Shavuot

The holiday of Shavuot commemorates God giving the Torah/Ten Commandments to the ancient Israelites at Mt. Sinai.  Shavuot means “weeks” (Shavuah = week), because we’ve counted the Omer, which is 7 weeks (49 days) from Passover.

On the first night of Shavuot, we stay up all night learning Torah.  It is tradition to eat dairy on Shavuot, and so it is common to find plates of cheesecake available at these all night study sessions.  On both days of the holiday, families and synagogues will serve special dairy dishes that are often family traditions, like blintzes, cheese bourekas, kugel, quiche, and casseroles.

Many have the custom to decorate their homes and synagogues with flowers, fruits, and fragrant plants to celebrate the holiday.  Shavuot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays, where Israelites would bring sacrifices to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  During Shavuot, families would bring their first harvest of choice fruits.

The Ten Commandments are read in synagogue during special services on the first day of Shavuot.  The Book of Ruth is read during services on the second day.

The story of Ruth is about a Moabite widow who follows her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Israel, after the death of Naomi’s husband and two sons in Moab.  Refusing to return to her own family after her husband’s death, Ruth essentially converts to Judaism, by pledging her loyalty to Naomi and her people:  “wherever you go, I will go, wherever you stay, I shall stay, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God”.  Once they have returned to Naomi’s hometown, Naomi instructs Ruth to glean from her kinsman Boaz’s fields.  Boaz marries Ruth, and King David is born from their family line. 

You can read the entire story of Ruth at: www.sefaria.org/Ruth

The Book of Ruth is associated with Shavuot for several reasons:

  • Ruth’s declaration of joining Naomi’s people is analogous to the ancient Israelites accepting the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  
  • The story takes place around the time of the wheat harvest, which would mean the timeline must be nearby to Shavuot.
  • The Book of Ruth ends with a geneology leading to King David, and it is said that David died on Shavuot.

 

Lag B’Omer

 Lag B’Omer is celebrated on the 33rd day of the Omer.  (Remember that the Omer is the 49 days that we count between the second day of Passover and Shavuot)  From the beginning of the Omer until Lag B’Omer, we observe those days as a semi-mourning period (more on that in a moment).  Lag B’Omer is a break from that period of mourning, and is celebrated with customs like lighting bonfires, playing with bows & arrows, field day activities, picnics/BBQs, and even weddings.

According to the Talmud, during the counting of the Omer, a great number of Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by a plague.  The plague was said to occur because the students did not treat one another with respect.  We treat the beginning of the Omer season as a period of mourning in remembrance of Rabbi Akiva’s students and their behavior.  The story continues that on the 33rd day of the Omer the plague lifted.  As a result, Lag B’Omer became a day of happiness, interrupting the solemnness of the Omer.

The Talmud talks of a plague, but historians believe that the plague might be a veiled reference to Rabbi Akiva’s students participating in the failed Bar Kochba rebellion against Roman rule of Judea.  This also is a likely source for the tradition of children playing with bows & arrows on Lag B’Omer.

Another reason for the significance of Lag B’Omer is that it is the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai, who is credited with writing the Zohar, the book of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah).  In Israel, people visit his burial site nearby the city of Tz’fat (known as the home of Jewish mysticism) on Lag B’Omer.

Yet another reason for celebration on Lag B’Omer is a belief that the manna given to the Israelites during the exodus first appeared on this day in Jewish history.

 

The Story of Moses

The holiday of Passover is the celebration of our exodus from slavery in Egypt, as recorded in the Torah.  Here’s a brief summary of the story:

The Israelites are living in Egypt (having travelled there generations ago due to famine).  A new Pharaoh comes to power, and he fears that the numerous Israelite nation will rise up against him.  He enslaves the Israelites and then orders that all Israelite baby boys must be thrown into the Nile.  Yocheved and Amram have a Daughter, Miriam, a son, Aaron, and a new baby boy.  They fear he will be found and killed, and so Yocheved weaves a basket, and uses it to float the baby down the Nile river.  He is discovered by Batya, Pharaoh’s Daughter, adopted, and raised in the palace.  Batya names him Moses (meaning “drawn from the water”).

