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THE JEWISH HOLIDAYS AND FAST DAYS
The Jewish holidays fall into four categories: 1. the Sabbath, the day that God made holy; 2. the High Holidays, the celebration of nature of Gods creation and the relation of man to God; 3. the "Major holidays" (also known as the "Pilgrimage Holidays") which are holidays that were ordained for the Jewish people in the Torah; 4. the "Minor holidays" which are the holidays ordained for the Jewish people after the Torah was "closed" (about the year 1000 b.c.e.). The Shabbat, of course, is the number one holiday because it was the day that God rested from the work of creation. Here is the 'scoop' on the second category:
OUR CALENDAR AND ITS LAST MONTH
The Jewish calendar, as a distinct time keeping instrument, originated some 3,500 years ago, when the Jews became a nation at the time of the exodus from Egypt. Even before they actually left Egypt, God told Moses, "This shall be unto you the beginning of months;..." [Exodus 12:2] By saying this to Moses, God actually bid him establish a Jewish calendar. To be sure, the Jews did not originate the calendar they adapted for themselves a calendar that the peoples around them used. But they gave their calendar a national Jewish character and, because they were a covenant people, in a relationship with God, they abolished all traces of idolatry from it. Thus, the calendar of Moses had no names for the months -- for these names were usually related to a pantheon on gods -- only ordinal numbers (i.e. 'first month,' 'seventh month,' etc.) The calendar was a tool for creating a national feeling among the emerging slaves who were to become the nation of Israel.
Long before the exodus took place, though, the folklore of the Israelites established the season of Fall as the time of year when God created the world. This lore may be understood in connection with the agrarian nature of the Israelites: for farmers, the cycle of creation begins in the fall, when the seeds are put into the earth. Thus, even though the national calendar began in the month of Aviv (spring), there was a different time to mark the beginning of all things!
Moses, in establishing the celebrations of the Israelites, was commanded by God to set up a special time, in the fall, for spiritual renewal: "...In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation... Howbeit, on the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; there shall be a holy convocation unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls... for it is a day of atonement for you before the Lord your God..." [Leviticus 23:24-28]
Time keeping is a human preoccupation that probably dates back to the beginning of civilization. When man became aware of the cycle of nature and the cycle of time, he tried to make sense of the changes of these cycles by predicting when they will occur. Without doubt man became aware first of seasons: at times it was warm, and at other times it was cold. Later, he noticed the phases of the moon: some times there was a full moon, other times the moon was less than full, and at times there was no moon at all. This cyclic change of the moon led man to create a timekeeping system that is called a 'lunar calendar.' The Jewish calendar is one such instrument. In Temple days the priests set the calendar for a month at a time just before it began by actually observing the condition of the moon in the sky. After Jerusalem fell and the Jews were exiled from their homeland, it became necessary to set (or reset) the calendar and regulate it for the Jews needed a uniform system that they could keep from year to year.
Rabbi Hillel II (330 - 365 C.E.) is credited with fixing the calendar permanently by a special mathematical formula - though the formula took many generations to work out. It is also assumed that it was Rabbi Hillel II who changed the order of the months, setting the time of the new year in the fall. Though he did not leave us his reasons for doing so, we can readily understand what they were: national life had ceased for the Jews, and their lore concerning God's sovereignty based on His ownership of a world He created needed reinforcing.
PREPARATION FOR THE NEW YEAR
The last month of the calendar is a time of preparation for the period of repentance and return known as the High Holidays. According to the same basic principle that teaches that those who dont prepare on Friday cannot rest on Shabbat, Judaism also teaches that you cannot reach a spiritual climax during the Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur season without "training" during the month of Elul.
A special "penitential" psalm (Psalm 27) is added to morning and evening services for the duration of this last month of the year. This psalm includes the verse, "...Hear, Oh Lord, my voice when I call..." -- and in so doing bids us to call on Him. It concludes with the words "Hope in the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage; Yea, hope in the Lord!" A good message to fix in ones mind at this time of the year.
From Rosh Hodesh (the 'head' of the month of) Elul to Yom Kippur Sepharadic Jews rise long before the sun to recite before the morning prayers a special service called "slikhot" or forgiveness. Among the Ashkenazim, on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, the faithful congregate in synagogues at midnight, and thereafter before dawn, for a pre-Shakharit (morning) service known by the same name, Slikhot. This tradition continues to this day.
Tradition suggests that the origin of Slikhot is with King David, who, having been told that Israel will suffer punishment for their transgressions against God offered the first penitential prayers to try and avert Gods wrath and actually change the bad decree. We know for a fact that Rabbi Amram, in the ninth century, transcribed an order of Slikhot prayers to be used on all fast days.
Perhaps the best known slikhot prayer is the Avinu Malkenu "...Our Father, our King, We have sinned before you. Our Father, our King, we have no sovereign but you... Our Father, our King, Deal with us with lovingkindness and mercy and save us..."
ROSH HASHANAH - THE JEWISH NEW YEAR
Judaism celebrates the New Year as the anniversary of creation, and it is a time of new beginnings since the "old" year is over and a new year is about to begin. Repentance and atonement are the central theme of the High Holiday period. When Rosh Hashanah, the new year arrives, we perceive God as judge trying us in His court. Then, on Yom Kippur, sentence is passed and our fate for the coming year is sealed.
