Kislev Tov 5781!

Image: Chanukah gelt on a dark brown table. (lisa-skvo / shutterstock)

It’s Rosh Chodesh Kislev! Rosh Chodesh means “first of the month.” Look at the sky and you will see almost no moon at all – the New Moon is the signal for the new month. This year, if the sky is clear, you may also see the Leonid meteor shower, with the sky so nice and dark.

The most famous thing about Kislev is that on the 25th of the month, we will begin the celebration of Chanukah. (On 12/10/2020, this year.)

The name “Kislev” (KEES-lev) comes from the Akkadian word kislimu, which means “thickened.” Since it’s a month in which rains come to the Middle East, perhaps it’s a reference to the mud that come with heavy rain. The Akkadians were an early civilization in Mesopotamia, and much of the modern-day Jewish Calendar comes from Mesopotamia.

Why Mesopotamia? Because that’s where our ancestors were exiled after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE. There was an earlier calendar, with its New Year in the month of Nisan in the springtime; remnants of that calendar may still be found in the Torah, which speaks of the month in which Passover falls as “the first month.”

So Rosh Chodesh Tov, or Kislev Tov, whichever you prefer. I hope you have a joyful month.

It’s Rosh Chodesh Tevet!

Image: Candles on the menorah are nearly out. (Ri Butov / Pixabay)

Welcome to Tevet!

Tevet is the month that begins in the middle of a holiday. We are celebrating Chanukah, and when we light the sixth candle, the month of Tevet arrives to join us.

Despite its fancy beginning, Tevet is a quiet little month for Jews. The biggest thing to happen in it is not a Jewish day at all: the Gregorian New Year (January 1) usually falls in the month of Tevet.

The only other official Jewish day of observance in this month is Asara b’Tevet [10th of Tevet] on which some Jews fast to remember the day in 588 BCE when the army of Nebuchadnezzar, emperor of Babylon, laid seige to Jerusalem. In the month of Av, a year and a half later, they would enter the city and destroy Solomon’s Temple, which we refer to as the First Temple.

Rosh Chodesh is the first of every Jewish month. It means “head of the month” and it lines up (more or less) with the New Moon.

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. Tevet in Babylon was Tebetu or something similar. If you are curious about the Babylonian calendar there are a few Internet sites that explore it, including this one.

Enjoy the last remaining nights of Chanukah and don’t forget to add the greeting, Chodesh Tov!  Happy New Month!

Feeling the need for a good Jewish calendar? You’ve got one in your smartphone or computer!

A Jew on Christmas Day

Image: My neighbor’s house is amazing. (Photo by Adar.)

My neighbor’s house is amazing, like a branch office of Disneyland.

My house has a menorah in the window. One of our poodles is mesmerized by the menorah; we don’t know why.

Many Jews are gathered for a family party, because this is the day that most of us have time off.

Some Jews are gathered with Christian relatives.

Some Jews are going to the movies, and out for Asian food.

Some Jews are feeling awkward about all the “Merry Christmas” greetings, and some are not.

Some Jews have really been enjoying all the wild lights in their neighborhood (that’s me.)

Some Jews are glad they don’t have to clean up the mess afterwards (again, me!)

Some Jews are working, having traded the day with Christian co-workers; they’ll be off for synagogue next Rosh HaShanah.

Some Jews hope the rabbi doesn’t stop by and see their Christmas tree.

Some Jews are feeling really conflicted about all of it.

Some Jews and many others are working today: cops, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, nurses, people at the power company, people working transit, clerks at the 7-11.  (Thank you!)

Some Jews are feeling left out.

Some Jews are ladling food at soup kitchens.

Most Jews and their neighbors wish for Peace on Earth, today and every day.

Because there is too much hunger, too much poverty, too much war, too much disease, too much pain, too much sorrow, too much tsuris in the world.

May the new secular year be a year in which we can find a way to work together against war, poverty, hunger, and pain.

May be new secular year be a year in which we have the courage to see new ways of listening and talking, walking and running.

May we have courage. May we have heart. May we have strength.

May we remember this feeling of being the Other the next time we are tempted to Other another.

Amen.

(Adapted from a previous post, in a different year. Time flies, and things change.)

Ask the Rabbi: Why Can’t Jews Have a Christmas Tree?

