For Rosh Hashanah to Khanukka, here
THE FESTIVAL OF PURIM
Purim celebrates events that we read about in the Book of Esther.
"Mishenikhnas Adar marbim besimkha" -- When Adar enters there's much joy. Of all the holidays celebrated by the Jewish people, Purim is the most unusual and controversial!
The origin of the holiday is in the Book of Esther, one of the "megillot" (scrolls) that are part of the third section of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) that is known as "the writings" (Ketubbim). Yet, the holiday is not one of the "major" festivals, and a number of Jewish communities that were separated from the main body of Judaism from Scriptural times to recent years (such as the "Falasha" Jews of Ethiopia and the Jews of the Atlas Mountains of North Africa) did not celebrate it. Nor did they have a book of Esther in their Bible!
Another strange thing to report: archeological findings in the Dead Sea area included more that 100 separate scrolls (known as the Dead Sea Scrolls) that were of Scriptural text. The texts were of all the books of the Scriptures except for the book of Esther! And yet! We know that the Book of Esther is a part of our Tanakh. We are aware that it forms an important part of post-Scriptural discussions. Almost a full tractate of Talmud (called, fittingly, Megillah) deals with the text of this strange book, its interpretation, and interpolation of holiday rules. Consider for a moment: of all the books of the Bible, the book of Esther is the only one in which the word God (in any form used anywhere else in the Bible) does not appear!
Indeed, there is a school of thought that suggests that the Megillah was "lifted" (or borrowed) from Mesopotamian lore and is not only not Jewish, but in fact a secret attempt to get Jews to worship the local Mesopotamian or Persian idols. According to this school of thought, Esther is a "Hebraized" Astarte (or Ashtaret), and Mordekhai is Murdok the chief idol of that time and place. Thus, the Jews at the end of the reading of the Megillah are honor bound to give thanks and pay homage for their survival to none else than the two chief deities of the Persian Empire.
Well, let us consider: is this a possibility? Could the Jews have been hoodwinked into accepting the historical event that did not happen and thus became pagan worshippers?
We know that remembering our history is a form of practice of our faith; we know that the Jews of Persia did not assimilate en masse and that, in fact, in the days of the reign of the son of "Akhashverosh" (and possibly of Esther, as well!) of Megillah fame (king Xerxes I [486-465 B.C.E.]), the Jews of Persia had enough power and prestige in the Persian world to have a Jewish governor in Jerusalem (Nehemiah), who had been the closest advisor (cupbearer) to the king, and who completed the building of the Second Temple. Judaism, then, not only did not disappear, but, in fact, prospered.
Well, then, we must accept that the events that are recounted in the Megillah did, in fact, happen. The tragedy was, indeed, averted -- and did not take place. And we must comprehend the Hebrew text and its facts, grasp the full scope of the story, and fathom its mystery.
Why is the book called the Scroll of Esther and not the Scroll of Mordekhai? Why does the text say, in introducing the heroine [Esther 2:7], "...and he reared Hadassah, that is Esther..." -- which of the two was her name, and which was an alias? The Midrash says that both names were hers, and both were meaningful. Hadassah is the Hebrew for myrtle, the plant used as one of the elements in making a lulav. The smell of the leaves is fine, and the taste is bitter. The midrash said she brought a fresh breath to the Jews the breath of life and to Haman, who wished to devour her a bitter taste, the taste of death!
Esther, according to the same sources, comes from the verse in Deuteronomy [31:18] "Astir panay bayom hahu" I shall hide my face on that day. The midrash suggests that God hid his face from the world because of its wickedness. I would like to suggest to you a slightly different view of the same word: "Seter," the root of Esther, means mystery. The ways of the Lord are indeed mysterious as he guides the innocent through the maze of life! The Megillah implies much that is not spelled out nor is obvious on the surface.
Mordekhai is introduced [ibid 2:5] as "...a Jewish man... Mordekhai, son of Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish, a Benjaminite..." The fact that the introduction begins with "A Jewish man" (in the Hebrew ISH) is interpreted as a sign that he was a great man as in the discussion of Moses in Leviticus we read, "...and the man Moses was very humble..." [Lev. 12:3] Now this worthy man is called "Yehudi", which normally means of Judah. And yet we are told that by lineage he is of the tribe of Benjamin. This is considered to be very good for Benjamin was the only son of Jacob who did not participate in the selling of Joseph. Furthermore, the lineage of Kish is a Royal lineage! King Saul was of the same line, a noble family worthy of being Gods instrument for preserving the Jews of his generation. Being of Royal lineage, Mordekhai is also given a legitimate reason in court protocol not to bow to Haman. Yet, the megillah is named for Esther! Why? It is a mystery!
THE STORY IN THE MEGILLAH
If the origin of the megillah is in doubt, and if the reason for the name is shrouded in mystery, the content of the book is nothing less than scandalous for a religious book. It tells of the corruption of orgies of eating, drinking and depraved living. It speaks of the abuse of power and the total disregard for human life or the most basic rights of safety under the law in a civilized world. One is almost thankful that Gods name (or His very existence) is not mentioned in this book.
We learn of the king of a great empire, who spends his time and his subjects wealth on parties and merriment lasting months at a time. We read of conspiracies to overthrow the ruler, uncovered through the good offices of a man close to the king who is not recognized for his vigil nor rewarded for his devotion. We are shocked by the monarch who is so uncaring as to surrender the life of a portion of his citizenry to the vile hater of the Jews. We may even be appalled to find the king so weak in his resolve that he is ready to disown his ministers plans (and life) for the continued acceptance by a new first lady!
If this story was, indeed, meant to make the Jews leave their faith behind, as has been suggested it misses its mark by a country mile! All we can say when we are done reading this account of life among the Medes and Persians is "How goodly are your tabernacles oh Jacob..."
CELEBRATING THE FESTIVAL
At the conclusion of Megillat Esther we read, "That is why the Jews... celebrate the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as an occasion of gladness and feasting..." [Esther 9:19] and "... the Jews confirmed and undertook upon themselves and their posterity and upon all who join them to observe these two days without fail..." [9:27] Judaism teaches us that the events of Purim took place in the days immediately before the completion of the building of the second Temple.
Purim has been celebrated for over two thousand years! In times of desperation, when it seemed to the Jews that there is not the slightest chance for them to survive, much less persevere, the holiday of Purim reminded them that as long as there is life there has to be hope, and succor will come from the least expected quarter. Until modern time, in fact, Purim was a much more important holiday than Khanukkah -- and was much more faithfully celebrated. The customs associated with this holiday are different and strange -- they must be regarded as a chance to break training as it were -- to let off steam and allow ourselves a moment of levity and merriment in a life that is, at all other times, most serious and demanding.
In the synagogue, the reading of the Megillah is accompanied by the noise of obliterating Hamans name by pounding with feet on flours or using special noise-makers called groggers. We are commanded by the Talmud to feast on good food and drink till "we know not the difference between blessed is Mordekhai and cursed is Haman!"
