With celebrations including costumes, skits and songs, noisemakers, and gifts of food, Purim is definitely full of fun! Purim is a joyous holiday that affirms and celebrates Jewish survival and continuity throughout history. The main communal celebration involves a public reading—usually in the synagogue—of the Book of Esther (M’gillat Esther), which tells the story of the holiday. Purim is an unusual holiday in many respects. First, Esther is the only biblical book in which God is not mentioned. Second, Purim, like Hanukkah, is viewed as a minor festival according to Jewish custom, but has been elevated to a major holiday as a result of the Jewish historical experience.
The main characters in the Book of Esther are Queen Esther, King Ahasveros, Mordechai (Esther’s uncle), and Haman (viceroy to Ahasveros). After Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman, Haman devises a plan to kill both Mordechai and all the Jews in the empire. As a consequence, Esther fasts and prays for three days, after which she requests an audience with Ahasveros. The night before Haman carries out his plan to kill Mordechai, Ahasveros discovers that Mordechai had been responsible for preventing the King’s assassination.
Later that night, during Esther’s second banquet, Esther reveals to Ahasveros that she was Jewish and that Haman wanted to exterminate her people. As a result, Ahasveros commands that Haman be hanged.
Some of the traditions of Purim involve:
- While reading the Book of Ester, whenever Haman’s name is mentioned, the congregation engages in noise-making to blot out his name.
- According to Halakha, we partake in “mishlochei manot” (sending or portions) which typically involve giving out food and charity. In some circles, this custom has evolved into a major gift-giving event.
- Wearing masks or costumes.
- Festive drinking.
Over the centuries, Haman has come to symbolise every anti-Semite in every land where Jews were oppressed. The significance of Purim lies not so much in how it began, but in what it has become: a thankful and joyous affirmation of Jewish survival.
Hanukkah, one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays, is a festive eight-day celebration that for many people falls during the darkest, coldest season of the year. Also called the Festival of Lights, the holiday brings light, joy, and warmth to our homes and communities as we celebrate with candles, food, family, and friends. Light comes literally, with the lighting of an additional candle each day, and metaphorically, through a newer emphasis on charitable donations and a commitment to the work of repairing the world (tikkun olam) during the holiday.
Hanukkah (alternately spelled Chanukah), meaning “dedication” in Hebrew, commemorates the victory of a small group of Jewish rebels (led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, collectively known as “the Maccabees”) over the armies of Syria in 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent liberation and “rededication” of the Temple in Jerusalem. Following this liberation, the Temple was purified and although there was only enough sacred oil to light the menorah for one day, by miracle, it lasted for eight days.
Modern celebrations of Hanukkah focus on family and friends and include the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah (also called a hanukkiyah). Other customs include: singing special songs (for example, Ma’Oz Tzur), reciting the Hallel prayer, eating fried foods (most commonly sufganiyot), and children commonly play with a dreidel.
Immediately following Sukkot, we observe Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, a fun-filled day during which we celebrate the completion of the annual reading of the Torah and affirm Torah as one of the pillars on which we build our lives. As part of the celebration, the Torah scrolls are taken from the ark and carried or danced around the synagogue seven times. During the Torah service, the concluding section of the fifth book of the Torah, D’varim (Deuteronomy), is read, and immediately following, the opening section of Genesis, or B’reishit as it is called in Hebrew, is read.
This practice represents the cyclical nature of the relationship between the Jewish people and the reading of the Torah. Historically, Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah were two separate holidays (a day of reflection after the end of Sukkot and a celebration of Torah the following day). However, in Israel and in liberal congregations, which generally observe one day of holidays rather than two, Sh’mini Atzeret is observed concurrently with Simchat Torah.
Sukkot is one of the most joyful festivals on the Jewish calendar. “Sukkot,” a Hebrew word meaning “booths” or “huts,” refers to the Jewish festival of giving thanks for the fall harvest. The holiday has also come to commemorate the 40 years of Jewish wandering in the desert after the giving of the Torah atop Mt. Sinai. Sukkot is celebrated five days after Yom Kippur on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, and is marked by several distinct traditions. One, which takes the commandment to dwell in booths literally, is to erect a sukkah, a small, temporary booth or hut. Sukkot (in this case, the plural of sukkah) are commonly used during the seven-day festival for eating, entertaining and even for sleeping.
It is one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (“Shloshet HaRegalim”) along with Passover and Shavuot.
Our sukkot have open walls and open doors, and this encourages us to welcome as many people as we can. We invite family, friends, neighbors, and community to rejoice, eat, and share what we have with each other. Another name for Sukkot is Chag Ha-asif, (Festival of the Ingathering), representing the importance in Jewish life of giving thanks for the bounty of the earth.
On each day of Sukkot, there is a waving ceremony of the four species:
- Etrog: The fruit of a citron tree.
- Lulav: The leaf of a date palm tree.
- Hadas: Boughs with leaves from the myrtle tree.
- Aravah: Branches (with leaves) from the willow tree.
These four species are characterised traditionally by their taste and smell.
The Etrog has both good taste and smell, symbolising those who study Torah and do good deeds.
The Lulav has taste but no smell, symbolising those who study Torah but do not do good deeds.
The Hadas has good small but no taste, symbolising those who do good deeds but do not study Torah.
Finally, the Aravah, has neither taste nor smell, symbolising those who do not study Torah nor do good deeds.
Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement” and refers to the annual Jewish observance of fasting, prayer and repentance. Part of the High Holidays, which also includes Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is the moment in Jewish time when we dedicate our mind, body, and soul to reconciliation with our fellow human beings, ourselves, and God.
As the New Year begins, we commit to self-reflection and inner change. As both seekers and givers of pardon, we turn first to those whom we have wronged, acknowledging our sins and the pain we have caused them. We are also commanded to forgive, to be willing to let go of any resentment we feel towards those who have committed offenses against us. Only then can we turn to God and ask for forgiveness. As we read in the Yom Kippur liturgy, “And for all these, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement.”
Rosh Hashanah (literally, “Head of the Year”) is the Jewish New Year, a time of prayer, self-reflection, and repentance. We review our actions during the past year, and we look for ways to improve ourselves, our communities, and our world in the year to come. The holiday marks the beginning of a 10-day period, known as the Yamim Nora-im (“Days of Awe” or “High Holidays”), ushered in by Rosh Hashanah and culminating with Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”). Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which – because of differences in the solar and lunar calendar – corresponds to September or October on the Gregorian or secular calendar.
Rosh Hashanah customs include sounding the shofar (the horn of a ram), as prescribed in the Torah, attending synagogue services and reciting special liturgy about teshuva, as well as enjoying festive meals. Eating symbolic foods is now a tradition, such as apples dipped in honey, hoping to evoke a sweet new year. Another tradition in the form of food is the head of a fish symbolising the prayer: “Let us be the head, and not the tail.” and pomegranates, symbolising a fruitful year. One of its most characteristic traditions is the round challah bread symbolising the cycle of the year.
The traditional greeting of this holiday is “Shana Tova (Umetukah)” wishing a good (and sweet) year, or “A Gut Yor” coming from Yiddish. However, after Rosh HaShana ends, the greeting is switched to “Gmar Chatimah Tovah” wishing a good final signature in the book of life (or to be inscribed in the book of life) as marked by the events of Yom Kippur.