Image: Lighting the first candle on the 1st night of Chanukah. Photo by Rabbi Adar.
Chanukah begins this year (2016) at sundown on December 24.
I was all set to write a series of how-to posts about Chanukah, but when I looked to see what else was available, I realized there was no way I could best the offerings on MyJewishLearning.com. So here are some links to great Chanukah how-tos:
“It’s just a minor holiday.” When someone makes a big deal of Chanukah, someone will step in to remind that it is really no big deal. You seldom if ever hear that about any other Jewish holiday: why?
Chanukah began as the celebration of the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt. In the early days it was a celebration of the military victory that established the rule of the priestly Hasmonean Dynasty. The Maccabees threw off the Greek ruler with military prowess, and celebrated by rededicating the Temple with a festival to replace the festival of Sukkot which the Greeks had made impossible that year. The Jews continued to celebrate it for eight days beginning on 25 Kislev every year, and they called it the Festival of Lights. We know this from a book by Josephus, who wrote about it about 250 years later.
The next we hear of the holiday, it is mentioned in passing a few times in the Mishnah, 200 years later. (for example, M. Bava Kama 6:6) but one gets the distinct idea that the rabbis don’t like to talk about it. Also, it has changed names: now it is Chanukah [Dedication.] When the rabbis finally do talk about it in the Gemara, a few hundred years after that, it has become a holiday based on the miracle story of a single bottle of oil that lasted for eight days.
Why the change? Why no mention of the military festival for several hundred years, and then this miracle story? In the meantime the Jewish People had had two great disasters, both associated with attempts to throw off the Romans with an armed uprising. The disaster was the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. The second disaster was the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 136. As Rabbi Lawrence Schiffmann wrote, “By the end of the [Bar Kokhba] war many Jews had been massacred, the land had been devastated again, and distinguished rabbis had been martyred.”
So it is no wonder that the rabbis did not encourage the celebration of the old Festival of Lights. It celebrated a military uprising, and subsequent uprisings were disasters. They turned instead to the miracle story of the oil, to turn young eyes from the glitter of weapons to the peaceful glow of the menorah in a dark night. That is also why you will hear people insist, “It’s a minor holiday.” There is a tradition for playing down Chanukah.
There’s a wonderful Jewish holiday coming soon – 15 Sh’vat, also known as Tu B’Shevat.
It’s not a huge big deal, unless you choose to make a big deal of it. However, if you are around a synagogue, you may hear about it. If you know Jews who are very concerned with the earth and its care, you may hear about it.
All Jewish holidays have changed through history. This one may have changed the most, because it has gone from being an accounting device (really! see below) to being Jewish Earth Day. What hasn’t changed is its other name: The New Year of the Trees.
2. ORIGINAL MEANING.Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah? And a secular New Year on January 1? This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting of plants in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated. At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.
3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS.After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.) These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit. The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.
4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Roman and Ottoman periods.
5. JEWISH EARTH DAY. In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues. The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.
And I am pretty sure that someone was thinking, yes, but that’s not really Sukkot. You want the terminology and stuff, right? So now we’ll talk about that.
WHAT IS SUKKOT?Sukkot [soo-COAT] is the plural of Sukkah [soo-KAH], which is the Hebrew name of the little booth we build for the holiday. You may also encounter the Yiddish pronunciations, [SOOK-us] and [SOOK-uh]. It’s also the Jewish harvest holiday that follows the High Holy Days.
WHEN IS SUKKOT? Sukkot is a fall harvest holiday. It begins on 15 Tishrei, the fifth day after Yom Kippur. It lasts for eight days (seven days in Israel). It will begin on the evening of Sept 18, 2013. On the first two days and the last day of Sukkot observant Jews do no work.
WHY DO WE DO THIS?Sukkot started as a harvest holiday. Nowadays it is a chance to foster our relationships with friends and family. Remember, we just spent the last six weeks mending our relationships — now it’s time to enjoy those improved relationships! The little sukkahs also remind us of our temporary dwellings in the wilderness, and of the impermanence of most possessions. The observance of Sukkot is commanded in Leviticus 23:40-43.
HOW DO WE OBSERVE SUKKOT? Sukkot is unique in that we actually build the place where we celebrate it fresh every year. A sukkah (soo-KAH) is a little shed built to very precise directions, open on one side with a very flimsy roof of branches or reeds. We build it outside and eat meals in it. Some people actually sleep in their sukkah. Many Jews entertain guests in the sukkah, and in Israel, many restaurants also have them for customers to enjoy. It’s customary to decorate the sukkah with hangings, artwork, and home-made decorations.
WHAT IS A LULAV? Observant Jews also “wave the lulav.” It’s a bouquet of palm, willow, and myrtle, held alongside an etrog (citron) and waved to all the compass points, with a blessing. If you want to learn about waving a lulav and etrog, you can find more information here.
