What does “Chol HaMoed” mean?

Image: On Chol HaMoed Pesach, many Israeli families visit the beach in Tel Aviv. (Some rights reserved, via wikimedia.)

Two Jewish holidays run for a week, or eight days, depending on how you do them. One is Sukkot, the other is Passover.  Those days begin and end with special days, and the chol hamoed are the “ordinary” days in between.

The holidays begin and end with a yom tov (literally “a good day,” but in reality a very special day.) Those days are very similar to Shabbat: they are days of rest, days to spend in joyful observance and study. Ideally we do no work on those days, nor do we handle money, run errands, etc. They are days of enjoyment, with good food and friends. They are also days of celebration: we celebrate the holiday at hand.

Outside the Land of Israel, we celebrate yom tov in pairs, 2 at the beginning of Passover, and two at the end. Inside the Land, we celebrate only a single day of yom tov at the beginning and end of Passover. (If you are curious about why, see Why Some Holidays Last Longer Outside of Israel.) The exception to this rule is the practice of Reform Jews in the United States, many of whom follow the custom of the Land of Israel. (For what your congregation or community does, ask your rabbi.)

The days in between the yamim tovim (plural) are called chol hamoed, meaning “ordinary days of the festival.” We still celebrate the holiday (during Passover, we eat matzah and refrain from eating chametz) but even the most observant Jew can drive the car, handle money, and so on. In Israel, schools and many businesses are closed during chol hamoed, so it is a time for family vacations. In the Diaspora, we may go to work, but we still make time for the spirit of the holiday.

Now you may be reading this, thinking, “I can’t do all that!” and perhaps feeling a little guilty. The truth is that not all of us have yet reached this ideal of celebration. Especially outside of Israel, it’s hard to do, because the secular world around us doesn’t stop to celebrate Passover or Sukkot. Please don’t beat up on yourself or feel bad about it – and don’t give up on it as an ideal. Perhaps not this year, perhaps not next year, but sometime in your life you may have the opportunity to take some vacation time and truly inhabit the holiday.

Jewish observance is not a pass-fail test, even though some people may talk about it that way. Ideally, if we observe the Jewish year to its fullest, we will reap spiritual rewards – but as the saying goes, if it was easy, everyone would do it! Instead, focus on doing what you can do to experience the holiday to the fullest level available to you.

May you have a meaningful holiday, and grow daily as a  member of your community and Am Yisrael, the Jewish People!

 

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Chag Sukkot Sameach!

Chag Sukkot sameach – Happy Holiday of Sukkot! – to all my readers.

I’ve been out with various difficulties for the past few days, but my head is full of thoughts and I promise to be back soon with more to say.

Sit in your sukkah – or somebody’s sukkah – or a coffee shop – and share Torah and love with friends old and new. Let the simple blessings of friendship fill your life and your days for this week-long holiday of joy.

Talmud and the Absurd: The Elephant in the Sukkah

Here is a lovely bit of Talmud to study. When we need a break from a painful present, Jewish study can provide both rest and refreshment.

This particular story offers some of the arcana of sukkah construction – or does it? What are the rabbis up to in this passage?

The Talmud Blog

Since the 1990’s (and Daniel Boyarin’s Carnal Israel), there has been a fair amount of discussion about the Talmud, the carnivalesque, and the absurd.  Put simply, the Talmud contains a fair number of passages, even halakhic ones, that we might say operate on a plain other than the normal sphere of human existence.  Amazingly, these passages interact in strange and unexpected ways with the more regular talmudic fare.  Much of this research has been driven by criticism developed in the study of literature that probes the meaning of “bizarre” texts and their relationship to the normative work. This is, for example, one of Socrates and the Fat Rabbis primary concerns, and it also powers a fascinating discussion about courtroom etiquette in Barry Wimpfheimer‘s  Narrating the Law.

This morning, reader Yair Rosenberg sent me Pshita‘s most recent creation – a children’s story that reworks the following talmudic discussion.

If…

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What in the World is Shemini Atzeret?

Image: Stanford University Hillel students enjoying a meal in their sukkah, October 2009. (Stanford University Hillel, via JTA.org)

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.

For a great take on the holiday read Rabbi David Evan Markus’ article on the JTA website, On Shemini Atzeret, Just Hang Out.

This year (5778, or 2017, if you insist) Shemini Atzeret starts on the evening of Wednesday, Oct 11.

I hope you’ve had a great Sukkot! Enjoy one more day of fun!

My Sukkah is Soggy :-(

Image: A rain-soaked pergola. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

My sukkah (soo-KAH or SOOK-uh) is soggy. Actually, the sukkah-stuff is still in the garage; what you see in the photo above is the very wet pergola that becomes my sukkah every year with a bit of presto-change-o.  A big storm is blowing through the Bay Area, with heavy rain and strong winds, and bits of it are going to blow through for a couple of days more.

On the one hand, frustrating: NOW is the time to set the sukkah up, and frankly, unless I want the walls and the rugs and so on to blow down the hill and over into the neighbors’ yards, it’s better to wait. On the other hand, my back is still out from Yom Kippur (too much sitting in synagogue) so maybe this is a gift in disguise. Anyway, I am a Californian, and it’s against the law here to complain about water that falls from the sky for free!

 

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.

 

 

 

The Most Beautiful Sukkah

Image: A wooden door with a rusty padlock.

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 his head, and visited Yacov’s house. He saw the structure in the yard, with the big lock on the door and the wooden 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 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 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 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.