In todays world, as advanced and sophisticated as we are in matters science and in technology, the idea of God as a judge passing sentence on us may be a little difficult to accept - we are not 'primitive' enough to accept a God-person, a master puppeteer; at the same time (if you think about it seriously and honestly you will conclude as I have) we are still too 'primitive,' not enlightened enough, to grasp the concept of an infinite, non-physical, non-person sovereign God that Moses and our other great religious leaders tried to teach us about.
How, then, should we view a 'day of judgement?' Maybe we can look at it as a psycho-drama: We are all familiar with the study of the inner workings of the mind, which we call psychology, and how stress can bring about a physical or a nervous breakdown. Our forefathers understood these problems of the psyche two millennia before Dr. Freud wrote about it and set it down as a subdiscipline of medicine. Our sages realized that the mental well-being of each and every one of their co-religionists depended on being rid of all guilt known and unknown. Absolution from guilt can be arrived at in a number of ways and Judaism, being an ethical faith, tried to bring it about through good deeds, loving-kindness and making amends.
Thus the concept of a period of repentance is one which demands of us to try to makes things right, to "square" things, with our fellow men. Next we spend some time and effort in meditation, seeking the peace of mind that comes from communion with God. Beyond the prayer for God's forgiveness and the time we spend in prayer, we have a symbolic physical activity, called "tashlikh" (throw-away), in which the entire congregation goes to a river, a lake, or the sea -- and each congregant "casts away" his/her sins into the flowing water. This process is meant to restore our spiritual and psychological balance.
YOM HAZIKARON YOM TRU'A
Psalm 81 gives us the formula for celebrating this event in our calendar. "Blow a shofar at the new moon, at the full moon on our feast day. For this is a statute for Israel, an ordinance for the God of Jacob. This He ordained in Joseph for a testimony, when He went out through the land of Egypt." Commentary tells us that the "feast of the full moon" refers to the two week-long holidays, Sukkot in the fall and Hag Hamatzot in the spring, both of week occur on the fourteenth day of the month, when the moon in full. These holidays are part of the "Major holidays" which I mentioned earlier. The "new moon" time, at which the shofar is blown, is the anniversary of creation, an the time of new creation and re-creation. It is a time to recall and to remember -- to reflect on our life and our experience, and try to realign our lives to our goal of serving God and His purpose. God, we are told, also remembers, and God, in His infinite wisdom and vision, decides on the future of all of his creation. Thus the shofar, the ram's horn. is an instrument of sounding the alarm, a warning, which is called in Hebrew 'tru'a.' We speak of God as judge, who on this day makes us all pass before Him in judgement.
YOM KIPPUR -- FAST OF ATONEMENT
The Torah commands us to afflict our souls, and the Rabbis explained that "affliction" means fasting, depriving oneself of food from before sunset of one day till after sunset on the next. Before the Jews came over to the New World, before America became the land of overabundance, depriving oneself of food was indeed a big sacrifice.
People, since the dawn of creation, had less food than appetite. In such circumstances the fast was really a challenge and an ordeal. In our own times, however, we are so well fed, indeed -- so overstuffed, that affliction (almost) becomes a "cure" merely a one-day diet (usually followed by an orgy of eating to "break-the-fast" that cancels the diet value of the fast, and adds inches to the waistline). Thus, the fast is merely an exercise in self control, a worthy and not very difficult challenge, or task, that reinforces other customs of Jewish existence. Many, these days, claim that "fast" is not a valid form of afflicting ourselves!
There is, however, another, more symbolic, reason for the fasting: on this one day we try to make ourselves less human, or "animal-like," and more God-like. The Rabbi and the Cantor wear white robes to remind us of the Angelic heavenly hosts. We avoid the necessities of our physical being and concentrate on our spiritual qualities. Since we dont ingest anything, we have no need to evacuate, and our whole being is less "body" oriented. We concentrate on communication with God and communion with Him. Some people suggest that 'atonement' is actually the act of being at one with God, or 'at-one-ment.'
Why is it necessary to deprive oneself of food during Yom Kippur? The answer lies in the very name of this holiday. The Day of Atonement is a day of reckoning a payment for wrongdoing. Atonement is not repentance, nor forgiveness rather, it means payment for deeds done. The only difference between atonement and mere payment is that in atoning one is supposed to be very sincere in the desire to reform, so that one wont repeat the transgressions. Yom Kippur, a day that is spent completely and exclusively "beyn adam lamakom" -- between man and His God, is a time to reflect on past failures and plan a course of action that will allow us to grow, to improve, to realize the potential that God has placed in each and every one of us. Different prayers trigger in us anxieties, remorse, hope and faith. All our yesterdays fell short of God's promises -- but all our tomorrows are endowed by our Creator with possibilities, with promise.
THE BLESSINGS OF THE FOODS OF THE HOLIDAY
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, as at the beginning of all Shabbatot and khagim (holidays), the woman of the house lights candles. If there is no woman, or if the woman is not capable of blessing the candles, a little girl can do it, too. Only where no female is available is a man allowed to bless the candles. Please understand: the candles must be blessed, not merely ignited. The blessing over the candles is repeated on the second night of the holiday. The candles ale lit and blessed no later than twenty minutes before sunset. If the holiday falls on Shabbat, the first night the candles are lit twenty minutes before sunset, and the second night (which is at the end of Shabbat) they are lit after havdalah, forty minutes after sunset. We recite two blessings, (for candles) Barukh ata Adona'y, Eloheynu melekh haolam asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehadlik ner shel (shabbat ve) yom tov. Barukh ata Adona'y, Eloheynu melekh haolam shehekhe'yanu veki'yemanu vehigi'anu lazman hazeh.