This is a festival in which the poor are to be particularly remembered. We are commanded to send sweets to one another (called Shalakh Manot) and "gifts to the poor." [ibid 9:22] The holiday is unique not only by how we celebrate it - but by what we dont do this day. While on every other holiday we chant praises of God called Hallel, on this holiday we do not! We also do not recite petitions to God, as it is recognized that God answered and saved on this day without His name being mentioned!
You may recall that when Esther was asked by her uncle to go unto the King and plead for the life of the Jews, she asked that the Jews of Shushan assemble and fast and pray for her! For h e r, not for their own safety.
The Talmud commands us to give thanks every time and in every place where and when we were miraculously saved from peril such as the one in Persia in the days of Haman. The celebration of such thanksgiving is a "regional" Purim, which was called "Purim Katan" or a minor Purim. There are more than a hundred known "minor Purim" celebrations from Algiers to Zborow (A to Z) and from Baghdad to Tetuan & Tangiers (East to West).
SOME THOUGHTS FOR PURIM I got this from the Jewish Agency Page... Very interesting!
Feminist Aspects of Megillat Esther
This article attempts to examine a current topic against the background of our ancient sources, and to assess the contribution of Megillat Esther with regard to womens status in society.
Note: Methodologically, the text study should be a group enterprise - lively, stimulating, creative and non-dictatorial in terms of interpretation. The challenge is twofold: the relevance of the issue and the encounter with the sources.
The dramatic events of the Megillah and their preservation in national consciousness over the years are directly linked to the personality of the woman who was highly respected by her people - Esther, daughter of Avihail.
There are two frames of reference to women in Megillat Esther: the first is the court of the Empire of Persia and Mede; the second is that of the People of Israel.
How different is the status of the woman in the Persian Empire - relegated to an object of entertainment in her husbands hands and the whims of a male dominated society where there is no facility for her to develop her personality - from that respect attributed to Esther who operates with a considerable degree of independence in issues affecting her people. Careful study of the text brings this to the fore in the strongest terms. It is important to note that the actual naming of the Megillah after Esther herself is also replete with significance.
King Ahasuerus holds banquets for the members of his court and subsequently for his people, too; 180 days with his peers, and another seven days with the members of his court. The text describes it at considerable length [Ch 1, 1-8]. Queen Vashti also holds a feast [women only!], and from the outset she reveals a surprising degree of independence: Ch 1, 9: "And Vashti the Queen also made a feast for the women in the royal house..."
On the 187th day of the banquet, the King, having imbibed well, [Ch 1,10] requests Vashti be brought before him, in order to present her in all her beauty to his guests: Ch 1,11:
"to bring Vashti, the queen, before the king with the crown royal, to show the people and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on."
Vashtis personality comes to light; she refuses to appear before the drunken King: Ch 1, 12:
"But the Queen Vashti refused to come at the Kings commandment".
Not for nothing is Vashti known as the "first feminist": despite the dangers inherent in her decision, Vashti declines to come before the King and demonstrate her beauty.
One should note that in contrast to the previous verse, where she is referred to as " Vashti, the Queen", here she is called "Queen Vashti", to show us that she has a mind of her own. The King is exceedingly angry and as a ruler who, throughout his life, has been dependent on his counselors advice - as described in the Megillah - he calls together those closest to him in order to clarify matters [Ch 1, 15]. Vashtis action requires an appropriate response. The counselor-ministers speak of the grave consequences of the Queens action and the negative impact of her refusal, on the whole fabric of relationships between spouses in the great empire of Persia and Mede: Ch 1, 16-18:
"... Vashti the queen has not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples who are in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus. For this deed of the queen will be made known to all the women so as to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it shall be reported that the king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. And the princesses .... shall be telling of it today to all the Kings princes. Thus shall there be contempt and wrath in plenty."
Vashtis action endangers the status of men in the empire - or, as we would say today: women would find in Vashti a role model for female liberation. Men are indisputably highly defensive of their status and superiority; they therefore decide to react with the utmost severity, to warn other women in the empire not to emulate her example. Ch II, 19:
"If it please the king, let a royal commandment be issued by him, and let it be inscribed in the laws of Persia and Mede, so that it may not be altered, that Vashti come no more before King Ahasuerus, and that the king shall give her royal estate to another who is better than she."
It appears that only dismissal of Vashti from her position can prevent the evil outcome of destroying male superiority in the Persian Empire. One must weigh the imperative of the empire against the imperative of the King [Ch I,12] which was disobeyed by the imperative of the Queen [Ch 1,17] - and the consideration of the empire carries the day. Significantly, Vashti has already been deprived of her title and is referred to by name only. The purpose of the punishment is clear: to reinforce mens diminished status. In an irrevocable act of legislation [Ch 1, 19], it is determined to whom respect should be accorded in the Empire of Persia and Mede. Ch II,20:
"And when the decree of and by the king shall be heard throughout his kingdom, which is great, all the wives will give honor to their husbands from the elevated to the lowly."
The motive behind the legislation appears to have been already forgotten. Vashtis actions are no longer mentioned in the verse - only the purpose of the new law: the domination of man in his home, which implicitly includes culture, religious and social education as well as control over the family structure. The fervor with which antifeminist legislation was passed and its motives demonstrate clearly just how threatened mens status seemed in their eyes.
The inferior status of women in the Empire of Persia and Mede is even more noticeable in the Megillahs description of the selection of a new Queen. What was expected of the new Queen - to what kind of candidate was this lofty position being proposed? Ch II, 2-4:
"Then the Kings servants who ministered to him said, Let fair young virgins be sought for the king; and let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom, to gather together all the fair young virgins to Shushan, the capital, to the house of the women, to the custody of Hagei the Kings chamberlain, keeper of the women... And let the girl who pleases the king become queen instead of Vashti."
It is not the Kings senior counselors who advise him how to choose a new queen, but simple assistants, "the Kings young lads" - and their language is similarly simple. The King is advised to hold a sort of beauty contest, where the only requirement of the contestants is that they should be fair virgins. Participation is to be compulsory. From among the candidates - whose only quality for the position is reduced to superficial criteria - the best in appearance will be sent in to the King for a trial night and the King will select the girl who pleases him most, after which she will join the
concubines [i.e. the royal harem].
The Megillahs author gives expression to his reservations about the manner in which the King chooses a wife and words the young lads conversation in a style and register reminiscent of the tithe collections in the Egypt of Josephs days: Genesis, ChXLI, 34-37:
"Let Pharaoh ... appoint officers in the land... and take up ... in the seven years of plenty ... against the seven years of famine ... And the thing was good in the eyes of Pharaoh..."
Esther, Ch II, 3-4:
"Let fair young virgins be sought ... and let the king appoint officers in all the provinces ... to gather together all the fair young virgins to Shushan ...And the thing was good in the eyes of the king..."
