My friend Dawn Kepler* and I were talking recently about ways to make Chanukah more meaningful. How might we use the framework of eight days and make it a real re-dedication to Jewish values?
We decided we’d set up a list of eight Jewish values and give them each one day of Chanukah. We’d plan appropriate activities for ourselves and/or our households. We brainstormed activities that might be suitable for different households (depending on ages and abilities.) The idea of activities is not simply doing for doing’s sake, but doing for the sake of learning. Be sure to reflect and talk afterwards!
Now we invite you to look ahead at your calendar, see what Jewish value might fit each day. If our activity suggestions are too modest for you, Yasher koach! Go do something that you think would be better.
1. Nidivut – Generosity
a. Go shopping for a needy family.
b. Make breakfast in bed for the family cook.
c. Visit an animal shelter and give them your old towels and sheets for bedding.
d. Give gifts to one another.
e. Shop for a local “Toys for Tots” drive or for the Food Bank.
2. Tzedek – Justice
a. Write a letter to an elected official about some issue of justice.
b. Teach each other about a justice issue dear to us.
a. Volunteer at the Food Bank or similar nonprofit.
b. Give out clean, new tube socks to people on the street asking for help.
c. Visit someone who is shut-in, if possible light the menorah with them.
d. During the week of Chanukah give one dollar to every person you see begging. (Keep a stash of dollars just for them.) Talk about how it felt at the end of the week.
There are many more Jewish values to choose from, many more activities that you might try to express and learn about these and other values. Explore the possibilities, and let me know how it goes!
* Dawn is the Director of Building Jewish Bridges, a wonderful organization that supports interfaith families. If you are in an interfaith relationship, or have an interfaith family, check out their website!
I know this because my friend Mark has begun stockpiling matzah. Ever since the Great Matzah Shortage of 5768, he has watched for the first kosher-for-Passover (KforP) matzah to appear in the stores and he snaps it up. He’s discriminating – he has his preferred brands – but he is not going to be caught short of matzah, because eating matzah is a commandment for Passover.
This weekend Linda mentioned to me that Mark found some matzah, so now I know it: spring is coming.
Since some of you may be wondering about shopping for Passover, I thought I’d pass along some basic tips. I hope that some readers will add their tips to the comments, too.
1. BUY MATZAH EARLY – You do not want to look for matzah at the last minute. It truly is a requirement for any seder, no matter how liberal or laid-back. You also want to check the label carefully, because often the nice people at the secular grocery store don’t realize that there is matzah and then there is kosher-for-Passover matzah. Just because it has “Maneschewitz” on the box doesn’t mean it is OK for Passover. Somewhere on that box it must say “Kosher for Passover.” [Some people like to eat matzah year round; they buy regular matzah anytime. Kosher for Passover matzah is made according to the laws of the season, and for more detail I will point you to the Orthodox Union page on the subject.] (Thank you to Rachel Fleming on Twitter for this tip.)
2. BUY KOSHER WINE EARLY – If you are hosting a seder, or if you are taking a bottle of KforP wine as a table gift to a seder, pick up your wine early. As with the matzah, it is a commandment to serve it or grape juice at the seder. Particularly if you crave “nice” kosher wine (not the cough syrupy stuff some find nostalgic) it may be hard to find in the days immediately before Passover.
3. DON’T GET CRAZY – If you shop in a Jewish store or in a city with lots of Jews, you may find the wild variety of processed KforP food pretty dazzling. Particularly if you are a newcomer to the Jewish world, you may feel paralyzed by the choices or you may feel like you need “one of each.” Stop right there: step AWAY from the shopping cart! All that stuff is still processed food and most of it is not particularly nutritious. If there’s something a family member loves, of course that’s different. But truly, you don’t need to break the bank buying lots of mixes and faux-cornflakes. Passover is a great time to eat lots of the fresh fruits and veggies appearing in spring, most of which are automatically kosher for Passover. If you enjoy cooking, get a Passover cookbook and get the ingredients you need for some interesting-sounding dishes.
Speaking of “Don’t Get Crazy,” if you are feeling confused or crazed when you think about Passover cleaning, I wrote an essay a while back that may help: Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt.
4. STORE YOUR PASSOVER FOOD. Until you get the kitchen and/or house ready for Passover, leave your Matzo and KforP wine in its wrappers and away from your regular food. You don’t want them mixed in where someone may snack on them or get chametz in there. This is the reason the KforP matzah comes in a box that is also shrink wrapped: the manufacturer is not taking any chances on contamination.
5. PACE YOURSELF. I know, it’s easier to say it than to do it. Start early, go steadily, and do your best. Don’t be so busy getting ready for Passover that you fail to enjoy Purim. Always remember that human beings are more important than anything else.
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:
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!
Did you know that you can tell where you are in the Jewish month, just by looking at the night sky?
Every Jewish month begins on the New Moon, when the sky is darkest. We call that day Rosh Chodesh, “Head of the Month.” In ancient times, that’s how the calendar was set: experienced Jews would look at the sky from the Temple Mount and decide when it was the New Moon. They would then make the official announcement of the arrival of the new month.
So if the moon is dark, it’s a new Jewish month. To find out which month, consult a Jewish calendar. <- If you click on that link, it will take you to the niftiest Jewish calendar imaginable. If I could access only one website, it would be hebcal.com, no kidding.
If the moon is waxing (appearing to grow larger) then we are in the first half of the month. If it is waning (appearing to grow smaller) a new month is coming. Some Jewish holidays (Purim and Passover, for example) begin near the 15th of the month: no surprise there, it’s the Full Moon!
This is also the reason that the Jewish calendar sometimes seems crazy relative to the secular calendar. The Jewish year is lunar (matched to the moon) with periodic adjustments to keep it in sync with the seasons (the solar year.) So some years the holidays seem “early” or sometimes “late.” Really, they’re right on time.
The best thing to do is to get a Jewish calendar and use it. But some things you can know just by looking at the sky: “It’s Rosh Chodesh!” you can say, whenever you see the New Moon.
“Why bother with a separate calendar?” some might ask. The beauty of the Jewish Calendar is that it brings us into sync with the rhythms of nature. Days begin at sundown, not at a mark on a clock. Months begin when the moon is dark; they swell and then fade. While we can learn details and names from a calendar or a website, the plain facts of Jewish time are in the sky above us, if we are only willing to go outside and look.
Tu B’Avis a minor but fun Jewish holiday. After the mourning of Tisha B’Av, this is a lovely little day to be happy and to celebrate love.
Tu B’Av = Fifteenth of the Month of Av. In Hebrew, the letters that form the number 15 can also be pronounced “Tu.”
Today in Israel, it’s called Chag HaAhavah, the Holiday of Love, and it’s a favored day for weddings. Think of it as Jewish Valentine’s Day.
In Temple times, in Jerusalem, the grape harvest began on the fifteenth of Av and ended on the tenth of Tishrei, Yom Kippur. On both those days, single girls dressed in white and went to dance in the vineyards in the afternoon. It was a traditional time for courtship.
There are no big religious observances for the day. However, it’s a good day to get married, a good day to fall in love, and a great day to tell your loved ones “I love you.”