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Jewish Holidays

Answer By: 
George Robinson
Purim grogger, mask, hamantaschen

As joyous as the holiday is, it is also a time for serious reflection on the duties of a Jew toward her community, particularly in a post-Holocaust world. The day before the holiday is a minor fast day, the Fast of Esther, timed to coincide with Esther’s own fast on the day during which she decided to tell Ahashverosh that she is a Jew and to avert the massacre of her people.

One of the primary obligations of Purim, beyond the revelry, is matanot l'evyonim (gifts to the poor) — gifts given at this season to those in need so that they, too, can celebrate Purim with a special meal. Many families have committed to participating in this important social justice aspect of the holiday. One should give money to at least two needy people or good causes, and send gifts of food or drink, called mishloach manot, to friends.  And, finally, one should have a Purim s’udah (festive meal), with family and friends sharing in the joy of the holiday.

George Robinson is the author of the critically acclaimed Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals (revised edition, Atria Books, 2016) and Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, 2006). Mr. Robinson is the film critic for The Jewish Week, the largest Jewish newspaper in North America, and a frequent contributor to Hadassah Magazine. He is adjunct assistant professor of media studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College, and has been critic-in-residence at several Jewish film festivals around the country. Robinson was a contributor to the recent edition of Encyclopedia Judaica and has written frequently for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly. Mr. Robinson lives in New York City with his wife Margalit Fox, a reporter for the New York Times and an author in her own right.

Answer By: 
George Robinson
pomegranate tree

Tu BiSh'vat is a minor festival whose provenance dates only to the time of the Second Temple. However, the kabbalists who clustered around the great fifteenth-century mystic Isaac Luria of Safed placed great weight on the holiday, creating new festivities, gatherings at which hymns were sung, fruit (particularly carob) was eaten, and four cups of wine were taken (as in the Passover seder). Many Sephardic communities still engage in these Tu BiSh'vat rites.

With the advent of the environmental movement and the focus of modern Israelis on the greening of their nation, Tu BiSh'vat has taken on more importance in the last fifty years. In Israel, schoolchildren will go out to plant new trees on this day. Diaspora Jews will try to partake of as many as possible of the seven fruits and grains cited in Deuteronomy 8:8 as native to the Holy Land: "wheat, barley, vines, figs, pomegranates, olive trees, and (date) honey." Many ecology-minded Jews have created new Tu BiSh'vat seders and have followed in the footsteps of Luria and his fellow mystics in extolling this holiday's importance.

George Robinson is the author of the critically acclaimed Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals (revised edition, Atria Books, 2016) and Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, 2006). Mr. Robinson is the film critic for The Jewish Week, the largest Jewish newspaper in North America, and a frequent contributor to Hadassah Magazine. He is adjunct assistant professor of media studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College, and has been critic-in-residence at several Jewish film festivals around the country. Robinson was a contributor to the recent edition of Encyclopedia Judaica and has written frequently for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly. Mr. Robinson lives in New York City with his wife Margalit Fox, a reporter for the New York Times and an author in her own right.

Answer By: 
George Robinson
forest of  trees

This year, Tu BiSh'vat begins at sundown on February 10th.

Tu BiSh'vat, called the "New Year of the Trees," falls at a seemingly incongruous time of year. The fifteenth day of Sh'vat is mid-winter for North American Jews and the last thing on their minds is, well, "Jewish Arbor Day." However, if you think in terms of Eretz Yisrael, the timing of the holiday makes more sense. The climate in Israel is milder, essentially a Mediterranean climate, and by mid-February, the almond trees are beginning to bloom. It is still the rainy season, so the process of redemption begins at the turning point towards hope.

In fact, the date of the holiday actually correlates to the cutoff point for assessing the tithe levied on fruit grown in the orchards as practiced in ancient Israel (sort of a farmer's equivalent of an American's April 15). Any fruit grown before Tu BiSh'vat would have counted towards the previous year's totals, any fruit grown after towards the coming year's. Tu BiSh'vat's date also links it to two more prominent agrarian festivals of the Jewish year, Sukkot and Passover, both of which begin on the fifteenth of the month.

George Robinson is the author of the critically acclaimed Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs and Rituals (revised edition, Atria Books, 2016) and Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, 2006). Mr. Robinson is the film critic for The Jewish Week, the largest Jewish newspaper in North America, and a frequent contributor to Hadassah Magazine. He is adjunct assistant professor of media studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College, and has been critic-in-residence at several Jewish film festivals around the country. Robinson was a contributor to the recent edition of Encyclopedia Judaica and has written frequently for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly. Mr. Robinson lives in New York City with his wife Margalit Fox, a reporter for the New York Times and an author in her own right.