Image: Golden Christmas tree shape on a red background. (monicore / Pixabay)

When I try to imagine the person asking this question in this way, the first person who comes to mind is someone who loves Christmas trees and is living with a Jew who does not love Christmas trees. They have said to the Jewish roommate/spouse/friend, “Why can’t we have a Christmas tree?” and the Jew has replied something like, “Because Jews aren’t allowed to have Christmas trees.”

As a way to get at the real question, may I suggest a little exercise?

You and your partner/roommate/spouse each take a piece of paper, go to your own corner for a bit, and answer these questions in writing. Then come back together to share your answers.

  • What feelings do you experience when you see a Christmas tree?
  • What do Christmas trees mean to you?
  • What is your earliest memory of a Christmas tree?
  • What feelings do you associate with that memory?
  • What is your strongest memory of a Christmas tree?
  • Why is that memory so powerful for you?
  • What other things give you the feelings that a Christmas tree gives you?

Notice that I am not even once asking for your rational thoughts. There is nothing rational about Christmas trees, unless you count the ones put up in shopping districts to encourage people to spend money. A home Christmas tree is an object of emotion. Also, don’t try to anticipate what the other person will say. Just write about what is true for you.

Then: trade pieces of paper and go back to your separate corners. Read what the other person has written. Sit with their emotions. Do not judge their emotions. Think about that last question: what gives you the kind of feelings that Christmas trees give that other person? If you love that person, read with the eyes of love, if you can.

Then you will be ready to have a conversation.

The person who loves Christmas trees may talk about any number of things, including: love of Jesus, love of secular Christmas, times of family closeness and warmth, fantasies of family closeness and warmth, memories of a particular relative, colorful lights in a dark room are beautiful! Presents! Or: I couldn’t have a tree as a child, but now I am an adult and I am finally able to have that tree! I want my children to have the experiences I remember from my childhood Christmases.

The person who doesn’t love Christmas trees may have all sorts of things on their list, too: Christmas trees make me feel like an Outsider, they remind me of mean things people did to me when I was a kid, Christmas trees are fire hazards and therefore scary, a Christmas tree has no place in my house because I am a proud Jew, Christmas trees remind me of presents that were never for me, the alcoholic in my family always got drunk at Christmas. I do not want my children to be confused by a Christmas tree in the house.

It may be that as you pay attention to each other’s emotions, things sort themselves out. For example, I do not keep bees because they are horrifying to my wife. My desire to keep bees is not as great as her horror at the thought of them nearby. On other things, we compromise: she collects Star Trek memorabilia but keeps it in her personal space, not all over the living room.

It may also be that the partners can get what they need, without resorting to a symbol that’s upsetting to one of them. There are many ways to experience family warmth and to make memories without having a tree in the house. Shabbat, for instance, comes once a week, involves candles and lovely lights (see The Lovely Lights of Shabbat and Havdalah: A Sweet Finish to Shabbat.)

But it may also be that there is no easy answer, that one partner loves the tree and the other is horrified by it. In that case, getting some counseling to help in sorting things out is vital if you want the relationship to thrive.

Pro tip: Don’t approach a rabbi wanting them to tell you it’s fine to have a Christmas tree in a Jewish home. Most rabbis have strong feelings about cultural appropriation, whether it is about Christmas trees in Jewish homes or the Southern Baptists deciding it’s fun to have a “Christian Passover Seder” for Easter.

When is Chanukah 2019?

Image: A chanukiah, or menorah, with only three candles lit.

Chanukah 2019 will begin at sundown on December 22, 2019, and it will conclude at sundown December 30.

For more about the holiday check out How to Chanukah, which has links to many resources.

Thoughts for the 2nd Night of Chanukah

Image: Menorah with 2 candles and shamash lit. (innareznick/shutterstock)

The first night of Chanukah is always a bit chaotic at my home. We’re all excited about the holiday, but we can’t find the matches, oops, did we buy candles? and where IS the electric menorah we put in the front window?…

And I look up the blessings and make sure that the tunes are in my mind. One verse of Maoz Tzur and I’ve got it…

Sometimes I wonder if the real reason the sage Hillel said, “Light the candles so the light increases night after night” was that he suspected that some of us would burn the house down if we lit all the candles the first night! However, that’s not what the Talmud says.