Women are treated as a negotiable commodity - preferably esthetic, like food. The Megillah repeatedly brings to the fore, through the literary conventions at its disposal, to what extent there is a lack of personal and emotional relationship towards women and how much it is an external, functional one. The text emphasizes that every candidate is required to spend half a year at a beauty parlor before being summoned to the King, and the extensive treatments are even described in detail: Ch II, 12:
"... for so were fulfilled the days of their anointing: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with sweet fragrances..."
The choice of phrasing recalls a parallel in the Book of Genesis: Genesis L, 3:
"... for so are fulfilled the days of those who are embalmed..."
The description in Genesis, however, refers to the preparation of Jacobs dead body - while that of the Megillah is of a live woman. The parallel in language intimates that the entire frame of reference to a woman was in terms of her body, without any consideration for her mind and soul.
Esther - so it would appear from the Megillah - is totally uninterested in becoming one of the candidates to be crowned Queen, and the text emphasizes that she was taken to the palace against her will. Ch II, 8:
"... that Esther was brought also to the Kings house..."
It specifically states that this was the Kings command and precept (=law), that the girls were "collected" to Shushan, the capital and that Esther was "taken" to the palace. The language of the text continues in the same chapter in this fashion, even when Esther goes in to see the King: Ch II, 16:
"So Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus, into his royal house..." This verse recalls the taking of Sarah - against her will - to the house of Pharaoh, Genesis XII, 15: "... and the woman was taken into Pharaohs house."
The girls are taken in to the King for a trial night, and on the following morning they are transferred from Hagei, the womens guard, to Shashgaz, Kings eunuch and keeper of the harem [Ch II, 14].
One has the distinct feeling that the author of the Megillah is describing this "animal" attitude towards women with revulsion.
When Esthers turn approaches, there is emphasis on the gap between Esthers dignified stature and the humiliating situation into which she has fallen in the Persian Empire. Ch II,15:
"... she requested nothing but what Hagei ... appointed. And Esther obtained favor in the sight of all those who looked upon her."
Moreover, although all the candidates had the opportunity to improve their chances by making personal requests for artifices which would enhance their appearance - Ch II,13
"... whatever she desired would be given her to take with her out of the house of the women into the Kings house"
Esther, uninterested in success, "requested nothing" [Ch II,15]. All the evidence points to the fact that Mordecais request to Esther not to reveal her true identity actually stems from his dissatisfaction with the idea of her becoming the wife of Ahasuerus. [Ch II, 10, 20] [See also Rashi on II,10 about her dignified family background.] Nevertheless, Esther is chosen queen, and to celebrate the choice of a new Queen, the King yet again holds an enormous feast - the Feast of Esther. [Ch II,18].
Nothing is told of the relationship between the King and Queen during their years of marriage. It emerges as purely "functional". In precisely the same way as the candidate for the crown was left to the guard of the concubines unless,
"the King desired her and called her by name" [II,14], the Queen awaits the next call.
The Megillah makes it abundantly clear that, recently, the King had rarely felt the need for the services of his wife and Queen, and Esther specifically says to Mordecai: Ch III,11:
"but I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days."
Queen Esther was as inferior in status as any other woman. She risked her life if she should come before the King without his specific permission, as did any other member of the court. [III,11]. Esthers life was luxurious, but she was really isolated in the Kings court. Only when Hamans decree fell did she express her independent nature. She was called upon by her cousin Mordecai to try to save the Jews and only then does Mordecai pose a possible reason for her becoming Queen. Ch IV, 14:
"... who knows whether you have not come to royal estate for such a time as this?"
It is apparent that men viewed the women of the Kings court as objects of entertainment, whose role it was to satisfy a mans needs and to serve him in whatever manner possible. The womans own wishes - whether it be Vashti or a candidate for the queenship - had no importance in the story of the Megillah and a womans independence was denied her. The descriptions in the account convey superbly - through associations with the story of Joseph in Genesis - the relationship devoid of feeling and humanity existing between men and women, together with the lack of freedom accorded women to express their opinions, their wishes... themselves.
The plot and its failure
Esthers stature among her own people remains consistently elevated, as can be seen from the text. This teaches us, perhaps, about the position of all women in Israelite society in Bible times.
It is specifically Esther, the one who conceals her identity, who is most aware of her prestigious family origins: she is the daughter of Avihail, uncle of Mordecai - and Mordecais family status is explained in detail right back to Kish, the Yemini [also the name of King Sauls father]. [See also Rashi on II,10.]
Esthers independence of thought is also recognized when she does Mordecais bidding [and not the Kings]. In every circumstance, she refuses to reveal her identity; even after she is crowned queen, she remains faithful to Mordecais instructions. Ch II,20:
"Esther had not yet made known her kindred or her people, as Mordecai had charged her; for Esther fulfilled Mordecais wishes, just as when she was under his guardianship."
After Hamans decree of destruction is pronounced, Mordecai calls on Esthers help to prevent its evil implementation [II, 6-9]. At first, Esther hesitates to accept the role - her status at court is inferior. The King is not accustomed to sharing issues of state with his wife, since he confides them in any case to whoever is "above all the ministers" [III,1], namely, his Prime Minister, Haman. Esther, in fact, is not at all close to the King and he has not called her to him for a whole month [III,11]. The danger to Esther is also more immediate, because anyone who approached the court uninvited was liable to be condemned to death " [II,11].
Mordecai considers Esther a full partner in the effort to save the Jewish people, and he posits various reasons why she should accept this mission, despite its operative risks. [Ch IV, 12]
From Mordecais words, it emerges clearly that everyone - man or woman - has a mission in life which he or she has to accept, and that every member of the People of Israel has a duty to preserve the existence of the people by the means available to him or her. Esther responds to Mordecais appeal and from that moment forth, the initiative passes to her - and she alone plans and implements all the steps that lead ultimately to the salvation of Israel.
At first, Esther appeals to her people, requiring Mordecai to assemble all the Jews and declare an extended community fast: Ch IV, 16:
"Go, gather together all the Jews who are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night and day; I also and my maidens will fast likewise..."
It would seem that Moredecai accepts Esthers leadership in the new venture and his reaction is described unequivocally: Ch IV,17:
"So Mordecai went his way, and according to all that Esther had commanded him."
Esther is engrossed in her mission of rescue. She realizes that Haman is at the peak of his political power and that the king is dependent on him for his decision making. She knows that the status of women in general and her own personal status in particular with respect to Ahasuerus are shaky - and that there is no cause to expect him to listen to her counsel. On the other hand, she also knows that the King in any case has no interest in issues of social justice and the rule of law, because he is totally focused on the preservation of respect for himself and the satisfaction of his wants and desires.
For this reason, Esther opts for sophisticated formal events in order to create tension between the King and Haman with the ultimate goal of bringing about Hamans downfall - and subsequently, the revocation of his decree.
