I’m so excited: my favorite Jewish holiday is coming!
I love Shavuot. I’ve loved it ever since the first time someone suggested I go to Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the Study for the Night of Shavuot, which might better be called the Jewish All Nighter.
I was a new convert, fresh from the mikveh. I’d been going to Torah Study at my synagogue for a while, but I found it very intimidating. Everyone was so sure of themselves! And loud! I was a bit timid, and while I loved study, Torah study was overwhelming. Still, when someone turned to me and asked if I was going to attend the all night study session to celebrate the giving of Torah on Mt. Sinai, I nodded.
I learned a lot of Torah that night, but I learned more about Jews, and about myself. I got a feel for the joy of study, for the adrenaline charge in a good machlochet [difference of opinion]. I learned that even the most scholarly people get silly after 2 am. Most of all, by the end of the night I was one of the gang. I never again felt timid in that room.
It’s been a long time since that first Tikkun. Now I’m a rabbi, and I’m teaching one of the 11:30pm sessions at the community gathering at the JCC. The rest of the night I’ll go from session to session, learning and getting silly and yawning and learning some more. But there will still be that giddy feeling of sitting up all night with the Torah, loving it and loving the people of Torah. What could be more wonderful?
Shavuot (“Weeks”) is just around the corner, and although it is a major Jewish holiday, it’s one of the least known.
HISTORYShavuot combines two ancient observances: a festival for the first grain harvest of the summer and the chag, or pilgrimage holiday, celebrated in Temple times. All Jews who were able traveled to Jerusalem to observe the sacrifices and bring the first fruits of their harvests, remembering and celebrating the covenant at Sinai.
THIS YEAR Shavuot begins at sundown on May 14.
OBSERVANCE TODAY Today we observe Shavuot in a number of ways:
Counting the Omer – Ever since Passover, we’ve been counting UP to Shavuot, building the anticipation for the holiday. Every night observant Jews say a blessing and announce the “count” of the day.
Tikkun Leil Shavuot – How better to celebrate the giving of Torah than to sit up all night and study it? Many Jews gather to study the night of Shavuot (this year, May 14).
Dairy Foods – It’s traditional to eat dairy meals on Shavuot, since if the law is newly given, there’s not yet time for meat to be kosher.
In the Synagogue – We read from the Torah, we recite Hallel (a service of praise) and we have a special Yizkor (mourning) service. For service times, check synagogue websites or call ahead before the holiday begins.
The Book of Ruth is the megillah (scroll) read and studied on Shavuot.
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? This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting 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 Ottoman period.
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.
Image: A menorah, lit for the 4th night of Hanukkah
Hanukkah is coming! Rather than write a redundant “how-to” post, here are resources from around the web for celebrating the holiday.
How to Light the Menorah:
In the video, Rachael talks about the nine candles being on the same level. That’s the most common arrangement and according to some sources, the most correct one. However, some artists have made chanukiot (menorahs) with candles at many different levels. To find the shamash [helper candle] on those, look for the one that stands out in some way.
What to Eat:
This holiday, like many holidays, has special foods. Since one of the Hanukkah stories is a story about oil, it’s traditional to eat fried foods. Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent) eat latkes, potato pancakes:
I’m a Jew who grew up in the American South, so I make Hush Puppies for my family (this is not a tradition except in my house, but I offer it to you. Hush Puppies are delicious and are fried in oil, which makes them Hanukkah-appropriate.)
We are supposed to stop work and celebrate Jewish culture while the lights are burning. I’m going to leave you a project for this one: go to youtube.com and search on Hanukkah and see what you find!
How to Play Dreidel
The Story (Stories!) of Hanukkah
This holiday has some interesting stories and ideas connected with it. This article from MyJewishLearning.com will get you started.
How To Spell Hanukkah
The correct way to spell Hanukkah is חנכה. If you transliterate the word (change the Hebrew letters to Latin letters) then it can be spelled many ways: Hanukkah, Chanukah, Chanukka, etc. In other words, it’s a hard word to spell, and a harder word to mis-spell.
This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project. A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics. My sincere thanks to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, the imabima, for instigating and publicizing this effort. If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate these blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus
That line prefaces a good half of the question asked in my Intro classes. Students say it and pause, looking at me for the go-ahead, and then after I nod reassurance, they ask. It often precedes a really good question, either something basic that should be answered in the class, or my favorite kind of question, something that opens up a good discussion.