It is traditional to recite a silent prayer immediately after the candles are lit and blessed. Because the holiday is "yom Hazikaron" (remembrance day), it is a good idea to pray to God as "aloheynu velohey avoteynu, elohey Avraham Yitzkhak ve'ya'akov, Sarah, Rivka Rakhel veleah -- our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah." It is also a good time to mention our generations of martyrs who lived by God's precepts and died for His glorious name -- and finally it is traditional to ask for a good year for us and our families, friends and neighbors, nation and world.
After the candles are lit we wash our hands (netilat yada'yim) and recite the blessing (for washing hands) Barukh ata Adona'y, Eloheynu melekh haolam asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al netilat yada'yim. We are then ready to sit at the holiday table, and it is traditional to have a round khallah with raisins, a container of honey, and an apple cut to slivers. We cut the bread and recite the "hamotzi," Barukh ata Adona'y, Eloheynu melekh haolam hamotzi lekhem min ha'aretz. We dip the khallah in the honey and eat it. Then we take a sliver of apple, dip it in the honey and recite the following blessings:
(for Apples & honey) Barukh ata Adona'y, Eloheynu melekh haolam boreh pri ha'etz. Yehi ratzon milefanekha, Eloheynu velohey avoteynu shetekhadesh aleynu shanah tova um'tuka. Blessed are you, Lord our God, king of the universe, who does create the fruit of the tree. May it bee Your will, our God and God of our fathers, to grant us (renew for us) a good and sweet year.
In some homes they also have the tradition of offering a pomegranate section to each person at the table, and they recite a blessing, (for pomegranate) Yehi ratzon milefanekha, Eloheynu velohey avoteynu shenirbe zkhu'yot kerimon. May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, that our good deeds be as numerous as the seed in the pomegranate.
(Blessing we pronounce upon each other) Yehi ratzon sh'yislakh Adona'y Eloheynu al kol khataim veyiten lanu shanah shel shalom, shanah shel bri'ut, shanah shel brakha vehatzlakha. Leshana tova nikhatevu v'nihkatemu. May the Lord our God and God of our fathers forgive all sins and grant us a year of peace, a year of health, a year of blessing and success in all that we undertake. May we all be inscribed and sealed for a good year. Amen
THE MAJOR HOLIDAYS
In Jewish tradition, we differentiate between those holidays commanded to us in the Torah and those whose origin is post-Biblical.
The first holidays, those mentioned in the Torah, include the High Holidays (which we celebrated a couple of weeks ago) and three festival, pilgrimage holidays, known in Hebrew as Shloshet Regalim. The first of the three pilgrimage holidays begins a mere four days after Yom Kippur.
SUKKOT - THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES
"...on the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the feast of tabernacles [sukkot] for seven days unto the Lord. On the first day shall be a holy convocation unto you... it is a day of solemn assembly...howbeit on the fifteenth day of the seventh month when ye have gathered the fruits of the land ye shall keep the feast of the Lord seven days.... and ye shall take you on the first day the fruit of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willow of the brook, and ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days...ye shall dwell in booths seven days....that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths [sukkot], when I brought them out of the land of Egypt..."
We can see from this text in Leviticus 23:34-43 that Sukkot was meant to be an important holiday from the very time of the establishment of "the Jewish way of life." It was to be a different celebration from all other times.
Judaism is not merely a faith in one God, and so its holidays are geared to be the binding agent of the Jewish people into one nation. Thus, the national feelings of the Jews were reinforced through their holidays. Sukkot is a perfect example of this reinforcement process: the travails of the years of wanderings in the desert commemorated through the tabernacle or booths were meant to create a physical feeling of a common past.
The trials and the tribulations of the past, when they are overcome, become a fond memory. So it is with the desert and the generation of the desert; in retrospect, the wandering and the grumbling of the people were forgotten while the miracle of survival in the desert and the spirit that made a crowd of slaves become a nation of God-fearing people shone as a bright star. It is this star that illuminates the holiday of Sukkot.
To be sure, there is also a "natural" element to celebrating the holiday, since it was the end of the harvest season and a time of thanksgiving for Gods bounty.
CARRY-OVER OF PENITENCE THEME
Though the period of repentance and return ends with Yom Kippur, the theme of absolution from sins -- and Divine pardon for sins - is carried on to the end of Sukkot. The reason for this is that if penitence is real and sincere, if we really charge our emotions and electrify ourselves with the fervor and spirit of the High Holidays, then it is close to impossible to "turn off the juice" with the last sound of the Shofar at the end of Neilah (the closing prayer of Yom Kippur). We need an extended period to release and discharge the tremendous feelings generated and brought to a zenith on Yom Kippur -- a time to "come back down to earth.
This calming down period was incorporated into the holiday of Sukkot. Though allegorically God seals our fate for the coming year on Yom Kippur, and though the period of repentance ends on that day, the next ten days or so are considered a "grace period".
