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Hanukkah begins: Ancient celebration of religious freedom

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Hanukkah Menorah in the Anatewka restaurant in Lodz, Poland.Tonight, candles glow in millions of Jewish households as they start the celebration of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Feast of Lights. Hanukkah, whose name is Hebrew for ‘‘Dedication,” recalls the Jews’ recapture of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from a pagan tyrant.

The founding events took place 165 years before the traditional date of Jesus’ birth, when Israel was ruled by a Greco-Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes. The king banned Judaism and had a pig — a ritually unclean animal — sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple.

The Israelites finally revolted for freedom of religion, led by the five Maccabee brothers. They miraculously defeated the Greek army and set out to rededicate the Temple, but found only one day’s supply of oil for the Great Menorah or candelabrum. In the story’s second miracle, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough to purify a new supply.

Jewish families commemorate the victory by lighting a hanukkiah, a small, eight-branched menorah, at home, while singing seasonal songs such as Maoz Tzur, or ‘‘Rock of Ages.” One candle is lit the first night; then another is lighted each night, until by the last night the whole candelabrum is ablaze.

Hanukkah also features festive foods: latkes, or potato pancakes for East European Jews; sufganiot, or doughnuts filled with jelly or chocolate for Mideastern Jews. Both are deep-fried in oil, recalling the miracle of the Temple lamp.

A more subtle holiday custom is the dreidel, a four-sided top that children play with. The sides of the dreidel have Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hay and Shin. The letters form an acrostic for a sentence: Nes gadol hayah sham, or “A great miracle happened there.”

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

December 10, 2014 at 10:44 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Holiday Almanac: Advent, looking toward Christmas

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Advent candle and wreath, by jruppit on sxc.hu.

Today starts Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. Advent, which is marked by the four Sundays before that day, is celebrated mainly in traditional churches, especially Episcopal, Lutheran and Roman Catholic.

The season’s central symbol, the Advent wreath, is a leafy horizontal circle with four candles, a new one lighted each Sunday. Each church lights a large wreath, and many homes of the faithful often have smaller versions. Although the custom originated in western Europe, Hispanic Catholic parishes have adopted the wreath as well.

Another Advent custom is the Jesse tree, often decorated by children in church schools. The tree, which doesn’t have to be a pine, is draped with homemade representations of biblical prophecies — scrolls, the Lion of Judah, seraphim, David’s harp and other symbols — believed by Christians to have foretold Jesus’ life.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

November 30, 2014 at 9:00 am

Holiday Almanac: Halloween is gone, All Saints Day is here

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Candles on a cemetery on All Saints Day in Poland. (Michal Zacharzewski via sxc.hu)

Candles on a cemetery on All Saints Day in Poland. (Michal Zacharzewski via sxc.hu)

How did Halloween get its name? From All Saints Day, which falls on today (Nov. 1). The original name was All Hallows Day, or Hallowmas, which means pretty much the same. It’s shortened from the official name, the Solemnity of All Saints.

The root of the observance came from martyrdom, especially in the first five centuries of the Christian era. Churches began honoring members who were killed for their faith, saying Eucharist at their graves on the anniversaries of their deaths; but the task became harder as more died. So by the fourth century, they established one day to honor them all.

The holiday took its present form in the eighth century, when Pope Gregory III declared Nov. 1 as the day to remember the apostles, saints and martyrs. The day was picked to supplant Samhain, a Celtic festival for the end of summer, when the dead returned to visit. Many pagans reacted by simply moving their observance to the previous night. Hence the name All Hallows Evening, or Halloween.

All Saints Day is observed not only in Roman Catholic circles but also Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Wesleyan churches. Whether they see deceased members as especially holy or not, believers emphasize a spiritual bond between Christians in this world and the next.

— James D. Davis

 

 

Written by Jim Davis

November 1, 2014 at 4:17 am

Holiday Almanac: Jews celebrate Feast of Tabernacles tonight

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 Children building a sukkah at Kibbutz Gan-Shmuel, Israel, during the 1970s. photo by PikiWiki Israel via Wikimedia.org CC-BY-2.5) .

Children building a sukkah at Kibbutz Gan-Shmuel, Israel, during the 1970s. photo by PikiWiki Israel via Wikimedia.org CC-BY-2.5) .

The somber High Holy Days, which ended on Oct. 4, give way tonight to Sukkot, the colorful Feast of Tabernacles. One of the three “Pilgrim Festivals” — the others are Passover and Shavuot — Sukkot recalls the Israelites’ travels in the Sinai desert after their liberation from slavery in Egypt.

The eight-day festival takes its name from the sukkah , a hut made by many Jewish families and synagogues. Loosely thatched and crudely built, the sukkah reminds Jews of their wandering ancestors’ meager shelters.