Esther invites the King and Haman to a banquet, during which she invites them to another banquet the following night. The King, constantly suspicious of conspirators [such as Bigthan and Teresh, II,21], as a man who has built himself a wall of personal security and does not allow people to approach him without prior permission [IV,11]; he is amazed at the association between Esther and Haman, who has been invited to all the banquets she is holding for himself, the King. The normal practice for someone who wanted to seize power: considerable attention to the rulers wives gave
the illusion of continuity of regimes.
Esther subsequently demonstrates considerable courage, and in open conflict with Haman reveals her true identity, accusing Haman of genocide [VII,3-6]. The King is filled with envy and anger towards Haman whom he sees approaching Esthers couch; he becomes enraged and approves Harvonas proposal to hang him [VII,9].
Esther emerges highly successful from her plan, but her role does not end here: the decree has not yet been annulled, although the major obstacle has been removed. After Haman is hanged, Esther once again has to approach the king [probably at some personal risk] in order to seek the annulment of the decree. Her willingness to sacrifice herself in order to save her people is boundless. Ch VIII, 3-6:
"And Esther .... besought him with tears to avert the evil of Haman... For how can I endure to see the evil that shall befall my people? ... to see the destruction of my kindred?"
So that the King will not feel offended, Esther emphasizes that the decree against the Jews was the evil of Haman, son of Hamdata, the Aggagite, a creation of his thoughts and plans, and she pleads for the annulment of the order of destruction. There is no reference to the fact that the King himself signed all these decrees.
The author highlights Esthers commitment to her people by use of terms found also in Genesis: Genesis XLIV, 34:
"For how shall I go up to my father ... lest I see the evil that shall befall my father?" Esther VIII,6:
"For how can I endure ..." etc.
Esther and Judah before her both declare that what they are doing is for the wellbeing of their people. The fact that she does so as a woman is not specifically mentioned anywhere in the story, which gives us to understand that in fundamental issues the status of women is the same as that of men.
Ahasuerus is persuaded by Esthers persistence, and he passes the royal signet ring with which he signs his decrees to both Mordecai and Esther. Ch VIII, 8:
"Write also as you please about the Jews in the Kings name..."
But Esthers task is not yet completed, although Mordecai has meanwhile returned to the scenario. [Ch VIII, 15] To his question, "What is your request and it shall be done?" [IX, 12], Esther replies distinctly: Ch IX, 13:
"If it please the king, let it be granted to the Jews who are in Shushan to do tomorrow also according to this days decree, and let the ten sons of Haman be hanged upon the gallows."
What has happened to make the quiet, obedient girl we saw at the beginning of the Megillah so forceful in her demands? The impression is distinctly that of someone who has grown in her role.
After she has succeeded in her mission, she feels a responsibility to bring the rescue operation to a successful close.
It would appear that Hamans support in the court was well based and a one-day stand against them was insufficient to topple it from its center, Susa [Shushan]. Esther therefore requests an extra day to rout the enemy. It is important to emphasize that the Megillah presents this as solely a defensive war. [VIII, 11], [VIII, 13], [IX,2], [IX,5].
The Jews enemies in Hamans camp who did not feel the fear of the Jews [VIII, 17], lived mainly in Shushan.
Esthers superior status is recognized even after the storys conclusion when it is decided to transform Purim into an event which will be celebrated throughout the generations: Ch IX,20-22:
"And Mordecai wrote... letters to all the Jews in the provinces of the king... to enjoin them to keep the fourteenth day of the month of Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, year by year, as the days on which the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month which was transformed for them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning to holiday: that they should make them days of feasting and joy, and of sending choice portions to one another, and gifts to the poor."
In the second letter sent out to reinforce the customs associated with Purim, the text emphasizes that the senders were Esther and Mordecai jointly, and the style suggests that it was actually Esther who initiated it. Ch IX, 32-39:
"Then Esther, the queen, daughter of Avihail and Mordecai the Jew, wrote ... to confirm ... to all the Jews ... these days of Purim in their appointed times, as Mordecai ... and Esther ... had enjoined them ... for themselves and their descendants ... And the decree of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was written in the book."
Esther fulfilled her role as a leader of Israel at a time of crisis with intelligence, persistence and dedication. Her personality is clearly revealed in her plans for saving her people and by the manner in which she proceeds to move her cause.
Rund, I.M., "Women and Judaism, A Select Annotated Bibliography", New York, 1988.
The Scroll of Esther and Anti-Semitism
by Prof. H. Gavriyahu
In one sense, the Babylonian exile was extremely traumatic for the Jewish people. No-one in Jerusalem had believed that the Temple would be destroyed and that Jerusalem would fall to the enemy. "The kings of the earth, and all the inhabitants of the world, would not have believed that the adversary and the enemy should have entered into the gates of Jerusalem" (Eicha 4:12). Naively, the people believed that if they prayed by the Temple no evil would befall them. When Jerusalem was destroyed and the Kingdom of Judah exiled, the people initially despaired.
On the other hand, the Babylonian exile also marked a great watershed in Jewish history. The exiles from Jerusalem and the Kingdom of Judah did not forsake their worship of the one God, even when they dwelt in Babylon, a country of idolators par excellence. In this exile, they began to believe that Israel was an eternal people, a people who would return to their ancient homeland, a people whose eternal existence was guaranteed over and above that of natural forces, the sun and the moon. (Jeremiah, chapters 31, 33, Isaiah ch. 60).
The Book of Esther is a historic narrative, which recounts how a supernatural force protects Israels existence. The narrator and the readers of the Megillah have no doubt that "relief and salvation will come to the Jews" from one place or another. There is also no doubt in anyones mind that if Mordechai is of the Jewish race, any villain, adversary or enemy will fall before him. Moreover, the narrator believes that the story of the Book of Esther and of Purim served as a religious and psychological factor in the existence of the Jewish people throughout their exile, inspiring optimism and hope.
Yet the Book of Esther was a classical story, used by anti-Semites in every generation to attack, demonize and condemn the Jewish people. The fear of anti-Semitism was indeed mentioned in the Gemara. "Esther said to the Sages: Establish this holiday for all time. They said to her: you will turn the gentiles against us." Rashi explains: because we rejoice over their defeat. (Tractate Megillah page 7a).
One anti-Semite who used the Book of Esther as a foothold was the German religious reformer, Martin Luther, born 500 years ago. In his translation of the book, he introduced anti-Semitic undertones, depicting Esther as the typical despicable Jew, eager to shed gentile blood. Luther advises the Christian not to enter into discussions with Jews, but to tell them: "Do you know, Jew, that Jerusalem and your kingdom, together with the Temple and the priesthood, were destroyed over a thousand years ago?.. The exile shows that God is not their God and they are not His people ... By the destruction of Jerusalem God, already showed that the merits of the Patriarchs did not save them." (Yehezkel Kaufman, "Goleh Venechar", vol. 1, p. 299).
The main argument used by the Christian anti-Semites was that the exile is eternal.
