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Jewish Holidays

Answer By: 
Rabbi Debbie Stiel
seder table

It is always a good idea to ask your hosts what you can bring for the seder, or the dinner. Your host might ask you to bring the hard boiled eggs, the kosher horseradish, a vegetable dish, grape juice or kosher-for-Passover wine. If they don't specify what to bring, it is still nice to bring kosher-for-Passover candy or chocolates (found in many grocery stores at this time of year), flowers, or wine (the bottle must say it is kosher for Passover). Remember, if you are preparing a dish, it cannot contain any flour or grain (wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats) or it must say that it is kosher for Passover on the box, and, probably best to check with your host about their level of observance.

See also: What to Expect at a Passover Seder

 

children at a Passover seder

On Passover, we can greet one another with “Chag Pesach sameach!” which means “Happy Passover!” and some people wish each other a "sweet Pesach," or, in Yiddish, a "ziessen Pesach." We can also say “Chag kasher v’sameach” (Happy and kosher holiday, referring to Passover’s food restrictions).  As on any happy holiday or festival, we can say “Chag sameach!” in Hebrew (“Happy holiday!”) or “Gut yontif!” (“Happy holiday!”) in Yiddish.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Deborah R. Prinz
gold and silver foil wrapped gelt

Hanukkah’s Money

The gelt of Hanukkah recalls the booty, including coins, that the Maccabean victors distributed to the Jewish widows, soldiers, and orphans, possibly at the first celebration of the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple. Also, in ancient Israel, striking, minting, and distributing coins expressed Hanukkah’s message of political autonomy. The Maccabee’s descendants, known as the Hasmoneans, ruled Judea and issued coins. As the book of 1 Maccabees records, Syria’s King Antiochus VII said to Simon Maccabee, “I turn over to you the right to make your own stamp for coinage for your country” (15:6). Since 1958, Israel has minted commemorative Hanukkah medals, reforging this connection of coinage, freedom, and the holiday.

Money and Hanukkah go way back in other ways as well, including the very observance of the holiday. As early as the sixth century, the legal text known as the Talmud taught that the poor must celebrate Hanukkah even if they had to wander door to door to beg for the money to pay for the lighting materials, which in those days were probably oil, clay lamps, and wicks. Later, in Sephardi and Oriental (following the customs of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East) Jewish communities, people walked through their neighborhoods burning special grasses to ward off the evil eye in exchange for gifts or money at the Hanukkah season. Yemenite Jewish children were given coins to purchase sugar and red food dye to make a special Hanukkah wine.

With time, additional customs evolved related to giving coins at Hanukkah. Hanukkah came to be associated with the Hebrew word for education, chinukh. The gelt or money for Hanukkah supported Jewish learning. In the days of the Chasidic leader, the Ba’al Shem Tov (1698–1760), rabbis often traveled to distant villages to give instruction to impoverished and illiterate Jews, generally refusing payment. However, at Hanukkah, the instructors accepted coins and food as tokens of gratitude. Hanukkah gelt signified appreciative, though modest, compensation for dedicated Jewish educators.

All of that history and tradition resides in your chocolate gelt.

Ancient Israelite Coins

One of the early Israelite coins, produced during the rule of Antigonus Matityahu (40–37 BCE), the last in this line of Hasmonean kings, portrays a seven-branched menorah (candelabrum) on one side and the shewbread (offering) on the other, each symbol a reminder of the centrality of the ancient Jerusalem Temple to the Jewish people and the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenists.


Excerpted from On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao (Second Edition, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2017) by Rabbi Deborah Prinz. The book includes a chapter titled:  “Hanukkah and Christmas Chocolate Melt into Gelt.” She also co-curates the exhibit “Semi[te] Sweet: On Jews and Chocolate,” on view at the Bernard Museum of Temple Emanu-El in New York City through February 25, 2018. Prinz is a popular speaker on topics connecting chocolate and Jews.

three teens each lighting a hanukkiyah

On Hanukkah, we can greet one another with “Hanukkah sameach!” which means “Happy Hanukkah!” or “Chag urim sameach” which means “Happy Festival of Lights.” As on any happy holiday or festival, we can say “Chag sameach!” (“Happy holiday!”)

And what about how to spell Hanukkah? A 2012 study from Evite ranks the most popular way to spell the holiday. You can clearly tell which one we prefer! 

Answer By: 
Rabbi Mark Washofsky
fall harvest

Sukkot, the Jewish festival of booths (a harvest holiday of thanksgiving), begins on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and lasts for seven days. The first day of Sukkot is a festival day; the second through seventh days are known as chol hamo-eid (intermediate days) of Sukkot. The day after Sukkot ends is Sh’mini Atzeret (literally, the assembly of the eighth day), on which Simchat Torah (the Festival of rejoicing in the Torah) also is observed. This day, too, is a festival day.

This year, Sukkot begins on the evening of Wednesday, October 4. Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah begin on the evening of October 11.

Adapted from: Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice

young women giving holiday hugs

On Rosh HaShanah, we can say “Shanah tovah um’tukah,” which means “May you have a good and sweet new year.” The greeting can be shortened to “Shanah tovah” (“A good year”). As on any happy holiday or festival, we can say “Chag sameach!” (“Happy holiday!”).

Another traditional greeting for both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is a Yiddish greeting, “Gut yontif,” which means “Wishing you a good holiday.”

Special greetings on Yom Kippur include “G’mar chatima tovah,” which means, “May you be inscribed (or sealed) for good in the Book of Life,” and “tzom kal,” which is used to wish others an “easy fast.”  

Answer By: 
George Robinson
open Torah scroll

Since the Rabbinic period, Shavuot has been tied to the story of receiving the Torah. Connected to this, Shavuot has come to be dedicated to the idea of Torah study and Jewish education. One custom is an all-night [or late night] study session held on the first evening of the festival, called tikkun leil Shavuot. This custom, which had its beginning in the community of kabbalists centered around sixteenth-century Safed, is designed to prepare Jews for “receiving” the Torah again on Shavuot.

See also: 
What is a Confirmation?
Tikkun Leil Shavuot Videos and Study Guides

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
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 Bishvat 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 Bishvat rites.

With the advent of the environmental movement and the focus of modern Israelis on the greening of their nation, Tu Bishvat 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 Bishvat 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

Tu Bishvat, called the "New Year of the Trees," falls at a seemingly incongruous time of year. The fifteenth day of Shvat 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 Bishvatwould have counted towards the previous year's totals, any fruit grown after towards the coming year's. Tu Bishvat'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.

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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.

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