ARE THERE ANY MOVIES ABOUT SUKKOT?Yes! There’s a very funny Israeli film Ushpizin which is set in a very traditional community in Jerusalem during Sukkot. Ushpizin [oosh-pee-ZEEN] or [ush-PEE-zin] are visitors to the sukkah.
WHAT IF I DON’T HAVE A SUKKAH?Most synagogues build a sukkah. Calling them to ask about activities in the sukkah is a great way to learn about your local synagogues. Even if it is not practical to have a sukkah at home, however, you can do some similar activities:
Go on a picnic with family or friends.
Get out in nature! Go for a hike!
Invite friends over that you haven’t seen for a while.
Reach out to someone you think might become a friend.
Reach out to someone who seems lonely.
Get to know your neighbors.
Reconnect with someone you’ve been meaning to call.
Rejoice in the natural world, however you best do that!
Sukkot is a great time to practice the mitzvah (commandment) of Hachnasat Orchim, Hospitality. Whether you spend this Sukkot as a guest or as a host or (best of all!) a little of both, I hope that you are able to spend some time with friendly people, enjoying the fall weather!
One common feeling at this point in the fall cycle of holidays is to be really sick of sitting in synagogue. Yep, me too.
The good news is that the next holiday isn’t primarily a synagogue holiday. Sukkot is celebrated in the YARD.
Or on the balcony.
Or on the roof.
You can celebrate Sukkot anywhere you can build a temporary shelter.
Or — to keep your first round of Sukkot very simple – anywhere you can put a few lawn chairs and a card table. Or a blanket on the grass.
Yes, it’s nice to have a sukkah. And if you have any connection at all to a Jewish organization, you can go sit in their sukkah, but if you want to get at the heart of the holiday, call up some friends and take them with you. Or go to the park.
This holiday is all about appreciating nature and the harvest. Yes, food. Eaten outdoors. With friends. Or strangers soon to be friends.
Maybe someone you met at synagogue, who could also use a little outdoors time now.
The beauty of Sukkot is that whether you live in an apartment or a mansion, you celebrate it in a temporary shelter outdoors. If you don’t have a yard, take a picnic to the park. If you don’t have a sukkah (yet) the lawn chairs I mentioned above are fine. Or a beach umbrella. Just grab your stuff, pack some food, call a friend, and GO. You’ll figure it out.
The heart of Sukkot is hospitality and enjoyment, and a recognition that most of the stuff we build in this world is temporary, anyhow.
Sukkot starts on the evening of Wednesday, Sept 18. But don’t stress – it goes on for a week. There will be time.
Sukkot is the kick-back Jewish holiday. We’ve mended our relationships, now we get to enjoy them. No hurry, no worry, just share some food and enjoy the season.
I’ll keep posting about the Jewishy stuff, the sukkah, the lulav, the history — that’s all interesting. But remember, the heart of this holiday is hospitality.
This post is part of an ongoing series “Especially for Beginners” in which I will try to give simple explanations for words and concepts in Jewish life. There is always a lot more to learn than in these little posts. If you want more, follow the links. To see what other topics I have covered in this series, click “Especially for Beginners” in the Category cloud on the right side of your screen.
Things to know about the Days of Awe:
The Days of Awe are the ten days from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
The Hebrew for the Days of Awe is Yamim Noraim [yah-MEEM no-rah-EEM].
The Days of Awe are a time for concentration on teshuvah [turning, repentance], for mending relationships and adjusting the trajectory of our lives.
Many Jews approach others during the Days of Awe to apologize for misdeeds, slights, and misunderstandings in the previous year.
The teshuvah of the Days of Awe should be not only personal, but communal. Jewish groups, and the Jewish People as a whole confess their wrongdoings and make changes.
Sometimes the Days of Awe are referred to as the Days of Repentance.
The Shabbat that falls during the Days of Awe is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance.
Synagogue services during the Days of Awe are unusual. They have their own music, and they are frequently much longer. They are not typical of services the rest of the year. Hence this is not a good time to “shul-shop” [look for a synagogue.] During services, someone may sound the shofar, the ram’s horn.
Synagogues often charge or sell tickets for the most crowded services, but most larger communities have services that are free or low-cost. Call a local synagogue or Federation to find out about your options, and do so well ahead of time (a month ahead is about right.)
The simplest greeting for the Days of Awe is “Shanah Tovah!” [sha-NAH toe-VAH]. It means (roughly) “Happy New Year!”
How can a beginner participate in the Days of Awe?
Attend services. If you cannot find a free service and do not want to pay, know that many services do not charge for some of the less-attended services: Selichot, Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur afternoon services. Shabbat services (other than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur) are open to visitors as they are all year long.