The Sages taught in a baraitaThe basic mitzva of Hanukkah is each day to have a light kindled by a person, the head of the household, for himself and his household. And the mehadrin, i.e., those who are meticulous in the performance of mitzvot, kindle a light for each and every one in the household. And the mehadrin min hamehadrin, who are even more meticulous, adjust the number of lights daily. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree as to the nature of that adjustment. Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, he kindles one light. And Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, he kindles eight lights…

The reason for Beit Hillel’s opinion is that the number of lights is based on the principle: One elevates to a higher level in matters of sanctity and one does not downgrade. Therefore, if the objective is to have the number of lights correspond to the number of days, there is no alternative to increasing their number with the passing of each day. – Shabbat 21a

The second night, I am calmer.  I know where everything is, I’ve been humming the blessings ever since last night, and even the food tastes better, because the novelty of the first night is behind us. 

I appreciate a holiday that goes on long enough for me to really settle in to it and get to know it. Tonight is the 2nd night. There’s much to contemplate: the tiny spectacle of two little candles against the dark, the continuing miracle of Jewish existence, and the wonder that every year, we push back on the darkness and it does, indeed, recede. 

Chanukah sameach! Happy Chanukah!

The Most Beautiful Sukkah of All

Image: A wooden door with a rusty padlock. (Pixabay)

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 nailed a roof on the sukkah to keep it 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 her head, and visited Yacov’s house. She saw the structure in the yard, with the big lock on the door and the wooden roof above. “Is that your sukkah?” she 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. She saw the golden furniture, and the art, and the carpet. She saw the pallet on the floor. She looked up at the roof.

She 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 a 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 friend, 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 things forever. We must appreciate beauty in the here and now, for we do not know what will come tomorrow. Let me ask you this: 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.

Note: I have published this story in a slightly different form in years past. 

Candlelight: Seize the moment!

Image: The last candle hung on for three minutes after the rest.

Chanukah is almost over.

When the whole chanukiah is blazing it is a wonderful sight. When several people are over it’s even more amazing – my dining room table aglow!

Once the candles are lit, we play games or talk or just hang out. Halakhicly speaking, we aren’t supposed to do any work by the light of the Chanukah candles. The reality that we may mess up and do something improper is the real reason for the shamash or helper candle. It’s nice to light with it, but its real function is to provide additional light to cover any action that isn’t strictly play.

The candles don’t last long. Chanukah candles come in all sizes, but most of them are designed to burn quickly. We light them, we play, and before we know it, they are out.

Seems to me that one of the lessons of the chanukiah is that every moment in life is a brief moment. If we don’t pay attention to the candles, they will be gone. If we don’t pay attention to the bright things in our lives, we’ll miss them altogether.

Linda and I have a tendency to sit and stare at the candles while they are lit. We chat about whatever is on our minds, but as the candles burn down, we begin to speculate on which will last longer. We watch the little candles as they melt, and as the wax runs all over the foil we put underneath, I begin to wonder uneasily if there are any holes in it. Then I bring my mind back to the here and now: Candles! They don’t last long. Don’t waste them worrying about something that can’t be fixed now.

Life is like that. Moments are here, then they pass. When my children were tiny, the most important lesson they taught me was that nothing lasts: the good things are sooner or later outgrown, and so are the not-so-good things. Colic didn’t last forever. Neither did the babbling I loved so much.

How has your Chanukah been this year? Did the candles bring you any lessons you care to share?

Holiday Blues?

Image: Shiny blue ornaments surround a small white tea light.

Reader Teme reminded me that a lot of people are suffering from holiday blues.

Holiday Blues happen to both Christians and Jews. I don’t know if they happen to Hindus and to Muslims but I suspect they do, because they’re really just an outgrowth of human nature.

Holidays come with many associations, baggage along for the ride. We have memories of actual holidays past and a lot of programming for how holidays ought to be.

Good holiday memories can be a blessing to treasure forever, but if they contrast sharply to our current situation, they can be painful. Remembering good times with a loved one is more complicated after that loved one is gone.

Bad holiday memories (the year Aunt So-and-so said she didn’t like her present, the year an obnoxious cousin made everyone cry, the creepy guy under the mistletoe, the year everything went wrong) can spill into the present moment. It’s reasonable that gift-giving might be fraught after Aunt So was nasty, or that the taste of latkes brings back memories of the obnoxious cousin.