It should be noted that Luther did not understand the exact contents of the Book of Esther. Indeed, not all synagogue-goers understand that the decree of annihilation was not annulled as Esther requested. King Achashverosh did no more than write an edict, which he sealed with his ring, granting the Jews permission to defend themselves.
In reality, a battle was fought between the Jews and their enemies. The author of the Megillah was so overwhelmed by the force of the miracle, namely that the Jews succeeded in repulsing the enemy, that he did not see fit to recount that a fierce battle was pitched between the two camps - and it may be assumed that there were also some Jewish casualties. The narrator is particularly concerned with the account of casualties on the side of the Jews enemies. In all the countries of Achashveroshs empire, the battle was decided in one day, apart from Shushan, where an extra day was required to decide the outcome.
The key point is in chapter 8, verse 11: "Wherein the king granted the Jews who were in every city to gather themselves together, and to defend themselves, to destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all the power of the people and province that would assault them, both little ones and women ". They received permission to strike their foes, and the words "little ones and women" apply to the enemies who intended to destroy the entire Jewish people.
The issue of the Book of Esther and anti-Semitism also has a contemporary perspective. German scholar, Prof. Hans Berdteke of Leipzig, wrote a comprehensive interpretation of the Book of Esther with the intention of removing all the anti-Semitic undertones fostered by priests and Christians readers in accordance with the translation of the Megillah.
Some time ago, a world conference of the Protestant Church was held in Geneva, Switzerland, thus bringing together the churches that follow Martin Luthers teachings. They publicly resolved that the Protestants today dissociate themselves from Martin Luthers anti-Semitism. In this, they are following the example of the Catholic Church, which, at its Second Ecumenical Council, published a document revoking the accusation of deicide against the Jews.
These changes in the Christian outlook were caused on the one hand by the horror of the Holocaust, but mainly by the creation of the State of Israel. For one thousand six hundred years, Christians had mocked the Jews with the claim that their exile was eternal and definitive. History has shown this derision to be unfounded. The miraculous creation of the sovereign, independent Jewish state in the land of our forefathers, after such a long interval, was a blow to Christian theology. The major denominations are beginning to modify theological positions which existed for centuries.
With the dissociation from Luthers anti-Semitism, expressed in particular in his translation of, and notes to the Book of Esther, the Book of Esther is coming to be accepted as a religious story with humanitarian undertones, demonstrating that righteousness will always prevail over evil.
HAG HAMATZOT FEAST OF UNLEAVENED BREAD
You will be doing a great injustice to what may be the most important of all Jewish holidays if you call it "Pesah -- Passover!" I am well aware that "the whole world" calls it by that name -- it is still wrong, and nothing can change that fact. The Kiddush (sanctification of the wine) prayer, with which the festival commences, does not mention the term "Passover" at all but other names are given to the holiday: "The season of our freedom; the feast of unleavened bread; the remembrance of the departure from Egypt."
In the Torah we read, "...and this shall be unto you a memorial, and you shall keep it a feast unto the Lord; Throughout your generations you shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever. Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread..." [Ex. 12:14-15] That ordinance for the holiday was not long in coming. In the book of Leviticus, also known as "Torat Kohanim" the teaching of the priests all the feasts of Israel were prescribed in detail. First among them was, "...in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at dusk, is the Lords Passover. And the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the Lord; seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread..." [Lev. 23:5-6] So, you see, the fourteenth day of the month, at dusk, is the Lords Passover but most definitely not all seven days of the festival!
You will note in the above passage from Leviticus, that the month of the holiday was called "the first month." This is in spite of the fact that Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, is six months away! Why? Because at the beginning of the Season of our Freedom we are "born again" -- to a life of service of God.
What is the "passover?" the act of God passing over the homes of Israel in striking the first born in all Egypt. God Himself came down to perform this last plague, the Torah tells us, an act of omnipower a punishment of Egypt for the cruelty of Israels bondage. Yet, the humanity of Judaism forbids us to gloat at anyones misery! How can we spend seven days in celebration of death and destruction? Indeed, how can we spend even one night one hour one minute in such a celebration?
Reconsider, then, the story of that night when the slaying of the first born took place: the Lord demanded that the children of Israel mark their doorposts with the blood of the Paschal Lamb before he visited death upon Egypt. Does the Omnipotent One need a sign upon the door to know who dwells therein? Surely, the sign was not, as we so simplistically chose to believe, for the Lord! It was for us it was a mark of our commitment! As of that day, we were either in or out! The night of the Passover celebrates commitment (both then and now) to the faith and fate of the Jewish People! For this is the night of pivotal change in our lives, the night we enter into God's service! We celebrate the great event with a home ritual called "Seder Pesah" the Order of the Passover. However, the seven day holiday that commences on the morrow is Hag Hamatzot the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
This holiday is also a celebration of springtime, the season of the year when the earth turns green, and so it is called "Hag HaAviv" the Festival of Spring. The Major festivals in Judaism are all thanks-giving holidays. Each celebrates a different aspect of Gods generosity to Israel. Hag Hamatzot thanks God for the gift of freedom.
However, before we can celebrate and thank God for freedom, we must understand what freedom really means. God spoke to Moses in the Burning Bush and commanded him to go down to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to "Let My people go that they may serve me!" [Exodus 7:16] Real freedom comes with the service of God. It is the realization of this basic truth that makes the holiday a time of rededication to God.
There are two times a year in the Jewish calendar, six months apart, when our personal commitment to God is renewed: at the New Year, the time of creation, and at Hag Hamatzot, when we realize the true meaning of freedom - commitment to God through service for (and of) mankind.
Throughout Jewish teaching, when the importance of a lesson needs to be made, we read, "...for you shall remember that you were a slave in the Land of Egypt, and the Lord redeemed you..." [Deuteronomy 15:15] Every time we consecrate the wine at the beginning of Shabbat or a holiday we recall "Zeher litziat Mitzrayim," the time of the exodus from Egypt. On the second evening of the Festival of Unleavened Bread we begin a countdown to the spring harvest, called "Counting the sheaves" Sfirat Haomer.
GUIDELINES FOR PREPARATIONS FOR HAG HAMATZOT
These guidelines are based on the decisions of the Committee on Laws and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement, as interpreted by Rabbi E. Ben-Yehuda for Temple Emanuel of Lakeland, Florida. If you have any questions about what is stated here, or if you with to question something that was overlooked - please feel free to call Rabbi Ben-Yehuda. Please make sure to sell all your hametz before the onset of the holiday.
FORBIDDEN FOODS: leavened bread, cakes, biscuits and crackers, cereals, coffee substances and substitutes made of cereal, wheat, corn barley, oats, dry peas and dry beans, and all liquids and liquors containing ingredients made of grain alcohol or corn sweetener. Rice is a question mark -- Ashkenazic Jewry did not use it, Sepharadic Jewry did - so choose which side you are on!
FOODS PERMITTED WITHOUT THE "KOSHER FOR PASSOVER" LABEL: Natural coffee, sugar, salt, tea, fruits and vegetables except those mentioned above as forbidden. Frozen fruits and vegetables are permitted with the above provision.