GODS GRACE & MERCY IN THE POST-KIPPUR PERIOD
During the holiday of Sukkot we no longer ask for Gods pardon, as we did during the High Holidays, but instead we ask God for mercy and salvation above and beyond reason and justice. It is in relation to this request for salvation that we use the symbols of Etrog and Lulav. The Etrog is a citrus fruit related to the lemon, but larger and more sturdy, with a sharper and more pungent aroma. Its shape and size resemble the human heart which the etrog symbolizes.
The lulav is made up of a thin, straight branch of a palm tree, bound and entwined with branches of willow and myrtle. The palm branch represents the spinal column, the motor nerve center of the body. The willow represents the arterial network system feeding the blood from the heart throughout the human body; and the myrtle represents the veins of the body, returning the blood from the limbs to the heart. Another version sees the myrtle as a symbol of the eyes and the willow as a symbol of the mouth.
ETROG AND LULAV - HOSHA-NA
Services for the Major holidays include a special service called "Hallel." Before the Hallel of the Festival of Sukkot, except on the Sabbath, the etrog & lulav, symbolizing the vital organs of the human body, are held together while a special blessing is recited over them. During the Hallel, every time the words Hosha-na (meaning "Please save") are said, the etrog and lulav are shaken.
This symbolizes the anxiety of all the life-preserving organs of our body in the face of Gods judgement begging still further to mitigate our "sentence" from the time of trial of the High holidays. We also have a special prayer just before the conclusion of the morning service, called "Hoshana," from which the Christians got the religious term Hossanas. To draw attention to the importance of the etrog and lulav in the service, a Torah scroll is taken out of the Ark at this time, though it is not read. An etrog and lulav are held by the leader of the service, who then chants pleading verses asking for Gods saving grace. The end of every verse is the Hebrew "Hosha Na."
"Because You are our God, please save us. Because You are our Creator, please save us. Because you are our Redeemer, please save us. Because of the truth of Your Covenant, because of Your Greatness and Your Glory, because of Your Goodness and Holiness, save us now!" On the seventh day of Sukkot we have more Hosha-na prayers than on the first six days, as this is "the last day of appeal, and the day is called "Great Hosha-na day" - Hosha-na Rabbah.
SHMINI ATSERET EIGHTH DAY OF ASSEMBLY
The day after Hosha-na Rabbah is the "eighth day of assembly," and is not really a part of Sukkot. Rather, it is a day of special gathering, a solemn occasion to remember the Israelites of all past generations. This Memorial day, to be celebrated throughout Israels history, was prescribed for us in the Bible. On this day the Jews were to remember their departed. This tradition continues on to this day.
YIZKOR -- MEMORIAL SERVICES FOR THE DEAD
On the last day of Shloshet Regalim, the three Festival Holidays, we have a special service during the morning prayers just after the reading from the scrolls of the Torah which is called "Yizkor" (Memorial) service. Originally, there was such a service in the Yom Kippur liturgy. The origin of this service, on Yom Kippur, is in the verse, "Forgive, oh Lord, Thy people whom Thou hast redeemed." [Deut. 21:8] Commentary on this verse suggests that we have two 'counterparts' here: "Forgive, oh Lord, Thy people" refers to the living, while "whom Thou hast redeemed," refers to the dead -- those of past generation, such as those who left Egypt. The commentators suggest that God judges all -- the living and the dead, and therefore, it becomes incumbent upon us to pray for God to forgive the dead as well. However, many commentators on our prayerbook suggest that the Yizkor service did not actually come into our liturgy until the end of the first Crusade, at the beginning of the twelves century. The entire Jewish population of many of the small towns of the Rhein river and of Western and central Europe were massacred or forced to convert. It was during that period that "Kiddush Hashem" -- dieing for the sake of glorifying God's name became an honored and accepted tradition in Judaism. In the aftermath of the death of so many, the question was asked, "who shall mourn for these martyrs, who left no offspring to recite the Kaddish for them?" The community leaders instituted the communal mourning service -- Yizkor! One of the reasons that this is believed to be the 'history' of the memorial service is the fact that this particular service is only offered in Ashkenazic congregations.
SIMKHAT TORAH TIME OF RECYCLING
Outside of Israel, after Shmini Atseret, we have yet another day of celebration when we end the cycle of the reading of the Torah, and begin again with the first portion in the book of Bresheet, or Genesis.
The tradition of reading the Torah dates back to Ezrah the scribe at about 500 B.C.E..
The reading is done in weekly portions, so that at the end of Sukkot the reading is completed, and the new cycle is begun. To mark this ending and beginning we hold special services, giving honor to our ancient and sacred book the Torah. In Israel, Simkhat Torah is celebrated on Shmini Atseret.
The reason that it is celebrated as a special, extra day outside Israel has to do with an old tradition - and a newer reason. In ancient times, when the Jews lived in Israel and in the Mesopotamian diaspora (500 B.C.E. to 100 C.E.), the new month was fixed month by month by the religious authorities in Jerusalem. The announcement of the new month was made by lighting a great bonfire on the highest hill outside of Jerusalem. Observers would see the fire and light their own bonfire from one lookout spot to another all the way from the Hills of Judaea to the banks of the rivers of Babylon.