Fruits and flowers are hung from the sukkah rafters, recalling the festival’s other significance: gratitude to God for the fall harvest in the Holy Land, for which Israelis still celebrate it. Each morning of Sukkot, traditional Jews recite a blessing while holding four kinds of Israeli plants: a lulav or palm frond, an etrog or citron, and branches of myrtle and willow.

Sukkot has been called the Jewish Thanksgiving and may even have been its model. The American Pilgrims were avid students of the Hebrew Scriptures, even comparing their crossing of the Atlantic to the Israelite crossing of the Red Sea. The Pilgrims may well have adapted Sukkot to the New World as well.

The seventh day of Sukkot is Hoshana Rabba, or Great Help. In traditional synagogues on this day, the congregation takes the lulav and etrog in a procession of seven circuits, singing prayers for salvation. Some Jews call this day the “little Yom Kippur,” one more chance to gain God’s favor.

The last day of Sukkot is Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly. It is a time to pray for rain in the Holy Land to assure good crops. It is also one of four times during the year for Yizkor memorial prayers honoring the dead.

Yet another event is sometimes celebrated on the same day in many synagogues: Simhat Torah, the jubilant Rejoicing Over the Law. On Simhat Torah, the last lines are read from the giant pulpit Torah scroll in each synagogue. Then the scroll is rewound for another annual cycle of readings — and the rabbi carries it in procession around the synagogue, amid singing and dancing.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

October 8, 2014 at 6:30 am

Posted in religion

Tagged with , ,

Holiday Almanac: Muslims observe Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice

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Calligraphic inscription for Bismillah, Arabic for "In the name of God." Photo by Salman Rana via sxc.hu.

Calligraphic inscription for Bismillah, Arabic for “In the name of God.” Photo by Salman Rana via sxc.hu.

A billion and a half Muslims today celebrate the Eid al-Adha or Festival of Sacrifice, one of the two most important days on the Islamic calendar.

The festival commemorates a story in the Quran, the Islamic holy book, in which Abraham offers his son as a sacrifice on God’s command. At the last moment God stops him and provides a sheep instead. The Hadith, the collection of sayings by the prophet Muhammad, says the boy was Ishmael, considered to be the ancestor of all Arabs.

Observances include a two-hour service starting with salat or prayer, followed by a sermon. Muslim families traditionally have been expected to sacrifice animals for the holy day. However, they may instead donate money to charitable Islamic groups overseas that slaughter livestock, then give the meat to the poor.

Eid al-Adha also marks the culmination of the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia. Making the Hajj at least once during a lifetime, if possible, is one of the five ‘‘pillars” or basic requirements of Islam.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

October 4, 2014 at 5:35 am

Posted in islam, religion

Tagged with , ,

Holiday Almanac: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, starts for Jews

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2 ShumashThe setting sun tonight ushers in Yom Kippur, the awesome Day of Atonement for Jews. Yom Kippur is the last of the High Holy Days, which began at sundown Sept. 24 with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

The holy days are a time to examine one’s life, repent of shortcomings and resolve to correct them. Tradition says that God holds people’s lives in the balance during these ‘‘10 Days of Repentance” before determining their fate for the coming year.

Tonight’s service features the Kol Nidre, a prayer set to sad medieval music. The prayer asks for release from ‘‘all vows” — the translation of Kol Nidre — to God that have not been kept.

All day tomorrow, the faithful will fast and attend a succession of synagogue services, including Yizkor memorial prayers for the dead. Traditional prayers include Al Het, a list of sins whose initials form the Hebrew alphabet. As the worshiper recites the list, he strikes his chest to emphasize repentance.

Last service of the day is Neilah, signaling the closing of heaven’s gates and the sealing of everyone’s fate for another year.

Although non-Jews might view the High Holy Days as guilt-ridden, rabbis say the observance actually shows divine mercy. They point out that het, usually translated “sin,” is an archery term that means to miss the mark. And shuva, repentance, is almost identical to teshuva, to turn — as in returning to right living.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

October 3, 2014 at 9:53 pm

Posted in judaism

Tagged with ,

Rosh Hashana starts Jewish year 5775 today

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Torah in Beth Yaacov Synagogue, Geneva. By Mourad Ben Abdallah via Wikimedia.

The chilling blasts of the ram’s horn tonight will signal Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, for the world’s Jews. Rosh Hashana, starting the Hebrew year 5775, opens the solemn 10-day period known as the High Holy Days.

Also called Yamim Noraim, or Days of Awe, the holy days are a pause in time when the faithful fast and pray for pardon from their sins over the past year. Jewish tradition says God scrutinizes each person, waiting to see who is worthy of good or bad fortune for the next year.

Liberal Jews likewise use the High Holy Days as a time to review their lives and resolve to be better persons. Area synagogues often rent community auditoriums to handle the overflow of worshipers who seldom attend temple otherwise.

The High Holy Days end this year on Oct. 4 with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. That day-long series of services ends with a final blast from the ram’s horn, closing God’s books and sealing everyone’s fate for the year.

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

September 24, 2014 at 9:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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