Jewish Spaces: The Holidays
Each holiday has its own unique feeling and atmosphere. There are three major Jewish holidays and several smaller ones throughout the cycle of the Jewish year. The major festivals listed in the Torah are Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. All three were harvest celebrations in ancient times, but they also commemorate historical events and contain rituals through which we live these holidays in their powerful present.
In Israel, the first and last days of Passover and Sukkot and the one day of Shavuot are like the Sabbath, since the Bible commands that no work be done on these days. Outside of Israel, an extra day is added to each of these holy days, though some Reform communities even outside of Israel celebrate only one day. The middle days of Passover and Sukkot are semi-weekdays on which most work may be done but the festival is still celebrated.
Passover is a seven-day biblical holiday that begins on the full moon, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, and commemorates the day the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt. This seminal act of freedom from Egyptian bondage is the moment in Jewish history that is commemorated more than any other. Twice a day, the exodus is remembered in the shemah prayer, and each week Shabbat is celebrated in memory of this exodus. Much more than the powerful revelation at Mount Sinai or the people entering the land of Israel forty years later, it is this moment of leaving Egypt that is remembered and relived.
The primary reliving of the exodus — or as the Midrash sees it, the birth process of the Jewish people from the womb of Egypt — is at the Passover Seder meal. In Israel on the first night of Passover and outside of Israel on the first and second nights of Passover, Jews sit together as a family and tell the story of leaving Egypt. Questions are asked at the meal to spur discussion and the foods of slavery and freedom are consumed in an attempt to truly relive the moment of transition form slavery to freedom.
Questions are such an integral part of the Passover Seder experience that, according to the Talmud, even if it is just you as a couple with no other family or guests, you must ask the four questions or other questions about the exodus to each other. In fact, if one person celebrates the Seder alone, they must ask questions of themselves, showing how essential dialogue is to this night.
Why are questions such an important part of the Passover Seder? Why not just tell the story of redemption?
Much more than telling the story, it is important that the Seder be an interactive — and preferably intergenerational — dialogue, since this moment of freedom was one of transition from slavery to free community.
Before Passover, we rid our houses of chometz, leavened bread. Instead of bread, we eat matzah, unleavened bread, for these seven days. Though the Bible says we eat matzah and not chometz to remember the bread that did not have time to rise as our ancestors were chased from Egypt, the Jewish mystics tell us that matzah and chometz represent much more. Matzah is flat and humble in contrast to chometz. Passover is not just a time of commemorating the past but of personally living the present and preparing for the future. We must search not only our homes to rid them of chometz but also our hearts to be sure ego and haughtiness are removed and replaced with matzah — with humility and an opening of our hearts to the divine and the Torah, which will be received fifty days later on the holiday of Shavuot.
Children should be engaged at the Seder. Giving out stickers or prizes for asking good questions is a custom many find helpful. In ancient times children's attention was kept by doing things out of the ordinary, such as dipping foods. Think of new things to do at your Seder that are unusual, so the children will ask and stay awake.
If the Seder consists only of adults it is important to remember that this is not a holiday for children but primarily for adults. Adults should engage in dialogue and try to discover new insights of their own and deeper messages for each of us today in the story of Egypt. Many hagadas, the book used on the Seder night, have been recently reprinted with explanations in English, and some also make the story of the Seder night applicable to issues of slavery and freedom we may face in our own lives and world.
Shavuot is a holiday many Jewish people are not very familiar with but can be a great opportunity for inspiring Jewish family and home celebrations. Shavuot perhaps does not get as much press as Passover because it does not have any symbols like Passover (matzah) and Sukkot (the sukkah, lulav, and etrog). Shavuot commemorates both thanking God for the wheat harvest and the day the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, fifty days after leaving their Egyptian bondage.
The open-ended nature of the holiday of Shavuot can create great opportunities to shape your own traditions and celebration. It is a time of rededication to the study of Torah, and in many communities people stay up all night studying Torah in celebration of Shavuot. Even if you do not plan to do this, taking some time on the night of Shavuot to study and discuss something Jewish with your spouse or family can make this day a special one dedicated to the beauty of Torah study itself.
There is a tradition that Mount Sinai bloomed with flowers on the day the Jewish people stood to receive the Torah, so you might want to take advantage of the opportunity to buy a special bunch of flowers for your spouse and share memories of your wedding, since Shavuot is also considered a wedding day between God and the Jewish people. Indeed, many of the Jewish traditions from your recent wedding were based on the experience the Jewish people had at Sinai at their “wedding.”
The holiday of Sukkot is the only one on which we enter entirely, with our whole body, into the symbol of the holiday — a sukkah, the quintessence of Jewish holy space. We build a sukkah, a temporary hut, and, as the Bible commands, live in it for seven days beginning on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the year, the month of Tishrey.
Dwelling in a temporary hut can make us feel vulnerable, especially when it rains and we must run out so we don't get soaked. Ironically, though, it is the holiday of Sukkot that is termed “the holiday of joy,” and it is in the sukkah that we feel most joyous. During Sukkot we can gain the realization that we do not need all the material possessions we usually perceive as so essential — our televisions, solid roofs, and heat and air conditioning. On this holiday it is just us, other people, and God, but it is pure joy. The level we reach on Sukkot reflects the utopian time of the messiah during which we will have unity without walls separating us and yet we will feel joy and experience peace. In the words of the prophet Isaiah, we will see even “the lion lying down with the lamb.”
Sukkot falls only four days after Yom Kippur, the day on which we return to God and our true divine selves and became spiritually whole for another year. Thus, on Sukkot, we are intimately connected to God. The sukkah is often seen as a chuppah or even a yichud room in which we live in great closeness to the spiritual. Sukkot is truly a lover's holiday.
On its most basic level, Hanukah celebrates a miracle at the time of the second temple in the first century b.c.e. A small band of Jews defeated a large Greek army. After entering the desecrated temple in Jerusalem to rededicate it, the Jews found only one pure jar of olive oil — enough for one day. Miraculously, this oil lasted for eight days, the time it would take to produce new pure holy oil.
On a deeper level, Hanukah brings light at the darkest time of year since it falls on or about the winter solstice, teaching us that by taking this temple ritual of lighting the menorah into our own homes and families, we affirm that as Jews we believe we are commanded to constantly strive to bring light into a dark world. Each night we increase the number of candles lit until on the eighth night we have a full chanukiah (candelabra) of eight candles. If you can find a menorah that holds olive oil, this is a great way to light the Hanukah candles since it mirrors the beautiful light in the temple of burning pure olive oil.
Purim is a one-day holiday that falls a month before Passover and commemorates a time during the first exile of the Jews from Israel in the year 586
This scroll dictates a one-day holiday on which the story is read, charity is given to the needy, and gifts of food are exchanged, creating a feeling of great unity among the Jewish people. We would have died as one unified people and so we must live as one. The megiliah, the scroll of Esther, also commands that on this day big parties are held. According to the Talmud we are commanded to get drunk, further bringing people together, no matter their class, intellect, or lineage. On Purim we learn what it truly means to be one people and one family.
Sometimes we see the Jewish holidays as just small slivers of what they really are. We sometimes see them as holidays for children when in truth their messages are much deeper. The system of Jewish holidays is one that helps to unite a Jewish family and to condition, through its underlying messages, holy and inspirational ways to see our lives together.