The Jews had an enemy, the Samaritans, who wished to see the Jews break their Holy obligations. These Samaritans would sometimes ignite fires on hills near enough to the "signal" hills for the observers, far away, to mistake for the real fire and that caused confusion among the Jews of Babylon. If there were fires two nights in a row -- which night was the "real" night of the new [moon] month? To avoid the possibility of profaning a holiday, the Rabbis ordained that two days of holiday should be celebrated instead of just one, thus one of the two days would be the Torah-decreed holiday.
When Rabbi Hillel fixed the calendar mathematically, there was no longer a question as to which was the "real" and exact day for any holiday. The question came up: "should the second day be dropped?" The Rabbis decreed that it should not. They reasoned that the very atmosphere of the Land of Israel is imbued with holiness. However, outside of Eretz Yisrael, one needs more time to get in the spirit of the holiday, and therefore the extra day, except for fast days, helps to keep the spirit of the holidays alive.
THE HOLIDAY OF KHANUKKAH HISTORY
In the third and second centuries before the common era, the world was dominated and influenced by Greek culture, known as Hellenism. The reason for this was the success of Alexander the Great [356-323 B.C.E.], son of Philip of Macedonia, whose armies conquered all the "known" ancient world, from the Greek islands in the north west to Egypt in the south west, to India in the far east.
Coupled with the military/political success of Alexander, Greece was in the zenith of its culture: great strides had been made in art and philosophy. At that time, Jewish culture and religion were already about two thousand years old. The Jews had been through the exodus, the two kingdoms, the destruction of the kingdom of Israel and the dispersion of the Israelites to lands where they became known as "Yehudim" - Jews, the exile of Judaea to Babylon, and the second Commonwealth (and Temple).
According to Jewish legend, Alexander had shown great deference for the Jewish religion and culture, and treated the Jews with equanimity. As a result of the conquest of Judaea by Alexander, and in spite (or maybe because) of the fact that he allowed the Jews to keep their old traditions many Jews began to associate with the Greeks and follow their life-style.
Thus began the Hellenist movement in Judaism. This movement was linked with a socio-political rift that had occurred in Judaea: a gulf had opened between the people (including the lay leaders and the great Rabbis) and the ruling class - the priests, the affluent and the politically influential who were running the government. It may be because of the affluence of the ruling class, or because of its close contact with the Greek officials, that the Hellenist movement gained most of its adherents from this ruling class. The introduction of this foreign culture into the main-stream of Jewish life in Jerusalem became a sore point in the relations between the minority (affluent) ruling class and the majority (poor and pious) of the people. Above all, in the eyes of the Jewish purists, this foreign culture was contradictory to Judaism.
THE SPARK THAT IGNITED IT ALL
The Hellenists were making headway in Jerusalem: they had built a gymnasium which they attended more frequently than the Temple; they translated the Holy Torah into Greek (the infamous Septuagint - a bad and incorrect translation) and ceased to study and speak Hebrew; some of the men even underwent operations to reverse their "sign of the covenant in the flesh" the circumcision!
One has to understand that Hellenism was a philosophy of life that was the complete opposite of the Jewish philosophy. Simply stated, one may say that Judaism believed that what is "good" is beautiful, while the Greeks believed that what is "beautiful" is good.
Jews stressed the importance of improving the mind, and the Greeks laid their emphasis on developing the body. The Jews established great academies and wrote great books while the Greeks came together for the Olympic games (between wars among themselves and with other people).
After the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.E.), his empire was divided between his generals. Judaea was ruled by the House of Ptholemi, whose capital was in Alexandria, Egypt. In the year 198 B.C.E., Judaea fell to the armies of Antiochus III, the Greek king of Assyria, who granted the Jews many privileges, including religious rights. In the year 175 B.C.E., a new king ruled over Assyria, Antiochus Epiphanes (the Illustrious).
In an attempt to unify the diverse people in his realm, this king decreed that no people in his kingdom shall worship any god but the Greek gods. He also decreed that all people in his kingdom shall be made to worship the Greek gods. Thus, with the Jewish Hellenists leading the parade, Gods Temple in Jerusalem was turned into a shrine of the Greek gods, and the pious Jews had to leave town or accept the "New Order."
Many chose death to leaving their homes and their ancient tradition. The Greek soldiers were without mercy and the Jews who did not comply with the kings law were put to death. By order of the king, the Greek soldiers then proceeded to carry the altar of Zeus to all towns and villages in Judaea, to implement the edict of total Hellenization. In village after village, massacre, rape and pillage followed the refusal of Jews to worship Zeus. The soldiers often came to Jewish habitations on the Sabbath, and since the Jews were obliged to keep the Sabbath, they would not even take measures to hide themselves and their children.
In the village of Modin, in the Hills of Judaea, less than twenty-five miles from Jerusalem, the Greek soldiers encountered resistance: The aged high priest, Mattathias the Hasmonaean, not only refused to lead the people of his village in the forbidden sacrifice but when a Hellenist Jew did offer a sacrifice, he drew a sword and slaughtered the man. His five sons came to his aid, killing the soldiers of the small Greek detachment that came into the village to carry the Hellenization process.
