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Romance Behind Judaica
Celebrating the Richness of the Jewish Calendar
With Len Woods
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If you were playing the word-association game and someone said “holiday,” what words or images would spring to mind? Travel? Time off from work? Break from school? Would you think parties or dinners? Family or houseguests?
Clearly the word holiday has broad connotations in contemporary culture. For many it means shopping, cleaning, cooking, decorating—and the very real possibility of ending up far more stressed than rested. Your favorite holiday is probably a prime example. Think of how excited you are for the big day to arrive—and how relieved you are when it has finally passed!
Maybe we’re celebrating holidays all wrong?
Perhaps we should consider the Jewish people and the calendar given to them by God in the Tanakh.1 Woven into the weeks and seasons is an assortment of observances and traditions. Not the kind of holidays we moderns tend to practice, but holy days: blessed commandments to step away from the rush and tedium of everyday existence; sacred occasions for remembering, reflecting on, and rejoicing in ultimate realities; each festival a gracious invitation to reconnect with God and others;2 each special day an opportunity to rekindle the God-given desire to be different and to make a difference in our broken world.
This is a book about those Jewish holidays.3 In these pages we’ll explore the mystery of Sabbath and the miracle of Passover. We’ll examine the majesty of Yom Kippur, the mirth of Purim, and the rich meaning behind other observances. Even the more recent Jewish holidays not mentioned or mandated in the Bible have a compelling beauty and significance that few realize.
To assist us in our understanding, we’ll rely on an old Jewish practice known as hiddur mitzvah.
The Torah says, “The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him” (Exodus 15:2, emphasis added).
The great Talmudic sage Rabbi Ishmael wrestled with the question of how finite humans can adequately praise and exalt an infinite Creator. He concluded that this is only possible by carrying out God’s commandment (mitzvah in Hebrew) in glorious or beautiful (hiddur in Hebrew) ways. He therefore vowed to use only exquisite and costly ceremonial objects in worship: “I shall prepare before him a beautiful lulav, beautiful sukkah, beautiful fringes… and beautiful phylacteries.”4
Hiddur mitzvah—this beautification in performing a commandment—applies to all sorts of ritual items connected with the holidays: the sukkah that Jews sit in and the kiddush cup Jews drink from, the spice box Jews smell and the hagaddah Jews read from. This ancient practice of hiddur mitzvah is the reason many Jewish families and congregations spare no expense in acquiring exquisite items for use in their holiday observances.
You don’t know what those things are? No worries. By the end of this book you will.
A popular Jewish folktale says that when the ancient Israelites assembled at Mount Sinai, God offered them eternal life (olam ha’ba, “the world to come”) if they would agree to keep his commandments. In response, the people asked the Almighty, “Before we decide, could you let us sample heaven first?”
God graciously consented to this bold request by giving the Israelites Shabbat (i.e., the Sabbath).5
According to the sages, this is how Shabbat came to be the central element of Jewish life, the foundation of the Jewish calendar. And it is why many Jews describe this weekly “island in time”6 as “a taste of the world to come.”7
“More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.”
In 1979 an American dentist named Dave Baab moved to Tel Aviv, Israel, to teach at a dental school. He and his wife, Lynne, found a flat near the main highway leading north out of the city. The location and price were right, but the noise—they quickly discovered—was deafening. Loud cargo trucks, thundering buses, and an unending stream of honking motorists zoomed past their apartment all hours of the day (and night).
Until the Sabbath.
Writing of their experience, Lynne describes the deafening silence that engulfed the Jewish section of the city each week from Friday evening to Saturday evening. Buses stopped running. Businesses and stores closed. “There was simply nothing to do.… Life really did stop for us.”8 Unsettling at first, the Sabbath and its quiet quickly became the Baabs’ favorite part of each week. In fact, Lynne confesses, “As darkness fell on Saturday evening, we could hear the buses and trucks begin to rumble along the main road. With the noise came a sense of loss.”9
The Origins of Sabbath
The idea of earmarking one day a week for stopping and being still can be traced back to the dawn of time. After describing the creation of the world in six days, the Torah says, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:1–3).
Though this passage doesn’t contain the word Sabbath, it does contain the verb rested, which comes from the same Hebrew root word. Some have pointed out that the word rested seems to suggest that God found the work of creation taxing, if not exhausting. Jewish scholars and theologians scoff at such an idea by citing numerous other Bible passages that describe God’s limitless power (e.g., Numbers 11:23; Jeremiah 32:17). They also point out that the Hebrew word translated rested in Genesis 2:2 literally means “to stop or desist from labor.” In other words, they argue, God didn’t quit creating in order to take a much-needed nap. He took a break from his creative endeavors to savor and enjoy the “very good” world he had made (Genesis 1:31).
By this act the Almighty set apart and “hallowed” (made holy) the seventh day. What’s more, he infused his newly created world with a kind of work-rest rhythm. In short, the idea of Shabbat existed long before the Jewish nation existed, and certainly before the command “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8) was ever engraved on a tablet of Sinai stone.
The book of Exodus expands on this Sabbath principle. The Israelites, on their way to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, were given a vivid lesson in laboring six days and ceasing their labors on the seventh. This lesson came as Moses explained the miraculous “bread from heaven” (v. 4) the people discovered at their feet one morning while beginning their journey. What was this “flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground” (v. 14)? “The house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (v. 31).10 “Six days you shall gather it,” Moses told the people, “but on the seventh day, which is a sabbath, there will be none” (v. 26).
Despite this explicit warning, some Israelites went out to gather manna on the seventh day and came back empty-handed. (We can probably attribute their behavior to the deeply ingrained habits of a people only recently liberated from slavery—the idea of a “day off” was foreign to them.) In any case, God reminded the Israelites through Moses, “See! The LORD has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day. So the people rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 16:29–30).
The Purpose of Sabbath
Misconceptions abound about the Jewish practice of Sabbath. To the uninformed, the very idea seems draconian: an entire day every week filled with stifling restrictions? Shabbat strikes many as, at best, a grim exercise in self-denial and, at worst, a kind of divine chastisement—like being grounded or put in time-out by the Almighty.
But listen as observant Jews discuss their experience. They positively gush about the Sabbath’s many delights. “Shabbat is like nothing else,” writes Nan Fink, a midlife convert to Judaism. “Shabbat is a meditation of unbelievable beauty.”12 Rabbi Ted Falcon compares it to “a special guest who comes to visit each Friday night and stays until nightfall on Saturday. This guest is so full of grace and light, so loved and so loving, that to have her arrive is a pleasure and to see her leave brings sadness.”13 Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein likens the Sabbath to “a week in Hawaii without ever leaving home.”14 And in his classic book on the subject, Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel called the time from sunset on Friday to sundown on Saturday “the most precious present mankind has received from the treasure house of God.”15
Why do practitioners of Shabbat rave about it so? For at least seven reasons:
1. Sabbath is a day of rest.
With the gift of Shabbat, God says to his people, in effect: “You’ve been scrambling and striving, creating and accomplishing for six straight days. Enough. Time for a much-needed break. Stop all you’re doing and simply be
- On Sale
- Aug 13, 2019
- Page Count
- 192 pages
- Worthy Books