FOODS PERMITTED ONLY WITH "KOSHER FOR PASSOVER" LABEL: Any food you have doubts about - look for the label! Make sure that there is a certified Rabbinic authority that issued the label. FOR THE SEDER ONLY egg matzah is not permitted.
DISHES AND UTENSILS: It is best to use dishes and utensils that are reserved for the holiday. However, some dishes and utensils can be made fit to use for the holiday:
SILVERWARE may be scoured and immersed in boiling water to purge for the holiday.
GLASSWARE AND TRANSLUCENT CHINAWARE must be scoured, immersed in boiling water and left overnight in water.
METAL AND CORNINGWARE POTS AND PANS those used for cooking (not for baking) may be scoured thoroughly and placed on the stove with water till it boils. Rinse with scalding hot water.
DISHWASHER may be scoured clean and run through a "sanitizing" cycle. Stainless tray or a new tray must be used.
STOVE must be scrubbed and cleansed thoroughly. All burners must be allowed to glow red for self-cleaning.
MICROWAVE ovens must be scrubbed clean, and only covered containers should be used in it.
DISHES AND UTENSILS made of earthenware, soft plastic, wood, or porcelain, and baking pots and pans that were used for hametz cannot be purged, and therefore are NOT ALLOWED to be used during the holiday.
ORIGIN OF THE HAGGADAH
The Haggadah Shel Pesah, this book we use for the home service of the Night of the Lords Passover, is a strange and unique piece of Jewish literature. Many of its passages seem obscure, many of the Rabbinic arguments presented in it seem to be out of place and disjointed for any prayerbook, particularly one used at a feast or holiday meal. Though there is no definite knowledge as to the origin of the Haggadah Shel Pesah, many scholars believe it dates back to the Bar Kohba revolt of 135 C.E. - and that, in fact, much of it is in code, telling of an assembly of Rabbis who met to discuss "the exodus from Egypt" (for this read the liberation of Israel) and lead the above mentioned revolt! Thus we can find meaning in many passages that seem not to make sense at first reading: "...It is related of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, and Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah and Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon that once they reclined together on Passover eve at Bney Brak and discussed together the Exodus from Egypt all that night until their pupils came and told them: Rabbis! The time has come for reciting the morning Shma..." and also Pour out Your wrath upon the nations..."
It is a well known fact that Rabbi Akiva was the spiritual leader of Bar Kohbas men, and it is also well known that the Romans passed an edict that forbade the study of Torah. On Yom Kippur we read the martyriology - the story of the Rabbis that were tortured and killed by the Romans because they did not obey this edict - and the name of Rabbi Akiva is prominent among them. What were the Rabbis discussing at B'ney Brak that night? And where is "B'ney Brak," anyhow? When the pupils came in to tell the Rabbis it was time for the "Shma" -- did they, in fact, warn the Rabbis of a Roman patrol coming by? For surely Rabbis would know when it was time for morning prayers! Barak is Hebrew for lightning: Bney Barak, therefore, is the sons of lightning - or the rebel camp?! The "four sons" that the Rabbis were talking about - could they not have been the four types of recruits that were coming in - Yeshiva students were the "wise" - they would not only fight, but continue to study Torah against the law. The "wicked" could have been the assimilated type, who still admitted to being Jewish - but had to be threatened with ex-communication before joining the rebels cause. The "simple" type could not be made to understand the ideology of the revolt, but could only be instructed in the "strong-arm" tactics. The ones who "do not know yet to ask" would have been the young, who couldnt fight because of their age, but still had to be taught the significance of what was taking place.
"...And it is this same promise that hath stood by our fathers and by us also. For not only one hath risen against us to destroy us - but in every generation there have risen against us those who would destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, delivereth us always from their hand!..." (page 8) This passage, read with cups raised, as if in salute, may be construed as an order of the day for the rebels on the eve of battle. The odds were very heavily against them - the full might and fury of Rome was directed against them - surely they were asking themselves what were their chances of success, of survival! The promise of divine help was meant to raise their spirits and give them courage - and hope!
"...Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know Thee not, and upon the kingdoms that call not upon Thy name. For they have devoured Jacob, and laid waste his habitation. Pour out Thine indignation upon them, and let the fierceness of Thine anger overtake them. Pursue them in anger, and destroy them in anger from under the heavens of the Lord..." (page 26) This prayer, recited following the grace after the meal and the drinking of the third cup of wine, stands alone and unique in all Jewish liturgy. This is the only time that we invoke God to destroy and to kill. The very concept of this passage is contrary to the Rabbinic line of pacifist behavior. However, if we replace "Thee, Thou and Thine" with "you and yours" - we will discover that this is not a prayer to God, a kind of prayer no Jew would utter -- but a final "order of the day" to the rebels given at the end of the meal of indoctrination. The men at the table were told, "you have had your Passover - now it is time to put the zeal of God that you have been imbued with to practice!" - or, in other words, "Go get them, boys!"
THE RITUALS AND CUSTOMS OF THE PASSOVER EVE
THE FOUR CUPS - These are instituted as a Symbol of the four expressions for redemption used in the Torah: "And I shall draw out," "and I shall save", "and I shall redeem", and "I shall take".
THE FOUR QUESTIONS - In the accepted version their order is as follows: Matzah, bitter herbs, dipping vegetable, and reclining. In Sephardic text, however, which is based upon the opinion of Rabbi Amram Gaon, the order is slightly different: dipping the vegetable, matzah, bitter herbs and reclining.
AFIKOMAN - This is a Greek word which connotes dessert, either of sweet fruits such as dates, parched corn, and nuts, or mushrooms and chick peas. The saying, "No dessert may be eaten after the consumption of the paschal lamb", is explained by the fact that one must not lose the taste of the paschal sacrifice (and in our day, the taste of Matzah) from ones mouth.
THE WHITE GARMENT - It used to be customary for the head of the house to don a white dressing gown in honor of Passover. This garment is known as a "kittel". It is a holiday garb, the white color symbolizing freedom. It is also a commemoration of the white robes of the Temple priests who were clothed in white, for the wearing of this robe on Passover eve connotes worship in the Temple. There are others who say that a white robe symbolized the day of death, or the shrouds with which the dead are clothed.
HAGGADAH - This name has been given the book from which we read on Passover eve, because of the Biblical verse, "And thou shalt tell (vehigadeta) it to thy son on that day, saying: It is because of that which the Eternal did for me when I came out of Egypt". Also, because of the verse: "I have told the Eternal this day that I am come unto the land". And there are those who derive the name Haggadah from thanksgiving and praise to the Eternal for redeeming us from Egypt. This derivation is found in the version by the Palestinian Talmud of the phrase, "I have told the Eternal this day". They translate, "I have this day praised the Eternal". At any rate, the Hebrew word means telling and related to the recounting of the events of the exodus.