As a young adult, Moses encounters an Egyptian taskmaster beating an elderly Israelite slave.  He steps in between the two to save the Israelite, and accidentally kills the taskmaster.  Moses tries to hide what he’s done, but discovers that others have learned of his actions.  He flees Egypt fearing Pharaoh will punish him.

Moses finds a new life as a shepherd, finds a wife, and has two sons.  One day as he is out with the flocks, a lamb wanders off.  Moses goes searching for the lamb and finds the burning bush.  God speaks to Moses, commanding him to return to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh let the Israelites go free.  Moses is afraid to take on this responsibility, saying he is not suited to the task, as he is a poor speaker (Midrash tells us that Moses has a lisp).  God tells Moses that he will reunite him with his brother Aaron, who will serve as his spokesman.  Moses leaves his wife and sons at their home in safety, and returns to Egypt.

Aaron and Moses speak to Pharaoh, who refuses to let the Israelites go.  They repeatedly ask, and Pharaoh continues to deny them.  With each refusal, God sends a plague upon the Egyptians:  The Nile turns to blood; frogs come up from the Nile and are everywhere; lice infest the city;  then wild animals threaten everyone; a disease kills all the livestock; everyone gets boils; large damaging hail filled with fire falls upon the city; locusts invade and destroy the crops; 3 days of darkness fall where no one can see anything, not even candles/fires help…  By the 10th plague, when all the firstborn males die, Pharaoh is frightened enough to finally let the Israelites go.

The Pharaoh is so scared that he orders the Israelites to leave at once.  The Israelites are caught somewhat unprepared – they had begun packing, but had not finished making provisions for their travel.  They had to bring their raw bread dough with them, and allow it to bake in the sun.  As a result, the bread doesn’t rise (and that’s how we get Matzah).

The Israelites reach the sea of reeds and realize they are trapped.  Pharaoh has decided that letting his slaves go wasn’t a good decision, and has sent his army to go retrieve them.  With the Israelites caught between the approaching army and the sea, God creates a miracle and splits the sea so that the Israelites can cross on dry land.  The Egyptian army follows them, but once the last Israelite exits the path, God allows the water to return to normal, and the army is drowned.

The Israelites are finally free, and Moses and Miriam sing songs of praise to God and lead the people in celebration.

The Order of the Passover Seder

The word Seder means order, and the Passover Seder has 14 steps.  They are as follows:

  1. Kadesh: We begin the Seder with a blessing over the first cup of wine, and blessings for the Seder.
  2. Urchatz: Our second step is to wash our hands without a blessing.  This represents our freedom, because slaves were unable to wash whenever they wished.
  3. Carpas: Our third step is to take a spring vegetable, like parsley, celery, or a potato and dip it in salt water.  We then say a blessing and eat it.  The vegetable represents the spring, because Passover is also called Chag Ha’Aviv, the Spring Holiday.  The salt water represents the tears of the Israelites as they experienced slavery.
  4. Yachatz: Our fourth step is to take the middle matzah from the Seder Plate and break it in half.  We call the larger of the two halves the Afikoman, and we hide it.  The children then must either find or steal the Afikoman and ransom it for a prize, because the Seder cannot end without it.  Afikoman means dessert, and it should be the last thing we eat at the Seder.
  5. Maggid: The fifth step is to retell the story of the Exodus.  The readings include the youngest child reciting the 4 questions (which the rest of the readings answer), the story of the 4 children, and explanations of the symbols of the Seder.  This is the longest section of the Seder.
  6. Rachtza: For the sixth step, we wash our hands again, this time with the blessing, in preparation for the meal.
  7. Motzi-Matzah: The seventh step is to say the traditional blessing over bread, which begins the meal, and an additional blessing because we are eating Matzah. 
  8. Maror: The eighth step is to eat Maror, bitter herbs, usually horseradish.  The bitterness of the maror represents the bitter life of a slave.
  9. Korech: For the ninth step, we follow the tradition of Rabbi Hillel, and make a sandwich made of matzah, maror, and charoset (a sweet mixture of fruit, nuts, wine, and spices, meant to mimic mortar for bricklaying – the work the Israelites did as slaves).
  10. Shulchan Orech: Step ten, Shulchan Orech, the festive table – finally time to eat dinner!
  11. Tzafun: Step eleven, time for dessert.  We search for the Afikoman, putting both halves of the middle matzah back together.  There are many interpretations of this, one popular one being that it represents the unity of the Jewish people.  Everyone eats a piece of the Afikoman, and it is to be the last thing eaten during the Seder.
  12. Barech: For step twelve, we recite birkat hamazon, the blessings after a meal, thanking God for our food.  We also open the door for Elijah the prophet.  Tradition holds that he will herald in the messianic era, a time of true peace and freedom.
  13. Hallel: We recite Hallel, psalms of praise, for step thirteen, praising all the great things God has done for us, and thanking God for our freedom.
  14. Nirtzah: The last step of the Seder is for us to declare we have done everything according to tradition, wish everyone a good holiday, and hope that next year we will celebrate “in Jerusalem” (depending on personal belief, this can be a literal hope for making Aliyah to Israel in the future, and celebrating Passover in the holy land, or, it can mean a hope that the messianic era will arrive before we next celebrate Passover).

 

The Search for Chametz

Chametz is a term for any food that is not kosher for Passover. The rules for observing Passover are very strict regarding not having any Chametz, even tiny crumbs, in your home during the holiday, and so there is a lot of significant house cleaning that goes on prior to the holiday. I like to joke that the Jewish people were the ones who invented spring cleaning.

So, we thoroughly clean the house, and remove all the Chametz. Modern Jewish law allows for the “selling” of Chametz. This practice consists of a family storing supplies of Chametz and dishes, pots, pans, etc, somewhere that will not be accessed during the holiday, and then with the help of a Rabbi, drawing up a contract that sells this storage location to a non-Jew, who will hold onto it for the length of the holiday, and then return it after Passover is over. It is a legal loophole so that preparing for Passover does not become an undue financial burden on a family.

After we believe we have rid the home of all the Chametz, on the night before the first Seder, we perform a ritual search, called Bedikat Chametz, to ensure we’ve gotten every last crumb. To make sure we are not saying a blessing in vain, we hide ten pieces of Chametz around the house, to make sure we have some Chametz to find during the search. We then say the appropriate blessing (see link below), and perform a search around the darkened house using a candle for light, and a spoon and feather to sweep up the discovered Chametz. We put the found pieces of Chametz in a paper bag, so that it is ready to be burned along with any leftover Chametz from breakfast the next morning.

The following link is to a Rabbinical Assembly handout with instructions and the blessings used for Bedikat Chametz: http://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/jewish-law/holidays/pesah/b-dikat-hameitz.pdf

The Story of Purim

The story of Purim as told in the Megillah is complex and contains violence and adult situations. The Story of Esther, by Eric Kimmel (available through PJ Library!) is a child-friendly retelling of the tale.

Here is a summary of the key points of Megillat Esther (adult themes included):

King Achashveyrosh, the ruler of Persia, hosts a 6-month-long party. He invites his Queen, Vashti, to attend, “wearing her royal crown” (and only her crown!), so he can show off her renowned beauty to his guests. Vashti refuses. The King’s advisors tell him that if he allows her to get away with refusing, the other wives in the kingdom might get the idea they don’t need to obey their husbands. As a result, the King exiles Vashti (or has her executed, depending on your preferred interpretation of the text). After the party is finally over, Achashveyrosh finds he is lonely. His advisors counsel that he should find himself a new Queen.

