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Passover celebrates freedom to worship

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matzoh, alex ringer (2)

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 Festival of Esther, starts tonight

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“Esther Before King Ahasuerus,” oil on canvas, by Andrea Celesti (1637-1712). Public domain image via Wikimedia.org.

Sundown today ushers in Purim, the joyous Jewish Festival of Lots that celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from a would-be mass murderer 25 centuries 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.


Written by Jim Davis

March 11, 2017 at 11:06 pm

Holiday Almanac: Hanukkah, Jewish festival of freedom

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Hanukkah menorah alit with candles. Photo via Pixabay.com.

Tonight starts 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.

Hanukkah is sometimes called the Jewish Christmas, and the first night falls on Christmas Eve this year. But the two holidays have overlapped only eight times since 1900, according to Vox. And the founding events of Hanukkah are not related to Christmas; they took place 165 years before the traditional date of Jesus’ birth.

At the time, 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 small, eight-branched menorah at home, while singing seasonal songs such as Maoz Tzur, or “Rock of Ages.” One more candle 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 24, 2016 at 5:18 pm

Coptic bishop: World leaders must oppose violence against Christians in Egypt

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Christians are the main targets of the current wave of violence in Egypt — including killings, church burnings and the vandalism of Christian businesses — according to an Egyptian bishop who spoke in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday (Aug. 25).

“What is happening in Egypt could spread,” Youssef, whose diocese takes in 11 states, told an interfaith crowd of 220 at Christ Lutheran Church. “Political leaders fight terrorism around the world; they must support freedom in Egypt.

“Hate crimes are not acceptable anywhere, anytime.”

Bishop Youssef, shown 08-25-2013 outside Christ Lutheran Church in Fort Lauderdale. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Bishop Youssef, shown 08-25-2013 outside Christ Lutheran Church in Fort Lauderdale. (Photo: James D. Davis)

Copts, the ancient indigenous Christian church in Egypt, make up 10 percent of the population there. Since the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in July, demonstrations and violence have spilled over onto Christian targets.

Nearly 100 churches have been attacked, at least 84 just on the week of Aug. 14, Youssef said. Other targets have been schools, orphanages, businesses and individual Copts.

Most news reports have focused on street demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood, which fielded Morsi as its presidential candidate. But Youssef named the Brotherhood as the root of terrorism in Egypt, even accusing the group of cooperating with the Gaza-based Hamas.

The bishop declined to blame Islam in general, saying that most Egyptian Muslims stand with the Copts against violence. “Islam does not teach that. Only fanatics and terrorists.”

He urged his listeners to write government officials on behalf of Copts. He also said that churches and Christian businesses need aid to rebuild. People could donate to the diocesan website, suscopts.org, he said.

“What are we asking for?” Youssef asked, then answered his own question: “Peace, justice, equality, human rights, economic progress. And a future without fear.”

Despite his appeal for political and monetary aid, the bishop maintained that his church relies first on divine help.

“Our hope is in God Almighty,” Youssef said. “We will never deny our Christianity. Even if they kill us every day.”

Although most of his listeners appeared to be from South Florida’s three Coptic churches, they included Lutherans in the host church, where Pastor Paul Schweinler said his congregation has already been praying for the Copts for two years.

Also at the meeting were Catholic leaders. They included the Rev. Bob Tywoniak from neighboring Blessed Sacrament and the Rev. Pat O’Neill, representing Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami.

But it was Kamruz Hossein, representing the interfaith organization JAM & All, who drew applause second only to Youssef himself.

“I am a Muslim and I stand beside you,” Hossein told the bishop. He also read a decree from the prophet Muhammad in 628 A.D., ordering Muslims to respect and protect Christians under their rule.

“No one is to destroy a house of their religion [or] to damage it,” Hossein read from Muhammad’s statement. “They are my allies and have my secure charter.”

Fort Lauderdale was the second stop in Youssef’s speaking tour on the Egyptian situation, after New York. He is due in Gainesville on Sept. 14, then New Port Richey the next day, both in Florida. Some of his priests in other cities have also held public forums, he said.

He drew hope from the inclusiveness of the Fort Lauderdale meeting, he said in an interview afterward. “When I see people come together like this, it gives me confidence and love. There are still a lot of good people.”

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

August 26, 2013 at 5:37 am

You’re a believer? You’re dead

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When a judge in Iran sentenced a man to death for the “crime” of converting from Islam to Christianity, Bishop Haik Hovsepian raised an international outcry. The convert was released, but Hovsepian vanished — and his corpse was found later, with 26 stab wounds.

And the persecution isn’t just in Iran. It’s also in China, Eritrea, Kosovo, Cuba, Vietnam, Indonesia and elsewhere. Hence The Persecuted Church, which will sponsor its annual prayer day on Nov. 9 this year.

The site is an umbrella for 10 watchdog groups, including International Christian Concern, which lays out a table of the 35 countries where it says persecution or discrimination is worst.

Hovsepian’s 1994 murder is remembered in A Cry From Iran, a documentary making the rounds in the U.S. Also poignant is Gospel for Asia, which has been monitoring the wave of brutal attacks on Christians in India.

What about others? Well, Persecuted Church says the plight of Christians dwarfs that of other faiths. But if you want a broader view, try Forum 18 News Service. Although it’s a Christian organization, Forum 18 also sounds the alarm for other religions — as in Azerbaijan, where a mosque was bombed, then kept closed by government order.

Also exemplary is the work of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The commission monitors religious rights worldwide, marking 11 nations — including Sudan, Burma, Uzbekistan and North Korea — as “countries of particular concern.”

Finally, have a look at persecution of Baha’is, especially heinous in Iran and Egypt. As of this writing, Iran has jailed 53 of them on charges of “illegally” teaching their religion, although the Baha’is say their main activities were teaching reading and hygiene to poor children.

Written by Jim Davis

November 8, 2008 at 7:47 pm

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