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Holiday Almanac: Sukkot recalls dependence on God

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Torah scroll at Mullah Jacub’s Synagogue, Isfahan, Iran. Photographed by Hamed Saber via Wikimedia Commons (CC-By-2.0).

The somber High Holy Days, which ended on Sept. 19, give way today 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 other theme of the festival: 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 fruit, 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, too, may well have adapted Sukkot to the New World.

The seventh day of Sukkot is Hoshana Rabba, or Great Help. In traditional synagogues on this day, members of the congregation carry 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 South Florida temples: 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.

— Jim Davis

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Written by Jim Davis

September 24, 2018 at 11:19 pm

A fresh start: Yom Kippur starts tonight for Jews

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Yom Kippur, the awesome Day of Atonement for Jews, finishes the High Holy Days starting at sundown today (Sept. 18). The holy days began at sundown Sept. 9 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 pleads 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

September 18, 2018 at 10:59 pm

Rosh Hashana signals New Year — and season of repentance

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Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, started at sundown Sunday, Sept. 9, for the world’s 14.5 million Jews. Rosh Hashana, starting the Hebrew year 5779, begins 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.

During the season, Jews wish one another L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu, or “May you be inscribed for a good year.” Many also keep an edible tradition of apples dipped in honey, a tasty hope for a “sweet New Year.”

The High Holy Days end this year starting at sundown Sept. 18 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 10, 2018 at 3:28 am

Holiday Almanac: Christians celebrate Pentecost today

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Dove in a sunburst at St. Jude’s Church in Boca Raton, Fla., symbolizes the Holy Spirit. (Photo by James D. Davis)

Pentecost, the day that Christians say the Holy Spirit of God descended on the first believers, is celebrated in churches worldwide today. According to the New Testament, the apostles of Jesus saw the Spirit in the shape of ‘‘tongues of fire,” giving them power to preach and evangelize.

Taking its name from its timing, 50 days after Easter Sunday, Pentecost is often called the ‘‘birthday of the church.” It is the Christian equivalent of Shavuot, the Jewish festival that follows Passover by seven weeks.

Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans celebrate the day with bright red vestments and church trappings, symbolizing the flame of the Spirit.

 

— James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

May 20, 2018 at 4:32 pm

Holiday Almanac: Jews celebrate holy law today

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Torah page, photographed by Renaude Hatsedakis, via freeimages.com.

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, began at sundown for the estimated half-million Jews in South Florida. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The holiday is one of the three Jewish ‘‘pilgrim festivals,” along with Passover and Sukkot, meant to recall the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt and subsequent wanderings in the Sinai desert. Shavuot takes its name from Passover, which it follows by seven weeks — a ‘‘week of weeks.”

Synagogues observe Shavuot with the reading of the Ten Commandments. Some also read the biblical story of Ruth, who converted to Judaism and became the grandmother of King David. The story is seen as a historical parable of commitment to God and the holy law.

In recent years, many synagogues have increasingly held confirmation on Shavuot, as their young men and women take on the promise to obey the holy law.

 — James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

May 20, 2018 at 4:17 pm

Holiday Almanac: Ramadan starts for the world’s Muslims

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(Graphic by Mohamed Hassan via Pixabay)

The world’s 1.8 billion Muslims are joining in observance of Ramadan, the holiest month of their year. It was during this month, according to Islamic belief, that the Quran, the holy book of Islam, was first transmitted through the Archangel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad some 14 centuries ago.

To fix their attention on spiritual matters, the faithful refrain from eating, drinking, smoking or sexual intercourse during daylight hours of Ramadan. Many Muslims also attend mosque services every night during the month. In most mosques, one-thirtieth of the Quran is read each night, so that the whole book is read during the month.

Observance of Ramadan is one of the five “pillars” or basic duties of Islam. The others are almsgiving, prayer five times daily, at least one pilgrimage to Mecca if possible, and the confession that ‘‘there is no deity but God, and Muhammad is final prophet.”

All adult believers are expected to observe Ramadan unless they are ill, traveling or defending their country in wartime. Women are not required to fast during menstruation or if nursing babies. But later, they are expected to fast for every day they have deferred it.

— Jim Davis

 

Written by Jim Davis

May 17, 2018 at 3:26 am

Back from the dead: Easter dawns today for Christians

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Christians celebrate today as Easter, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The greatest holiday of the Christian year, Easter ratifies for believers the claim of Jesus to be the Son of God.

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Jesus catches soldiers literally off guard in the Easter window at St. Ann Church, West Palm Beach. (Photo by Jim Davis)

As related in the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the body of Jesus was wrapped and buried in a rocky tomb near Jerusalem. Women came three days later to embalm the corpse, but found it missing. Jesus then began appearing to various groups of his followers, with the commission to “make disciples of all nations.”

The significance of Easter is not only the resurrection of Jesus, but the hope that he can grant eternal life to those who trust and follow him. “Because I live, you shall live also,” he said.

For traditional churches, the change in liturgical colors is striking. During the Lenten season, which begins with Ash Wednesday (Feb. 18 this year), altars and vestments took on purple, the color of royalty. The color hearkens to the story of Jesus’ suffering, in which Roman soldiers draped him in a purple robe to mock his claim of kingship.

On Easter, however, the cloths are all changed to white — symbolizing joy, glory and triumph — as believers rejoice over Christ’s resurrection. The color predominates even in church floral decorations, with white, trumpet-like Easter lilies.

Sunrise services are common Easter Sunday celebrations. The events are often sponsored by two or more churches, or even by whole ministerial associations.

But Easter still lies ahead for the world’s quarter-billion Eastern Orthodox Christians, who reckon some holy days by the ancient Julian calendar instead of the contemporary Gregorian calendar. Easter for the Orthodox will fall on April 8 this year.

— Jim Davis

Written by Jim Davis

April 1, 2018 at 11:43 am

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