funerals, see Jewish Funeral Etiquette: 10 Tips.

For more about supporting mourners, see Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning