Why Celebrate the Jewish Holidays?
Just about everyone has a calendar in their kitchen, and there is probably not a kitchen calendar anywhere without hand-drawn circles and scribbled notes. What are these notes and circles? They are the appointments and commitments that make each family unique - the dental appointments, soccer games, music lessons, birthdays, celebrations, vacations, graduations, and anniversaries that distinguish one family from another. No other calendar out of all the millions of kitchen calendars scattered throughout America is a duplicate of any other. The appointments, commitments, celebrations, and observances on each particular calendar constitute the stitching that makes each family unique and binds it together as one.
What is true for every family in America is true as well for the family of Israel scattered around the globe and sown across time and eternity. The holidays of Israel are our unique calendar, circled and scribbled, stained with cholent, wine, charoset, birthday cake, and sometimes blood. But this calendar is what stitches us together as a family, enabling this scattered and trans-generational family to rejoice together, to weep together, and to steep in fragrant memory.
And just as it is erosive to family ties to forget birthdays and anniversaries, so Jewish identity erodes and our ties with each other unravel when we fail to honor our common calendar. While neglecting these holy days, both the happy ones and the sad, will not annul our family status, can there be any doubt that such neglect weakens family ties?
Because it is important for us to be family to each other, all the holidays are important - the big ones and the small ones. They are no burden - they are the stitching that binds us to each other, and by which we honor the One who is the Father of us all.
What are the mo'edim? They are the "fixed" or "appointed" times listed and described in Leviticus 23. In that chapter they are also called "holy assemblies" (mikra'ey kodesh), occasions set apart for Israel to gather and worship the Holy One. Leviticus 23 lists the following holidays as mo'edim: Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret.
According to Ramban, melechet avodah (servile work) refers to work that is a burden, such as ordinary labor in factory and field. Exodus 12:16 describes the work that is permitted on Pesach: "only what every person is to eat (okhel nefesh), that alone may be prepared for you." Based on this verse, the Mishnah states: "The difference between a holiday (yom tov) and Shabbat is only the food (okhel nefesh)" (m. Megillah 1:5). The preparation of food is forbidden on Shabbat, but permitted on holidays.
Rabbinic tradition understood this permission to include all actions that would be involved in normal food preparation, such as transferring a flame for cooking, and carrying objects from one domain to another. According to b. Betzah 12a, the houses of Shammai and Hillel disagreed over whether this permission meant that such activities (e.g., transferring a flame and carrying objects from one domain to another) were allowed in general on holidays, or only when food is actually being prepared. The House of Hillel took the more lenient view, and their position prevailed.
It should be noted that the Shabbat prohibition of buying and selling also applies to holidays.
The Torah is unambiguous on this point: the final day of the Feast of Unlveavened Bread (Exodus 12:16; Leviticus 23:8) and the eighth day after the beginning of Sukkot (Leviticus 23:36, 39) are full holidays. This needs to be stressed because so few Jews today outside the Orthodox world observe these holidays.
The day added to Sukkot after Shemini Atzeret is called Simchat Torah. It celebrates the end of one year's cycle of Torah readings, and the beginning of the next year's cycle. In the land of Israel Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret are observed on the same day, and are in fact one holiday.
We can honor holidays, even if we are not fully observing them. For example, we could decide to practice our occupation on such a day, and yet still avoid public acts that treat the day as secular or normal (e.g., mowing the lawn, painting the house, going to the movies).
This should not be construed as halakhic "permission" to profane these holidays. The Torah and Jewish tradition require the observance of the mo'edim, and we cannot rescind this requirement. Nevertheless, it must be recalled that we are a community in the process of returning to the Torah; our definition of "basic practice" should not function as a communal goal but instead as a starting point for continued growth.
From a strictly halakhic point of view, the only important distinction here is between the days required by the Written Torah (the first five above) and those decreed by the Sages (number six). Thus, the first day of Sukkot is not "more obligatory" than Shemini Atzeret. Still, the religious sensibility of the Jewish people has assigned priority to certain mitzvot, as seen, for example, by differentiated levels of observance of the various holidays among Jews who seek to live a Jewish life but are not committed to the complete framework of traditional Halakhah. While such religious sensibility does not reveal differentiated levels of objective obligation, it does suggest the order in which those who are returning to the Torah should structure their return.
The Torah commands the practice of "self-affliction" ('inuy nefesh) on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29, 31; 23:27, 32; Numbers 29:7). Other biblical texts demonstrate that this phrase implies fasting (Psalm 35:13; Isaiah 58:3), along with other expressions of self-denial. In the Acts of the Apostles the day is referred to simply as "the fast" (Acts 27:9). According to the Mishnah (m. Yoma 8:1), and the consensus of Jewish tradition, the fast required on Yom Kippur involves abstention from both food and drink.
Children nine years old or younger should not fast on Yom Kippur. Children more than nine years old should learn to fast, adding hours each year as they grow older.
"Children need not be made to fast on Yom Kippur, but they should train them the year before or two years before, in order that they become accustomed to the observance of commandments" (m. Yoma 8:4). The Shulchan Aruch recommends that the training begin at age nine (133:19).
The Mishnah defines the "self-affliction" required on Yom Kippur as involving abstention from washing (for pleasure), sexual intercourse, and the wearing of leather sandals, in addition to a total fast (m. Yoma 8:1).
The Torah (Numbers 29:1) calls the first day of the seventh month (reckoned according to the festal calendar, in which Nissan is the first month) a "day when the horn is sounded" (yom teruah). It also states (Leviticus 23: 24) that the day is "commemorated with loud blasts" (zichron teruah). According to the Mishnah, this implies that a Jew is obligated to hear the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (m. Rosh Hashanah 3:7).
"The Sukkah is a temporary structure...erected in the open air, under the sky, not in a room or under a tree. It consists of four walls and removable covering...Theoretically two complete walls and part of a third wall satisfy the minimum requirements for a Sukkah, but it is customary to have four walls, and these should be strong enough to withstand the impact of ordinary winds...The covering, called sekhakh, must be of material that grows from the soil, has been detached from the ground, and cannot be defiled...The sekhakh should be loose enough so that one can see the sky, yet thick enough so that the shadow it casts on the ground exceeds the light thrown by the sun." (Klein, 162-63)
"You shall live in booths (sukkot) seven days; all citizens of Israel shall live in booths" (Leviticus 23:42). The Mishnah teaches that this means making the sukkah one's primary home and one's house a secondary home during the seven days of the holiday (m. Sukkah 2:9). However, the Mishnah also teaches that one should move from the sukkah to the house when harsh weather intervenes. The Shulchan Aruch expands on this concession: "If staying in the sukkah causes you discomfort, that is if you are troubled by the cold weather or the wind, or by a bad odor or similar annoyances, you are exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah on all nights other than the first night, and on all the days of Sukkot" (135:17).
"On the first day [of Sukkot] you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days" (Leviticus 23:40). According to the Talmud, the "product of hadar trees" is the citron (etrog), and the "leafy tree" is the myrtle (b. Sukkah 35a, 32b).
The lulav consists of palm, myrtle, and willow branches placed together. To fulfill the mitzvah of waving the lulav, the etrog is placed in the left hand, the lulav in the right hand, and they are held together so that they touch one another. When reciting the mitzvah blessing, the tip of the etrog points downward and the stem upward. When waving, the tip of the etrog points upward and the stem downward. The lulav and etrog are waved first toward the east, then toward the south, then west, north, up, and down.
According to the traditional rabbinic interpretation, the Written Torah forbids eating leaven from noon on the day the Passover lamb was sacrificed (m. Pesachim 1:4). This time was set by calculating the earliest hour when the afternoon sacrifices (which on this day included the Passover lambs) would begin in the Temple (m. Pesachim 5:1). The Sages then added an additional two-hour buffer, as a fence around the Torah.
During Pesach we do not eat these, nor do we eat foods containing any of them.
Of course, the exception here is matzah - which consists of unleavened bread made from any of these five types of grain.
The avoidance of kitniyot on Pesach would not be a practice for Messianic Jews living in a Sephardic Jewish environment. Sephardic Jewish families living in an Ashkenazic environment may follow the Sephardic minhag (custom) in their own homes,
but they should respect the minhag of the wider community when participating in community events or when inviting those from the community into their homes.
Rabbinic tradition stresses the importance of conforming to local Jewish custom, even when it differs from one's own normal practice. "Rabbi Tanhum bar Hanilai said: One should never break away from local custom. For Moses ascended on High and ate no bread [like the Angels, who do not eat], whereas the Ministering Angels descended below [Genesis 18] and ate bread" (b. Bava Metzia 86b).
In accordance with the determinations of many traditional authorities, the use of peanuts and peanut oil are permissible, as are the use of legumes in a form other than their natural state, for example corn syrup, corn oil, and soy oil.
In some synagogues the procedure of selling chametz is entrusted to the Rabbi who is granted "power of attorney" to establish the terms of the sale. Individuals in the synagogue may sign a registry indicating their agreement to have their Rabbi fulfill this responsibility on their behalf. In this case the sold chametz is kept in one's home in a separate place.
The Torah forbids not only the consumption of chametz on Pesach, but also its possession
(Exodus 12:19). The complexity of the modern commercial food industry makes it extremely difficult to comply with the latter prohibition in a literal manner. The custom of isolating and selling chametz expresses our intention of treating it as though it were no longer present and no longer ours.
After sundown on the night before Pesach, all the lights of the home are turned off, a candle is lit, a berachah recited (al b'ur chametz) and the search for a few intentionally scattered crumbs of bread is begun. After these are scooped up, they
are set-aside until morning and burned. The power of the symbolic removal of chametz in such a deliberate and dramatic fashion is especially meaningful for families with small children.
The counting of the omer is to be done in accordance with the existing Halakhah, commencing on the second day of Pesach and culminating at Shavuot fifty days following. Though various schools of thought existed during the Second Temple period concerning which day to commence the counting, the existing Halakhah has prevailed for the past two millennia and any change would be an unnecessary adaptation resulting in an odd variance from the greater Jewish community.
The practice of counting the omer derives from Leviticus 23:15: "And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation offering - the day after the Sabbath - you shall count seven weeks." The Sages understood the command "you shall count" as requiring a formal, liturgical act in which the days between Pesach and Shavuot would each receive a numerical designation. Following the interpretation adopted by the Pharisees during the Second Temple period (and supported by the Septuagint, Philo, and Josephus), rabbinic tradition understood "the Sabbath" of Leviticus 23:15 to be the first day of Pesach. Thus, the counting of the omer would commence on the second day of Pesach. Apparently the Sadducees and the Qumarn community interpreted the word as referring to a Saturday - either the Saturday after Pesach began, or the one after the seven-day Pesach holiday ended. According to their reckoning, the practice of counting the omer would always begin on a Sunday.
Zechariah 8:19 refers to four fasts, all associated with the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The most important of these occurs on the Ninth of Av. According to the Mishnah (m. Taanit 4:6), both the first and the second Temples were destroyed on this day. Many other historical calamities (such as the expulsion from Spain) have befallen the Jewish people on the Ninth of Av. Consequently, after Yom Kippur this day has been the most solemn fast in the Jewish calendar. While work is not prohibited (a common characteristic of all the minor fasts and festivals), one avoids all eating and drinking from sunset to sunset, as on Yom Kippur.
These holidays commemorate the two monumental events of twentieth century Jewish history: the holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. These events, both of profound spiritual significance, have left an indelible mark on the consciousness of the Jewish people. It is appropriate that we gather with other Jews on these occasions to demonstrate our solidarity with our people, expressing together our grief and our joy.