A proclamation is sent out that all eligible maidens are to come to the capital of Persia, Shushan, so that the King can choose a new Queen. We are introduced to Mordechai and his niece Hadassah, who is also called Esther (She has both a Hebrew name and a Persian one, much like how many American Jewish children have both Hebrew and English names). Mordechai tells Esther to go to Shushan as a candidate for Queen, and advises her to hide that she is Jewish. Esther’s beauty, kindness, and intelligence leads her to being a favored candidate, and eventually the King chooses her as Queen. Mordechai sits in the gateway of Shushan so that he can hear news about Esther. While there, he overhears two royal guards plotting to murder the King. He informs Esther, who tells Achashveyrosh, and the guards are executed.

Achashveyrosh appoints Haman as his new prime minister (aka chief advisor). Haman’s new authority goes to his head, and starts ordering citizens to bow to him (as if they were worshipping a god). Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman, telling him that Jews only bow to God. Haman becomes enraged, and plots to kill not just Mordechai, but all the Jews of Persia. Haman lies to King Achashveyrosh in order to convince the King to give him the authority to annihilate the Jews. The King gives Haman his signet ring, which gives Haman the ability to write proclamations in the name of the King. Haman sends out a royal edict, that the citizens of Persia are to kill their Jewish neighbors and take their land and possessions.

Mordechai hears of the edict and goes into public mourning, tearing his clothes and sitting in ashes. The palace guards see him and inform Esther. She comes to see her uncle, and he tells her what Haman has done. Mordechai asks Esther to intercede with the King. Esther responds that to approach the King without being summoned is to risk being executed. Esther tells Mordechai to ask the Jews of Persia to fast and pray for three days before she will approach the King.

Esther approaches the King, and Achashveyrosh calls her to him, and says he will grant any request she has. Esther has a plan, and invites the King and Haman to a banquet. The King asks Esther what she wants, he will grant it, and she invites him and Haman to a second banquet the next evening. Haman runs into Mordechai on his way home, who refuses to bow, and Haman vows to return to the King that very night to ask to be allowed to execute Mordechai.

That night, the King cannot sleep and asks his servants to read to him from the book of chronicles. He reviews the story of how Mordechai saved his life from the guards who plotted against him, but learns that Mordechai was never rewarded. The King is considering what he should do about this, when Haman enters. Before Haman can speak, King Achashveyrosh asks him what he would do to honor someone deserving of high praise and thanks. Haman thinks the King is looking to honor him, and tells the King that the man should be dressed in the King’s own robes, given a crown, and paraded through the streets on a horse with a royal advisor shouting praises about the man to the crowd. The King likes this idea very much, and instructs Haman to do exactly this for Mordechai. (Obviously, Haman is less than pleased.)

At her second banquet, Esther reveals that she is Jewish, and tells King Achashveyrosh that she and her people are to be murdered by order of a royal proclamation. The King is shocked, and asked who would do such a thing? Esther identifies Haman as the culprit. The King is so enraged that his chief advisor would trick him, that he leaves the room to collect himself. Haman throws himself at Esther to beg forgiveness. The King re-enters the room to find Haman hanging onto Esther’s lap. The King accuses Haman of not only deceiving him, but also assaulting the Queen, and has Haman, and his entire family, executed.

Mordechai is named the new prime minister, and receives all of Haman’s property. The original royal edict cannot be canceled, but a second one is circulated, empowering the Jews to fight back, and allowing them to kill anyone who attacks them. This signals to most of the citizens that they should not follow the instructions of the first edict, but there are still a few Jew-haters who will follow through with it.

On the 13th of Adar, the Jews are victorious against their enemies. The rest of Haman’s family is executed. The 14th and 15th of Adar are designated as holidays to celebrate the victory and survival of the Jewish people. Mordechai sets down the practices of Purim, including a festive meal, the exchanging of gifts of food, and the giving of gifts to the poor.