WINE SPILL - we were commanded not to rejoice at the downfall of anyone - not even our enemies. To show our sympathy with the Egyptians over their misery we diminished our wine glass, since the Bible teaches us "Wine makes the heart of man happy." The custom of spilling drops of wine from the glass during recitation of the ten plagues also occurs when we mention the phrases "blood and fire and pillars of smoke", and "DTzach, Adash, BAhab". We do this to show the sincerity of our participation in the sorrow of those who were punished by God (lest someone say "they only poured ten drops of wine..."). One spills wine, therefore sixteen times. There are those accustomed to perform the spilling by dipping a finger into the wine as a remembrance of the verse, "This is the finger of God", while others spill by merely tipping the glass or using a spoon.
DTZACH, ADASH, BAHAV - A mnemonic device composed of the first letters of the ten plagues.
RECLINING - it is necessary that the place upon which one reclines on Passover eve be a pleasant couch or seat where one must eat at least a Kezayit of matzah and the afikoman and drink the cups by reclining on ones left side. This last custom is symbolic of freedom, for in olden times only princes would dine in this fashion.
ELIJAHS CUP - It is customary to pour a brimming cup of wine into a large and beautiful goblet - in honor of Elijah the Prophet, before one begins recitation of "Pour out Thy wrath". Opinions as to the reasons for opening the front door of the house while reciting this prayer vary. Some say it is symbolic of our invitation to Elijah to enter the house, as the harbinger (announcer) of the coming of the messiah, which is to say the "second redemption" of the Children of Israel. The basis of this custom is found in the words of our sages, who said that Israel is to be redeemed (again, as it happened the first time) in the month of Nisan. In that month it proclaims this night of the Passover as "the night of watching". Still others opine that the custom refers to the question of whether we should drink a "fifth cup" of wine. Only Elijah can solve this problem, and the door remains open for his arrival to give us the solution.
MATZAH - Three Matzot are used on Passover eve, because each Sabbath and holiday is marked by a blessing over two breads, while on Passover a third matzah is added because of the Afikoman. Rabbi Elijah Gaon, however, did not add the third matzah. There are some who give names to the three matzot - the top one is called the Priest; the middle one, the Levite; and the bottom matzah, the Israelite. Thus the three matzot become a symbol of the three groups within Judaism.
MATZAH SHEMURAH - It is a religious duty to eat the "Kezayit matzah" and the afikoman from matzah baked of dough whose wheat has been carefully watched from the time of the harvest. Even stricter are those who fulfill the obligation of eating a Kezayit and the afikoman only from those matzoth baked on the afternoon preceding Passover. Some people are accustomed to do this baking on the morning prior to the festival. There is also a tradition of burning the remains of the lulav (from Sukkot) in the fire of the oven in which the matzah Shemurah is baked - thus maintaining a continuity to the holidays.
MNEMONICS OF THE SEDER - in order to ease the burden of recalling all the details of the seder, the earlier commentators to the Haggadah compiled various rhymes and mnemonic devices. The most popular of these is the "Kadesh Urhatz", which has been attributed to Rabbi Solomon Isaaci.
THE DISH - KARA It is customary to place the three matzoth, the vegetables, the two cooked foods, the haroset and the karpas upon one large plate or tray. There are many customs as to proper arrangement of the foods on the dish.
BITTER HERBS - MARROR A reminder of the bitterness of slavery - and of the night of liberation. It is written in the Torah: "With unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it.", which demonstrates that the paschal sacrifice was eaten with matzoth and bitter herbs. The rabbis, however, ordained that in our day we should eat the bitter herbs by themselves.
KARPAS - A type of vegetable, either parsley or celery. It is a symbol of the time of spring, when the earth turns green again. However, one can fulfill the commandment, however, with any green vegetable. In the word Karpas there lies a special clue - for if the numerical value of the letters is read in reverse order, we discover the "sixty myriads" of Israelites who were oppressed with heavy and arduous work.
SHANKBONE - ZROA The plate contains two types of cooked food, the first is the shankbone with a bit of roast meat clinging to it - a remembrance of the paschal sacrifice. The Hebrew for shankbone is Zroa - arm, a symbol of the strong arm with which God removed Israel from Egypt.
THE EGG - BEYTZAH An egg, the second cooked food was a remembrance of the holiday offering customarily eaten on Passover eve. It was chosen as a symbol of this latter sacrifice, for in Hebrew the word for egg is Be-tzah, which is derived from "Come (Ba)," and "Get out (Tse)." God came and took us out. The egg is also a symbol of the world which God created, a beginning of all life, and the roast (or burn) marks on it remind us of the lot of Israel in its travels around the world, often being persecuted and "burned."
HAROSET - A dish prepared of pounded fruits, such as apples and nuts, pecans, almonds and pomegranates, further mixed with cinnamon, wine or vinegar. These fruits are symbolic of the Jewish community, made up of different elements, some sweet and some bitter, some hard and some "meaty." The haroset serves further as a reminder of the clay with which our forefathers were forced to work in Egypt. The ingredients for making haroset have always been considered "rich mans food" - and symbolized the rich reward of Gods deliverance.
WASHING OF HANDS - We wash our hands before we say the blessing for food, always. On Seder eve we "begin" to eat twice -- once when we take the symbolic byte of the greens at the very beginning of the Seder, and the second time when we begin to eat Matzah and then the meal. The first time we do not say a blessing for the washing of the hands. The second time we do.
SEARCH FOR KHAMETZ (Leavened foods)
The night before the first seder, it is traditional to make a search of the home for khametz-- bread and other leavened products.
This is traditionally done by candlelight, inside a dark house, so the search party will have to peer closely into every crevice where khametz may lurk. At the end of the search, we declare that "Any leaven that may still be in the house, which I have not seen or have not removed, shall be as if it does not exist, like the dust of the earth."
SELLING THE KHAMETZ
It is also a tradition to "sell the khametz." We place all the khametz in particular places -- a closet or a corner of a room, or maybe the garage. Then we "sell" the khametz and rent the closet or corner to a non-Jew, to fulfill the commandment that we own no khametz on the holiday.
If you wish to sell your khametz through this page, please copy the "bill of sale" below and send it to our adress. Be sure to give "ma'ot khitim" -- a gift for the khametz, to some charity (preferably for matzot for the poor).
DELEGATION OF POWER FOR SALE OF KHAMETZ
I, the undersigned, fully empower and permit Rabbi E. Ben-Yehuda to act in my place and stead, and on my behalf to sell all Khametz possessed by me, knowingly or unknowingly as defined by the Torah and Rabbinic Law (e.g. Khametz, possible Khametz, and all kinds of Khametz mixtures).
Also Khametz that tends to harden and adhere to inside surfaces of pans, pots, or cooking utensils, the utensils themselves, and all kinds of live animals and pets that have been eating Khametz and mixtures thereof. Rabbi E. Ben-Yehuda is also empowered to lease all places wherein the Khametz owned by me may be found, particularly at the address/es listed below, and elsewhere.