This unprecedented act of religious zeal raised the banner of revolt. Mattathias rallying call is very important to note (and to remember): Mi LAdonay Elay whosoever is for God, let him come to me! This battle cry, and the men who heeded its message, were a first in the annals of human history: a totally volunteer army established to wage war not for gain of territory nor for booty but merely for the right to do something (worship) as they wished.
In other words, the battle was for a principle, for an ideal! It is on this precedence that all future noble causes would be fought. Mattathias, in this respect is the true father of American democracy - the first, the originator of the principle upon which stands the Declaration of Independence! The first fighter for human rights!
FROM DEGRADATION TO VICTORY
In the year 166 B.C.E. Mattathias died (of old age, it is believed). His followers from Modin had by then been joined by many pious Jews who fled Hellenistic persecution in Jerusalem and other towns and hamlets. His third son, Yehuda (Judah), led them as they began to nibble at the Greek armies - attacking by surprise here and there, choosing the time and place of battle that would give them the advantage over their numerically superior and better equipped enemy.
Judah adopted as his motto the words from the book of Exodus: Mi Camokha BaElim Adonay - who is like unto Thee, Oh Lord, among the mighty. The initials of the Hebrew words spelled Maccabee - a name by which first Judah and later his army became known. (It was not until much later, with the help of a misspelling of the Hebrew word maccabee that the meaning hammer came into existence!)
Judah turned out to be a great military strategist. In quick succession, he defeated the legions of the Greek generals Apollonius, Seron, Gorgias and Lysias. With the defeat of Lysias the road to the capital, Jerusalem, was open, and the city lay undefended.
Judah and his men entered Davids capital, driving before them the host of Hellenized Jews who realized that Jerusalem would no longer be a haven for them. Then the Maccabees cleansed the Temple, kindled the eternal light and offered thanksgiving sacrifices.
LEGEND AND LORE OF KHANUKKAH
The word "Khanukkah" means dedication, recalling the reconsecration of the Temple to the worship of God which took place on the 25th of Kislev in the year 165 B.C.E. The duration of the holiday, eight days, is explained by lore with the story of the miracle of the oil: a small vessel of pure oil (oil that had been prepared by the priests in the prescribed manner) was all that the Maccabees found in the Temple. It would have taken eight days to prepare new oil, and they were sure the oil they had found would not serve the Eternal Light for more than one day.
The Eternal Lights flame was a symbol of the establishment of "normal" conditions of Jewish worship in the Temple. The Maccabees were in a dilemma: Should they wait till the new oil was ready? The people were anxious to begin worship in the Temple again; or should they kindle the flame, and allow it to go out when the oil was gone? The Maccabees made a choice for the immediate service of God. They kindled the light, and it continued to burn until the new oil was ready (which is to say, for eight days). Thus we kindle lights for eight days, and we have given the holiday a second name, "Hag Haurim" the Festival of Lights.
Another legend: there was a Jewish widow in Antioch, named Hannah who had seven sons. The king asked the children to bow to Zeus and they refused the mother refused to command them to follow the kings order. To coerce the woman to acquiesce to the king and tell her sons to opt for the Greek gods, her sons were executed before her eyes one after another until finally only the youngest, a baby, was left in her arms. Hannah ran to the roof of the building and threw herself to the ground beneath still clutching her child in a final embrace, affirming her faith with the words of Deuteronomy 6, "Shma Yisrael...," choosing death to a life of dishonor before God and maybe for these eight martyrs the duration of the holiday has been set at eight days.
CONCLUSION OF KHANUKKAH EVENTS
Immediately after the restoration of the Temple, Judah and his brothers turned over the reigns of leadership to the priests and Levites in the Temple. They retired from public office and went back to the little village of Modin, only to be called back when the Greek armies returned.
One by one the Maccabee brothers fell in the battle to keep Judaea Jewish until only one, Simon, remained alive. By then, 142 B.C.E., the Antioch government was involved in battle with the Parthian Empire and had internal troubles in Asia Minor, and so a treaty was signed between Antioch and Judaea allowing the Jews self-government. The Jews in Jerusalem wanted to crown Simon king, but he refused, claiming that only descendants of David had a right to the crown of Jerusalem; when the people still insisted that he remain as their leader, he accepted the title "Nassi" president not king.
THE LIGHTS AND OTHER TRADITIONS
The Hebrew for lamp is "menorah." On Hanukkah, though, we use a special menorah, called "Khanukkiyah." The difference between a regular "Jewish" menorah and a hanukkiyah is that the former has seven branches and the latter has nine. The "ninth" candle is the "Shamash" (sexton), which is lit first, without a blessing, with which the other candles are lit. With the Shamash we kindle one light on the first night, and an additional light every succeeding night, so that on the last night all eight candles are lit.
Children play a game of chance on Khanukkah, using a "top" called "dreidle," or "sevivon" in Hebrew. The top is shaped in such a way that it has four sides, and when it stops spinning it falls on one face and another face is "up." On each "face" there is a Hebrew letter that stands for one of the four words "Nes Gadol Haya SHam," A great miracle happened there. (In Israel the word "SHam" is replaced with "Po" -- meaning here.)
There are special Hanukkah foods: in the Ashkenazic tradition, one serves potato pancakes; in the Sepharadic tradition, bakhlava and tishpishti (sweet nut-rolls in honey) are served; in the State of Israel, the tradition is to eat jelly doughnuts; obviously, the intent is to eat rich foods as a sign of well-being associated with a great victory.