Three sufganiyot on a white plate

Sufganiyot are donuts, usually jelly-filled, that commemorate the miracle associated with the oil that burned for eight days in the Hanukkah story. Foods cooked in oil are traditionally eaten during Hanukkah.

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A pile of gelt, or chocolate coins in gold colored wrapping

Gelt are chocolate coins given to Jewish children on the festival of Hanukkah. They are usually wrapped in gold foil, and their history can be traced back to the decision of the Hasmoneans to mint their own nation’s coins after their military victory over the Greek Syrians. Gelt are often used to gamble with in the game of dreidel.

Latkes with sour cream and apple sauce

A latke is a potato pancake fried in oil, and is a traditional food eaten to celebrate the miracle of the oil in the story of Hanukkah. Foods cooked in oil serve as a symbol of the legend of the jar of oil that lasted for eight days.

child playing with dreidel

The word dreidel derives from a German word meaning “spinning top,” and is the toy used in a Hanukkah game adapted from an old German gambling game. Hanukkah was one of the few times of the year when rabbis permitted games of chance. The four sides of the top bear four Hebrew letters: nun, gimel, hei, and shin. Players begin by putting into a central pot or “kitty” a certain number of coins, chocolate money known as gelt, nuts, buttons or other small objects. Each player in turn spins the dreidel and proceeds as follows:

  • nun – take nothing;
  • gimel – take everything;
  • hei – take half;
  • shin – put one in.

Over time, the letters on the dreidel were reinterpreted to stand for the first letter of each word in the Hebrew statement “Neis gadol hayah sham,” which means, “A great miracle happened there” and refers to the defeat of the Syrian army and the re-dedication of the Temple.  In Israel, one letter on the dreidel differs from those used in the rest of the world. The shin has been replaced with a pey, transforming the Hebrew statement into Neis gadol hayah po, which means, “A great miracle happened here.

ReformJudaism.org has a new spin on playing dreidel, with fun rules to keep your family playing all eight nights of Hanukkah.

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A menorah with all candles lit

A menorah is a candelabra, and can be used for Hanukkah if it has nine stems. Another word for a Hanukkah menorah is hanukkiyah. A hanukkiyah has one stem for each of the eight days of Hanukkah, and one for the shamash, or “the helper candle” that is used to light the other candles. Candles are added each night from right to left and they are lit from left to right.

a family lights the menorah on the third night of Hanukkah

Two blessings are chanted or recited every night of Hanukkah. The first is a blessing over the candles themselves. The second blessing expresses thanks for the miracle of deliverance. A third blessing—the Shehecheyanu prayer, marking all joyous occasions in Jewish life—is chanted or recited only on the first night.

Any member or members of the family may chant or recite the blessings. One person lights and holds the shamash (helper candle), the blessings are pronounced, and then the candles are lit. The shamash is used to light the others, and one candle is lit for each night. The candle for the first night is put on the right side of the eight-branched menorah. On each subsequent night, an additional candle is placed to the immediate left of the previous night’s candle, and the candles are lit from left to right, so that the kindling begins with the newest light. Since these lights are holy, it is forbidden to make practical use of them; therefore, a special shamash(helper) candle is used to light the others.

Answer By: 
Cantor Rebecca Garfein

Kristallnacht, which literally means, “the night of broken glass,” occurred on the night of November 9, 1938, and marks the beginning of the Holocaust. On Kristallnacht, Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses were destroyed by the Nazis and the streets in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe were covered with  glass from the shattered windows of synagogues, Jewish homes, and businesses. 

November 9, 1938 marks the end of normalcy in Jewish communities in Germany and throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. Shabbat services went underground, and the beautiful music that once rang out in synagogues, like the magnificent OranienburgerStrasse Synagogue in Berlin, was silenced.  Louis Lewandowski, the first musical director of the OranienburgerStrasse Synagogue, composed much of his music specifically for that magnificent space. Lewandowski, who had also worked with Viennese Cantor Salomon Sulzer, shared Sulzer’s music with his Berlin congregation as well.  Lewandowski and Sulzer's music lives on to this day, when we continue to sing many of these classic melodies during the High Holidays and on Shabbat. Jewish communities throughout the world, regardless of denomination, still use Sulzer’s Shema and Lewandowski’s Kiddush.

Today, at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City, we most often commemorate Kristallnacht with the magnificent music of Sulzer, Lewandowski, and other composers that inspire and harken us back to the beginning of Reform Judaism in Berlin and Europe. For these occasions, we engage a larger choir and use the organ to accompany us cantors. Each and every year, we include a special memorial candle lighting on the Shabbat closest to Kristallnacht, lighting a seven-branched menorah that was specially designed by our congregant Irwin Feld, in memory of his father, Hazzan Steven Feld, a survivor. The six branches represent the six million with the seventh candle being one of hope for future generations. 

Here are some musical resources to help you plan a Kristallnacht memorial service:

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