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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: 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

Passover celebrates freedom to worship

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Stack of matzoh used in Passover; photo by Alex Ringer via Freeimages.com.

Passover, called the oldest festival of freedom, starts at sundown today for the world’s Jews. The eight-day holiday dates back some 34 centuries, recounting the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

As the story is told in the biblical book of Exodus, the pharaoh rejected the prophet Moses’ demand to release the people, bringing a wave of 10 supernatural plagues on the land. The Nile River turned to blood, disease struck humans and livestock, vermin multiplied, the sky rained hail mixed with fire, and darkness struck the land for three days.

The last plague was the Angel of Death, who struck down the firstborn of every Egyptian household in one night. The Israelites escaped death by dashing lambs’ blood on their doorposts — a sign of faith that made the angel “pass over” those homes.

In modern Jewish homes, Passover starts with a ceremonial meal called a Seder on the first two nights, with foods symbolizing the Exodus story. They include a lamb shank, for the sacrificial animal; a piece of bitter herbs such as horseradish, for the bitterness of slavery; a bowl of saltwater, for the tears of oppression; and a mix of apples, cinnamon and wine, for the mortar used in the Egyptian bricks.

Also on the Seder plate are a roasted egg and leafy vegetables, for the springtime occasion of Passover; and the hard, unleavened bread called matzoh, for the Israelites’ haste in evacuating Egypt.

— Jim Davis

 

Written by Jim Davis

March 30, 2018 at 7:00 pm

Holiday Almanac: Purim, the Jewish Festival of Lots, starts tonight

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Purim05Sundown today ushers in Purim, the joyous Jewish Festival of Lots that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from a would-be mass murderer 2,500 years ago.

The story, told in the biblical book of Esther, takes place in Persia, where many of the Jews were living in exile. There Esther, a Jewish woman, won a beauty contest and married King Ahasuerus.

Haman, the king’s prime minister, hated the Jews after Esther’s cousin Mordecai refused to bow to him. Haman persuaded the king, who was unaware Esther was Jewish, to sign an iron-clad decree for the Jews’ extermination.

After Esther bravely pled her people’s case, Ahasuerus changed his mind but could not rescind the decree. However, he issued another order allowing the Jews to defend themselves. They killed thousands of their enemies, and Haman was hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai.

Purim takes its name from the Hebrew word for “lots,” for the method by which Haman had decided the date of the slaughter — which became, instead, the day of the great Jewish victory.

Boisterous celebrations lift Purim above its formal status as a minor religious holiday. Synagogues and Jewish community centers often sponsor Purim festivals, with carnival rides and games. Costume parties have children dressing as their favorite Purim characters. And refreshments include hamantaschen, triangular pastries in the traditional shape of Haman’s hat.

— JAMES D. DAVIS

Written by Jim Davis

February 28, 2018 at 10:46 pm

Holiday Almanac: Passover celebrates Jews’ deliverance

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"Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea"

“Passage of the Jews through the Red Sea,” 1891 oil painting by Ivan Konstantinovič Ajvazovskij. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Passover, called the oldest festival of freedom, began at sundown April 9 this year. The eight-day Jewish festival dates back more than 30 centuries, recounting the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

As told in the biblical book of Exodus, the pharaoh rejected the prophet Moses’ demand to release the people, bringing a wave of supernatural plagues on the land. The last plague was death for the firstborn of every Egyptian household in one night. The Israelites escaped death by dashing lambs’ blood on their doorposts — a sign of faith that signaled God to “pass over” those homes.

In modern traditional households, the eight-day festival starts with a ceremonial meal called a Seder on the first two nights, with foods symbolizing the Exodus story. The foods include a lamb shank; a piece of bitter herbs such as horseradish, for the bitterness of slavery; a bowl of saltwater, for the tears of oppression; and a mix of apples, cinnamon and wine, for the mortar used in the Egyptian bricks.

Also on the Seder plate are a roasted egg and leafy vegetables, for the springtime occasion of Passover; and the hard, unleavened bread called matzoh, for the Israelites’ haste in evacuating Egypt.

— JAMES D. DAVIS

Written by Jim Davis

April 9, 2017 at 5:30 pm

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