WHAT KHANUKKAH IS NOT
While we need to know what the Jewish holidays celebrate, it is just as important to note and remember what Khanukkah in not. It is not "the Jewish Christmas" nothing could be further from the truth, nor could anything do less justice to the people who were responsible for the first Khanukkah. We have good reason to be proud of our heritage, of the events that led to the establishment of this great holiday. We must celebrate it with full understanding of its true meaning and scope. There is a tradition of giving gifts on Khanukkah. Again, it is not an attempt by the Jews to imitate the Christian custom. Rather, the tradition originated when, on the rededication of the Temple, gifts (sacrifices) were offered to God, special gifts of thanksgiving for His deliverance. When the Temple was destroyed (in 70 c.e.), the Jews ceased the offering of sacrifices; and so gifts were given to the children. From this the custom developed the tradition of giving gifts to one and all. Sometimes, money was given, which was known as "hanukkah gelt."
KHANUKKAH AND KHASSIDIM
The people who kept Judaism alive in the days before the revolt of the Maccabees were called Khassidim. Many generations have passed, and yet Khassidim are "still among us." When we think about religious Jews, we often think that the most religious are the ones called "Khassidim." We also bunch all "Khassidim" together, as though they were all the same. That is just not so, and at this time, in honor of those who maintain the traditions of Judaism, I thought I would tell about the Khassidim.
The term Khassidim comes from the Hebrew khesed, which is translated in the dictionary to mean grace or lovingkindness. The term "khassid," applied to a person, is mentioned in the Book of Maccabees and in the Talmud for the zealots who opposed Hellenism. The Khassidim were men who showed great piety and resolve on behalf of God, and some were said to know how to personally connect to His powers. Some were capable of performing miracles, of healing, and other deeds that were considered supernatural. One such man was Khoni, "the circle-maker," of whom the story is told that at a time of drought he "threatened God" -- he drew a circle on the ground, stepped into the circle, and informed God that he would remain in that circle until death overtook him if God would not send rain to bless the earth. However, todays khassidim do not trace their roots to these early men of faith.
The modern Khassidic movement began in the 18th century, in the aftermath of generations of persecution of Jews, and in particular as a reaction to the disappointment of the rise of a number of "false messiahs" who first excited the imagination of Jews with the message of salvation and redemption, and then broke their heart in the discovery of their inability to truly redeem and succor. Orthodoxy became less and less fulfilling and satisfying to the people, and many drifted away from Judaism. Into this vacuum were pulled many men of faith who preached the need to renew a zeal for God and His teachings.
One who caught the imagination and attention of a large following was Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov - "the owner of a good name." There are different explanations about his name, some saying that it meant that he was well known as a good person, while others maintain that it refers to the fact that he knew the "secret" name of God, which made it possible for him to perform miracles invoking that name. One thing is known, and it is that he was capable of performing miracles, and he developed a whole movement, the hassidic movement, whose most important tenet was that "it was a great mitsvah to be happy at all times."
Israel ben Eliezer Baal Shem Tov, who is known by the initials Besh"t, was born in central Europe into a very poor family and orphaned in childhood. He became an assistant teacher in a heder, and a watchman in a synagogue. Later he married and moved out of town to meditate in the Carpathian mountains and "find God." At about the age of thirty five he emerged from seclusion to become a healer and teacher who was magnetic and charismatic and drew a large following. The Besht preached the concept of "dvekut" -- adhesion to God and His mitsvot. This was done in the spirit of Joy in which God created the world. Music, song, and gladness were hallmarks of Khassidic life, and the use of musical instruments, long out of use in the Jewish community, was another innovation of the hassidim, called "klezmer" -- instruments of song. The music of the Khassidim, typically, was similar to (and more than likely influenced by) the music of central Europe -- where it developed. It is similar to Gypsy music and the music of Hungary and Rumania. After the Besh"t died, his disciples parted ways, each learned Rabbi settling in another town in central and north-eastern Europe and establishing different Khassidic "courts" where the Khassidic tradition was changed according to its local leaders interpretation of Gods will and the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov.
In the days of Rabbi Israel, and in the following generations, the majority of pious Jews considered the Khassidim to be uneducated and ignorant Jews who could not be called a part of the "mainstream" of Judaism. The Khassidim were the "reform" movement of the eighteenth century, and traditional Judaism considered them as one step away from apostasy. Indeed, they formed a movement to counter the charismatic teaching, which was called "misnagdim" -- meaning those who oppose. This conflict between the traditionalist pious (orthodox) Jews and the khassidim continues to this day.
At the end of the nineteenth century, mass migration out of central and eastern Europe brought Khassidim as well as misnagdim and freethinkers to this country. Most khassidim who immigrated here in earlier decades melted rapidly into the larger American Jewish community. However, those who arrived in the postwar years, refuse to slip quietly into the surrounding society: they almost never intermarry, attend the theater, watch a movie or television, or seek advanced secular education. The reason for this change has to do, probably, with two factors: Those who came before the second world war were ready to leave the protective canopy of the Rebbe, the Khassidic leader of the community, and they came of their own free will to this country, to start a new life. Those who came after the rise of Nazism fled the burning ground of Europe, had no choice but to leave Europe, and came to this country at the behest of their leader, who followed them to this country. Most Khassidim settled in New York City, in Brooklyn. Today, a large percentage of American Hassidim work in the diamond and knit-goods industries, while others work at jobs related to the communitys religious needs, such as teaching at yeshivas (schools) or handling kosher food products.
