Monday, May 9, 2011

Jewish Holidays Explained

As the summer approaches and, with the exception of Shabbat, only a few holidays remain before we start again in the Fall (whew!), let’s take a moment to consider the cycle of Jewish holidays as a whole.

The calendar of Jewish holidays is diverse. We have holidays that last as few as one and as many as eight days. We have holidays that ask us to change our daily routine, such as Shabbat and Yom Kippur; holidays where daily celebration is basically the same as usual, such as Hanukkah; and holidays that overturn our entire lives, such as Passover and Sukkot. One reason why Jewish holidays have a distinctive lack of uniformity is that each is based on different sources that commemorate or celebrate different historical events in the history of our people. Despite this diversity, our holidays can be divided into three primary categories.

The first category of Jewish holidays is those that are discussed in the Torah. These are the holidays that G-d gave the Jewish people through Moses. Traditionally, these holidays, including Shabbat, have restrictions on the type of activities one can perform and can be identified by how we mark their beginning, with the lighting of two candles and the reciting of Kiddush, a prayer of sanctification, over a glass of wine. Although all the specific ritual acts of these holidays are not provided in the Torah, our rabbinic tradition establishes practices for these holidays based on an explanatory reading of the Torah.

The second category of Jewish holidays is those which were established by the Sages of the rabbinic period and codified in the Talmud. Most of these holidays have their origin in the Bible but were not given by G-d to the Jewish people and do not have the same level of sanctity as those discussed in the Torah. Purim is the most common example of this class of holidays, although others include Tisha B’Av and the minor fasts to commemorate the other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people in the First and Second Temple periods and beyond. Hanukkah, also a holiday in this category, is distinctive from the rest in that it is established by the Rabbis but not Biblical in origin. Actually, it was the Rabbis themselves (for reasons that would require another article) who decided not to include the books of First and Second Maccabees, that tell the Hanukkah story, in what was to become the Jewish Bible. Nevertheless, the Rabbis instituted the holiday to commemorate this moment of Jewish triumph. The practices of these holidays are less restrictive because they are not instituted directly by G-d but by the recognized guardians of the Jewish tradition.

The final category of Jewish holidays is those created in the modern period. These holidays commemorate or celebrate events of that are connected to the modern Jewish experience, the Holocaust or the establishment of the State of Israel. Since these holidays were created in modernity, they are not marked by most of the ritual and prayer that is central to the celebration of Torah-based or Rabbinic holidays. In addition, these holidays have the fewest number of restrictions.

Interestingly, most of us have holidays that we appreciate over others because their message or practices are personally compelling. In addition, you might find that one category of Jewish holidays seems to have greater magnetism than another because the rituals or restrictions of the day fundamentally shape the nature of its observance.

We should also help those we teach to give more serious thought to the Jewish holidays. Explore with them how they could expand their connection to sacred Jewish time. What is telling about the fact that they prefer Yom Ha'Atzmaut to Rosh HaShanah or Purim to Shavuot? Have they been adequately exposed to the ideas, rituals, or prayers that could make the observance of the holidays more meaningful? Teaching about the holidays should not be something that ends at Bar Mitzvah age, but something explored at all times in a learner's Jewish journey. That way, we are constantly renewed in our Jewish living each year.

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