Rabbi E. Ben-Yehuda has full right to appoint any agent or substitute in his stead and said substitute shall have full right to sell and lease as provided herein. Rabbi E. Ben-Yehuda also has the full power and right to act as he deems fit and proper in accordance with all the details of the Bill of Sale used in the transaction to sell all my Khametz, Khametz mixtures, etc., as provided herein.
This power is in conformity with all Torah, Rabbinic and Civil laws.
Signed: ____________ Date: ______________ Name: _____________
Address/es: ___________________________ City/ State/ Zip Country: _______________
THE FESTIVAL OF SHAVUOT
The Torah names for the festival are: "Hag Shavu'ot" ("Feast of Weeks," Ex. 34:22; Deut. 16:10); "Yom ha-Bikkurim" ("The Day of the First-fruits," Num. 28:26), and "Hag ha-Kazir" ("The Harvest Feast," Ex. 23:16). The Rabbinic name is "Atzeret" (RH 1, 2; Hag. 2, 4). This word comes from the Hebrew root Ayin Tzadi and Resh which makes the word atzar, meaning he stopped. His would suggest a day of stoppage of labor, but generally it is translated as "solemn assembly." It occurs also in connection with the day following the Festival of Sukkot (Lev. 23:36; Num. 29:35). This would seem to suggest that, for the rabbis, Shavu'ot is an additional one day feast to Passover just as there is an additional one day feast to Tabernacles.
We read in the Torah, "Seven weeks shalt thou number unto thee; from the time the sickle is first put to the standing corn shalt thou begin to number seven weeks. And thou shalt keep the feast of weeks unto the Lord thy God after the measure of the freewill offering of thy hand, which thou shalt give, according as the Lord thy God blessed thee. And thou shalt rejoice before the Lord thy God, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are in the midst of thee, in the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt; and thou shalt observe and do these statutes." [Deuteronomy 16:9-12]
Shavuot is the third festival holiday (after Sukkot and Pesakh)of the Jewish calendar. Unlike the other two, however, the reason for celebrating Shavuot is not clearly explained in the Torah, and the date of celebrating the holiday is not given as a "stand alone" date, but rather it is related as "the fiftieth day after the night of the exodus."
It is celebrated, therefore, on the sixth and seventh days of the month of Sivan at the end of the "countdown" of the sheaves forty nine days, which is a "week" of weeks, our convoluted mathematics ordain this most joyous and significant holiday. Actually, Leviticus 23:11 states that the sheaf was waved on the day after the Sabbath on the festival of Passover. Thus Shavuot falls 50 days after this day. The Sadducees (and later the Karaites) understood the term "Shabbat" in these verses literally, hence, for them Shavu'ot always falls on a Sunday. The Pharisees, however, interpreted "Shabbat" as the first day of Passover (which was a Shabbat, or "day of rest") so that, for them, Shavu'ot always falls on the 51st day from the first day of Passover. The "Beta Israel," which is the Jews of Ethiopia who were cut off from the rest of Judaism for almost two thousald years (they were called "Falashas," meaning strangers), interpreted "the day after the Shabbat" as meaning the day after Passover (the entire holiday), so that for them Shavuot falls on the 12th of Sivan. The community of Qumran apparently interpreted "Shabbat" as the Shabbat after the end of the Passover festival, and as they had a fixed solar calendar this "Shabbat" always fell on the 26th of Nisan so that Shavuot always came out on Sunday the 15th of Sivan.
Most, if not all, commentators and historians believe that the origin of both the "counting of the Omer" and the celebration at its end that is to say, Shavuot predate the Exodus (and possibly Abraham) and are an agrarian celebration born (in Canaan) of the anxiety of waiting for the harvest and the joy of its bounty. Shavuot is also called "Khag Habikurim" the feast of the first fruits of the spring harvest. "Also in the day of the of the first of the fruit, when ye bring a new meal offering unto the Lord..." [Numbers 28:26] No one is sure when this practice began, but it is an ancient tradition to read the Book of Ruth during this holiday maybe because Ruth met her second husband, Boaz, during the gathering of the harvest.
In establishing Jewish national events on the religious calendar, Moses prescribed the three festivals as a time when the Jews will come to serve God in the place where Gods Temple (or shrine) would be (see Deuteronomy 16:16), which means that the major holidays were all pilgrimage holidays, designated in Hebrew "Shalosh Regalim" - the three times of "walking up" to Jerusalem. Shavuot is celebrated as the thanksgiving for the gift of Torah.
It is not certain if the time elapse between the morrow of the Night of the Passover and the day when the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai to hear God speak (49 days) is correct, but we accept the sixth of Sivan as the date of the encounter between the children of Israel and God at Mt. Sinai. We call it "Matan Torah," the time of the giving of Gods teaching. In spite of this most momentous anniversary, Shavuot is the shortest of the three festivals: in Israel it is celebrated for one day only, while abroad we extend it by an additional day.
In many communities outside the land of Israel in the post-exilic period it was customary to introduce children to the "heder" Hebrew school on Shavuot, the season of the giving of the Torah. At this initiation ceremony the child, at the age of five or thereabouts, was placed on the reading desk in the synagogue and from there was taken to the school where he began to make his first attempts at reading the Hebrew alphabet. He was then given cakes, honey, and sweets "that the Torah might be sweet on his lips." In modern times, some synagogues, particularly Reform, celebrate the "confirmation" of older children instead of or in addition to Bar/Bat Mitzvah on Shavuot
Because the festival celebrates the giving of Gods mitzvot, a tradition developed of behaving in a manner that is most harmonious with Gods creation during this holiday: unlike any other holiday, the Shavuot repast was established by tradition to be a non-meat meal. Depending on the country of ones origin, one may feast on blintzes (cheese or fruit filled crepes), cheesecake, koogle (noodle pudding made with cheese and fruits), potato knishes, and cheese and/or herb bourekas (a baked delicacy of North African and Spanish Jewry). These bourekas are usually triangular in shape because the Torah is of three parts (Torah (Pentateuch), Neviim (Prophets), and Ktuvim (writings) and was given to a people of three parts (priests, levites, and Israelites) on the third month through Moses who was the third child of his parents.
It is traditional for Jewish homes to be decorated for Shavuot with flowers, green foliage, and potted plants. Fruits and vegetables are used both as decoration and as food.
It is also traditional to wear white or light colored clothes and avoid the use of leather goods, such as shoes. The rationale behind this avoidance of meat or leather is that God in his lovingkindness and mercy has seen fit to teach us his life-sustaining wisdom and we show our appreciation by avoiding the use of products that require the taking of a life during the celebration of the holiday.
There is no doubt that in our times the Festival of Shavuot is the least celebrated of the Major holidays at least among the less pious, less observant Jews. Yet, in fact, it may be considered the most important for it celebrates the giving of the Torah, without which no other holiday would have been instituted!
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