Expectations about a holiday can be particularly difficult. When the bar is set too high, there’s no way actual experience will measure up. If you are convinced that “every normal family has a beautiful Chanukah with tiny, perfect gifts and no grease fires in the kitchen, no crying babies, nothing but cozy warmth” then of course your Chanukah will be a disappointment. Same for Christmas: if it’s supposed to be “the most magical day of the year” you are set up for failure. When cranky old Uncle Ned starts in about politics, or the kids start fighting over a toy, or the special food flops, then yeah, it’s depressing.

And even more so, if you are alone for the holiday, or childless again this year, or this year there isn’t money for special anything – the holidays can be painful.

So what can we do? How to fight back against the holiday blues?

  1. Let reality be real. If there is a specific grief ruining your holiday this year, it may be that all you can do is accept it. Feel the emotions, don’t fight them. Be honest with anyone who asks. Stay away from people who demand cheer from you and hold close those who understand your particular pain.
  2. Count your blessings. Especially if the issue is more diffuse, notice the good things in your life. Instead of holiday cards, write thank you cards. Tell the people who have been good to you specifically why you are grateful for them. Choose to notice what’s right, instead of focusing on what’s wrong.
  3. Look outside yourself. Focus on what you can do for other people. Soup kitchens and shelters need extra volunteers on holidays, so that those who celebrate those days can do so with their families. Call around, and see who needs volunteers. Say kind words to people who need kindness. If you have money, share it. If you have food, share that. Looking outside ourselves can break cycles of destructive thoughts.
  4. Take care of yourself. If you have health issues, do what you can to take care of yourself. Be sure to eat and sleep – but don’t live to eat or sleep. If you need to see a doctor, and that’s possible, then see a doctor. If you can’t afford to see a therapist, remember that the Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, you can call 1-800-799-4889. It’s OK to call: You are the person they are waiting to help. And yes, if you take medications of any sort, take your meds!
  5. Take a chance. If there’s something you are sort of looking forward to and sort of not, take a chance and go. Reframe “it could be awful” as “it could be pretty good.” Then give yourself an out: it’s OK to leave quietly if it makes you miserable.
  6. Get some exercise. Move more than you have been moving. For some that might be a walk around the house. For others, that might be a six-mile run. Choose something do-able that will push you a bit. You will sleep better and feel better.
  7. Put on some happy music. Hate Christmas carols? Put on some music that YOU like. Maybe dance to it (see #6 above.)
  8. Meditate. When did you last try meditation? The website gaiam.com offers a nice primer for beginners which lists several ways to meditate. Meditation is good for body and soul; for some people, it’s like a “reset button” in their day. Even if it hasn’t worked for you in the past, what do you have to lose?
  9. Pray. One of the great resources for Jews, and for Christians as well, is the Book of Psalms. There are 150 of them, and they address every emotion of which a human being is capable, from quiet happiness to rage. Dig around in there and see if you can find words that express your feelings. Naming a feeling is powerful. Praying that feeling is even more powerful.
  10. Go to services. Unlike the High Holy Days, you don’t need a ticket for Jewish services in December. See what the prayers have to say to you. Listen to the Torah portion (if it’s a daytime service) or the psalms in the evening service. Sing any songs you recognize, even if you are not a singer. Breathe with the congregation. For Jews, services are a respite from the relentless Christmas message in December.
  11. Keep Shabbat. And keep on keeping it. Part of what happens to us with holidays is that we build up those expectations and load them onto one day, or one week a year. Then, as I pointed out above, they are doomed to fail. However, Shabbat comes to us every week with its warmth and light. Figure out what “keeping Shabbat” means to you, and practice it faithfully. Some weeks will be wonderful and others will be “meh.” Some may be a bust – but there’s another Shabbat right around the corner, there to give you rest.
  12. What else? I’m sure readers can suggest some other treatments for the Holiday Blues. What works for you?

I’m sorry you have the Holiday Blues. I am having a nice Chanukah this year, but I have had my years when Christmas or Chanukah or Passover or the High Holy Days have worked on my last nerve. The feelings are real. I hope that something on this list helps.