I think I understand it. Nobody wants to look stupid, but if you’re the first to say it, it lowers the risk. It also generally gets reassurance from a teacher, and most of us like to be reassured and told that something we’re doing in class is good. And granted, Judaism is intimidating to people who perceive themselves as outsiders or ignorant.
One way I reassure students is to tell them that Jews ask questions. It’s what we do, whether we are the most sophisticated Talmudist or the most rebellious fourteen year old. We celebrate questions, and put them at the center of the Passover seder, one of the holiest events in our year. The writers of the Haggadah were so concerned that we ask questions that they put four (or is it really one?) of them into the text, to model the behavior of questioning.
One good question to ask ourselves is, am I asking enough questions?
HOW ARE YOU? is a question we ask, and generally it is assumed to be the social equivalent of white noise. But how often do we ask it again, with real concern?
WHAT CAN I DO? is a good question to ask myself when I see something wrong happening before my eyes. Am I accepting something I should not accept? One of the big problems connected with bullying is that too few people question hurtful behavior. We can ask that question to another person, too: what kind of help do you want from me?
WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS? is a fine question to ask when someone brings you information you do not need (e.g. gossip). Listening to information about others that we do not need to know is lashon harah[evil speech] just as much as being the informant.
WHAT ASSUMPTIONS AM I MAKING? Am I asking myself questions about the assumptions I make? Why do I assume that one person walking towards me on the sidewalk is more of a threat than the other people? Is an article of clothing or a tattoo or a way of dressing a reason to be suspicious in this situation?
There are also the grand three questions for editing out improper speech: IS IT TRUE? IS IT KIND? IS IT NECESSARY?
And then there is the grand old question of activists everywhere: DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY?
What questions would you like people to ask more often? What questions do you not ask often enough?
Is there any new question you plan to ask at your Seder this year?
I’ve heard many interesting drashot on the plagues, but to me the unifying factor of all plagues is that they are chaotic. In the Creation narrative, the world is tohu vavohu, “formless and void,” some translations say, but fundamentally, chaos. God hovers over it all, and speaks, and by speaking, separates dark from light, one thing from another, until the world is organized and peaceful.
Now, in Exodus 8 and 9, here come the plagues: water turns to blood, frogs swarm out of the Nile, then die and stink. The dust that is everywhere turns to lice, tormenting man and beast, followed by flies, which bite and swarm and carry filth everywhere. Then disease: first the cattle begin to die of anthrax and hoof-and-mouth disease, and their meat and milk are no longer good, then human beings are struck with boils that erupt everywhere on their skin. The sky goes crazy, raining hailstones that cut the crops to shreds, and locusts gobble up everything that’s left. Then the sun and moon fail, and the chaos seems complete: all is dark, itchy, sticky, dis-eased, and there is nothing decent to eat or drink. And then the human promise of a future is erased: firstborn children die. Tohu vavohu: Creation is unmade and all is chaos.
I read those passages in Exodus 8 and 9, and I think of all the suffering people and animals. Pharaoh and the Hebrew God have their confrontation, and I am angry at both of them. They are like politicians talking about eggs and omelettes. “You have to break a few eggs, etc.” — NO. I understand that I am supposed to root for God, and cheer, and I just can’t bring myself to do it.
In a bad year, on a bad news day, we can feel the chaos all around. Two days ago a crazy man shot and killed seven people at a little college in the city of Oakland. I’ve been involved in a conversation on my local Patch.com site (San Leandro) about the fact that little San Leandro seems to be in the midst of a plague of violent crime that has become so commonplace it doesn’t even make the news. People are angry. We feel helpless. We feel like Egyptians.
What are we to do? I keep thinking of the line from the Mishnah: In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being. (Pirkei Avot 2:6) In the midst of the mess, whoever made it, we have only our humanity, our ability to connect to other suffering beings.
So let’s reach out. Let’s talk. Let’s touch. Let’s quit fantasizing about how great the world would be without plagues and instead, reach across the mess to one another. I don’t know how else we can navigate, in a time of plague. We have the example of God in Creation: the power of words.
Somewhere in there, we seek holiness.
This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project. A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics. If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.