Of all the Jewish observances, Shabbat is the only one prescribed by the Ten Commandments, being one of the earliest and most cherished of Jewish customs. As is the case for all Jewish holidays, it lasts from sundown to sundown. On Friday night the mother blesses the Sabbath candles, and the father says the prayers over the Challah (twisted bread) and sacramental wine.
Tu B'Shvat is the "New Year of the Trees" or Israeli "Arbor Day," celebrated as a planting festival. It is also to raise our ecological awareness and to remind us of our duty to repair the Earth (Tikkun Olam). Our love of nature stems from the Torah itself, which is referred to as "a Tree of Life." In Israel, children celebrate by planting young saplings; in America, we contribute to the Jewish National Fund which plants trees in Israel; everyone eats dates, carob, and fruit, symbolizing the fruits of trees and those fruits harvested.
Purim, "The Feast of Lots," is the jolliest of all holidays. The Book of Esther (Megillat Esther) is read and tells us how the queen and her uncle Mordecai saved the Jews of Persia from a plot by the evil Prime Minister Haman to destroy them. The holiday is filled with merriment. All dress in costume like the characters in the Purim story and shake "groggers" (noise makers) to "drown out" hated Haman's name. On this day we eat hamantaschen (three-cornered, filled pastries) said to represent Haman's pocket or hat. Each year, we celebrate with a Community Purim Festival (Adloyadah) at the Uptown JCC. This event is free and open to the entire community.
Considered the most important of the Jewish festivals, Passover commemorates the slavery in Egypt of the Hebrew people and their Exodus out of Egypt into the land of Israel. Again, there is the two-fold meaning of Pesach - the feast of freedom, and the spring agricultural festival. The Seder, the traditional meal, conducted and eaten in a special order, is led from the Haggadah (the seder book) filled with Passover symbols, stories and songs. The best known symbol of Pesach is matzah (unleavened bread).
Shavuot, which means the "Festival of Weeks" or the "Feast of New Fruits," occurs seven weeks after Passover. It is a triple holiday, a three-fold celebration, which commemorates the receiving of the Ten Commandments by Moses atop Mount Sinai, the harvesting of wheat in the land of Israel, and the ripening of the first fruit in Jerusalem. While on Passover the Jews were freed from slavery, on Shavuot the freed slaves were made into free men by the receiving of the Ten Commandments. Traditional food for Shavuot includes blintzes, cheese cake, honey cake, and other dairy dishes which remind us that Israel was once called "the land flowing with milk and honey."
Erev Rosh Hashanah
The evening before Rosh Hashanah day, called Erev Rosh Hashanah, commences at sundown.
Rosh Hashanah, which in Hebrew means “First of the Year," comes early in the fall. Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the ten-day period called the “Ten Days of Penitence” or the “Days of Awe.” Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement,” concludes this holy period.
The evening before Yom Kippur day, called Kol Nidre, commences at sundown.
Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is the last day of the “Ten Days of Penitence” which according to Jewish tradition is a time of repentance, prayer and charity. On this solemn and important day, Jewish men and women are encouraged to refrain from eating and drinking and even young children try to fast for at least part of the day. The people spend the entire day in prayer worship.
Sukkot or the "Feast of Tabernacles" recalls the momentous journey of the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land, where they lived in tents and booths, or sukkot (plural of sukkah). During this week we decorate the sukkah with fresh fruit, flowers, and greenery, and enjoy many meals outdoors. From this biblical festival it is said that the American Pilgrims drew their inspiration for the American holiday of Thanksgiving.
The eighth day of Sukkot is Shemini Atzeret, a "day of Holy assembly," on which prayers are offered for rain so that there may be an abundance of crops during the next twelve months.
The last day of the holiday is Simchat Torah, which literally means "Rejoicing in the Torah." This important holiday reviews for the Jews the great role which learning has played in Jewish life and marks the traditional pilgrimage to the ancient sacred Temple of Jerusalem.
Chanukah, meaning "rededication," is the festival of lights which celebrates the Maccabean victory of twenty-one centuries ago in ancient Palestine, when brave Judah Maccabee and his small band of followers saved the Jewish nation from the Syrians. For eight days each year, beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, one additional candle on the Chanukkiah (Chanukah menorah), or eight-branched candelabra, is lit to recall the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Originally, the little jug of oil found by the Maccabeans was thought to contain enough oil for only one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, hence, eight candles on the Menorah with one main candle, the Shammos, used for lighting each of the others. Games with a dreidel (top) are played, and children often receive Chanukah gelt (money) and gifts each night after the candles are kindled and blessed. Dairy dishes including latkas (potato pancakes - symbolizing cooking in the miracle oil) are eaten, often with sour cream or applesauce. In Israel, jelly doughnuts called sufganiyot are eaten. Chanukah is a festival of freedom, and we delight in keeping alive a tradition which commemorates a successful struggle against tyranny.