The Brooklyn khassidic communitys social and economic organization closely replicates that of the prewar eastern European villages where khassidic Rebbes and their courts were established. The Rebbes were the descendants of the disciples of the Baal-Shem-Tov and Rabbi Dov Baer, the two figures who initiated the khassidic movement in the mid-eighteenth century. The early khassidim separated themselves from established congregations and initiated a range of religious and social changes: the scholarly rabbi, who decided on questions of law, became subordinate to the inspired Rebbe; a more esoteric liturgy was substituted; prayer and devotion were intensified, and some rituals, such as visiting the ritual bath (a small pool, deep enough for one to completely immerse oneself while standing) were emphasized. As the disciples of the first hasidic leaders gathered their own followings, hasidic dynasties developed, with the Rebbes and their khassidim taking the names of the towns where the Rebbe lived.
The various khassidic courts, which were once scattered throughout eastern Europe, are now located in this country and in Israel. Here, they are concentrated in three Brooklyn neighborhoods -- Williamsburg, Crown Heights, and Borough Park. Most khassidim in Williamsburg are of Hungarian origin and have allegiance to Satmar. The Russian khassidim of Lubavitch are settled in Crown Heights; while the growing community in Borough Park, comprising a range of courts of diverse geographic origins, is strongly influenced by its many American-born hasidim. Each courts size, which varies from fifty to several thousand families (for the Satmar community), is related to the number that survived the war, the percentage that preferred to settle in Israel, and the reputation of its Rebbe.
The strength of the present khassidic community derives in great measure from the intimacy and shared responsibilities within the courts. Each court is attached to a particular Rebbe and bound by special customs and traditions and a common language. Its followers have a shared point of view regarding religious and political matters and an oral literature concerning its Rebbes from the past to the present. Each court maintains its own yeshiva and "besmedresh" (school) which are supported by tuition and voluntary contributions, generally 10 to 20 percent of every households income. The duties and shared obligations develop strong, self-perpetuating bonds, with the sons assuming the loyalties and responsibilities of their fathers.
Like all Orthodox Jews, the Khassidim are regulated by the 613 commandments (mitsves) of the Old Testament and by the elaborations of rabbinical interpretation. The mitsves embrace every area of human activity and are the moral and legal guides for daily life. Each Jews personal fate, as well as the destiny of the community, is believed to hinge on the fulfillment of the laws. The khassidim, more fervent and punctilious than other Orthodox Jews, are considered to be zealots of the law -- except by the ultra-orthodox who don't accept them at all!
In accordance with the most pervasive commandment, the khassidim honor the Sabbath (Shabbes) and the holy days, pray three times each day, bind phylacteries (tefillin) to the forehead and arm each morning, eat only kosher food, and use separate kitchenware for milk products and for meat.
The Sabbath is divinely mandated and its observance is public and communal. From Friday sundown until Saturday night all work comes to a halt and a sense of solemnity and joy pervades the community. Services are long and complete, and they are followed by home observance. The Shabbat eve meal is followed by songs and story-telling on the portion of the Torah and many tales of Hassidic lore.
Although every khassid is observant of the laws, the Rebbes zeal and insight are considered to be on a different scale from that of other hasidim. As a Lubavitcher hasid described it, the Rebbe "worships God every second of the day with all his heart and soul." Because of his prayer, his piety, and his family lineage, the Rebbe is thought to be in contact with enormous spiritual power. In fact, before his death, many of the Lubavitch khassidim have come to the conclusion that their Rebbe is the physical manifestation of the messiah in our times. He has yet to return and claim his crown, they say, but the time is close at hand...
The Satmar Rabbi has told the following story to illustrate his point of view. "The difference between Satmar khassidim and other Jews is this: Once when the time came to put the Torah (the parchment scroll of the Five Books of Moses) back in the covering, it was too difficult to fit it in, and the man who was putting it in suggested that they cut the Torah to make it fit. Ridiculous? Of course. You have to cut the covering to shape. We will adjust our environment to fit the Torah and not the reverse."
The khassidim are threatened by internal as well as external change. The growing khassidic population has resulted in greater geographic spread; as a consequence, social controls within the courts have been weakened. Some khassidim have expressed distress over the contrast between the appearance of religiosity and true piety. They distinguish between the "frum" (observant) who obey the basic tenets of Orthodox Judaism, and the "ehrlicher "(honest) khassid whose piety requires him to do more than the law requires.
Many people in the Jewish community at large feel that the Khassidim are over zealous is their practices of religiousity, almost to the point of being a cult. They point out that the rule of the Rabbi, though it is voluntarily accepted by the Khassidim, none-the-less is autocratic and arbitrary, and therefore similar in nature and scope to charismatic cult leaders. Khassidim come to seek the Rabbi's advice and consent for matters from the most mundane to the most personal matters. Should one accept a job offer, should one move, and whom should one marry. They also point out that the Khassidim turn their new members from the families from which they came. They espouse political opinions that are sometimes against "mainline" Jewish opinion -- such as public funds support for religious education, prayers in school, etc..