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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

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

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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

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Holiday Almanac: Purim, Jewish victory over arch-enemy

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Jews worldwide celebrate Purim today. The joyous Jewish Festival of Lots celebrates their deliverance from a would-be mass murderer 2,500 years ago.

Pastries like this one, called hamantaschen, are common treats for Purim. (Photo: eran chesnutt via sxc.hu)

Pastries like this one, called hamantaschen, are common treats for Purim. (Photo: eran chesnutt via sxc.hu)

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. Because of this, 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 in 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. Jewish community centers often sponsor Purim festivals, with carnival rides and games. Synagogues hold costume parties, with 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

March 16, 2014 at 4:08 am

Torah-Science Conference to scrutinize life: birth, death and in between

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(Photo: Renaude Hatsedakis via sxc.hu)

(Photo: Renaude Hatsedakis via sxc.hu)

When does life begin? Who has the right to end it? Where is the soul? And between birth and death, how to decide if a life is worth living?

These age-old questions, once the domain of sages and religious leaders, are being increasingly tackled by doctors and other scientists. But the best approach blends the two, according to a conference in South Florida starting this weekend.

“Scientists can’t deal with miracles, but we humans can,” says Rabbi Sholom Lipskar, the main organizer of the three-day Miami International Torah and Science Conference, starting 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14. “[But] science empowers us to understand God in a more majestic way.”

Site for the free biennial conference will be the Shul, just north of Miami Beach, where Lipskar is the head rabbi. The conference had a kind of soft launch Friday night with a dinner and talk.

Scheduled at that event was rabbi-cardiologist Alan Rozanski of Columbia University, who is noted for a study that indicated a person’s attitudes and even moods affect physical structures like arteries, Lipskar says. The dinner had more than 200 reservations, Lipskar says.

Lipskar himself then will help kick off the opening session Saturday night, discussing the beginning of life. Topics will include new biotechnological ways to begin life and the light that halacha, Jewish religious law, can shed on it.

The rabbi will share the dais Saturday night with Nathan Katz, founder of the Program in the Study of Spirituality at Florida International University. Katz, who himself has helped plan the conferences since 1999, agrees on the value of blending scientific and spiritual perspectives.

“Traditionally, religious people and accomplished scientists live in different approaches to reality,” he says. “Here, they seem to be making a tremendous effort to understand each other’s perspective. That deepens their own understanding.”

Sunday’s events will start at 11:30 a.m., with a talk on epigenetics, a new study of changes outside a gene. Lipskar finds the study “exciting, because Kabbalah and Hasidic philosophy already concluded this: that there is something outside the genetic structure that can change it in behavioral reality.”

The Sunday evening events will deal with the end of life — including the provocative question: “Does Life Ever End?” Final issues on Monday will cover neuroscience and cosmology, even comparing ideas of 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and contemporary scientist Stephen Hawking.

The Torah and Science Conferences are held every two years, always around Hanukkah, Nov. 27-Dec. 5 this year. The timing was chosen to relate the spreading light of the menorah candles to the growing light of knowledge and reason.

It was light, and the theories of Albert Einstein, that caught the attention of the late Chabad Lubavitch chief rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994. Schneerson gave his blessing to the first Torah-Science Conference, which was held in 1987.

Subsequent conferences have probed heady concepts like time, intelligent design, the nature of the soul and brain, and links between the natural and supernatural realms. Even after the conferences end, the papers of the speakers are available through B’Or Ha’Torah, a peer-review journal of the Jerusalem College of Technology.

Basic viewpoint of the conferences is that faith and science are different yet complementary, Lipskar says. And that each viewpoint is necessary.

“Science makes you an expert, but not a kinder, gentler person,” the rabbi says. “When you integrate science and religion, you add the element of meaning and purpose. You have the conductor of the orchestra.”

If you go

Event: Miami International Torah & Science Conference

Featuring: Discussions of the beginning and end of life, from the perspectives of religion and science

Where: The Shul, 9540 Collins Ave., Surfside, Fla.

When: Dec. 14-16

Starting times: Saturday at 8:15 p.m.; Sunday at 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Monday at 9:30 a.m., noon and 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: 305-868-1411, ext. 329, or torahscienceconference.org

Written by Jim Davis

December 13, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Holidays Almanac: Yom Kippur ends High Holy Days

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1024px-Hebrew_Sefer_Torah_Scroll

A Sefer Torah, a handwritten scroll on parchment, about 400 years old. The holy book was written in Poland and survived the Nazi Holocaust there during World War II. (Photo: Bejinhan, via Wikimedia.org)

Jews worldwide end their observance of the High Holy Days tonight (Sept. 13) and tomorrow (Sept. 14) with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Ten Days of Repentance, as they are also called, began at sundown Sept. 4 with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

The days are an interim period during which the faithful examine their lives not only for sins committed but for good deeds undone. Traditional Jews call the period Yamim Noraim, or the Days of Awe, believing that God judges each soul to determine what kind of year each will have, and even if they live or die. Less traditional Jews use the time for introspection and resolving to live as better persons for the coming year.

Observant Jews fast from sundown through the following sundown. Yom Kippur Eve has its own distinct service: Kol Nidre, meaning All Vows. The prayer, set to sad, medieval music, is a plea to be released from promises left unkept during the year. Anti-Semites used to point to Kol Nidre as proof that the word of a Jew could not be trusted; however, rabbinic authorities have said the prayer refers only to vows made to God.

Congregants say other prayers in all-dayservices on Yom Kippur. They include:

Al Het, an alphabetical list of sins to recite — including cruelty, dishonesty and direspect for parents — in case the worshiper may have forgotten some or committed them unknowingly. Each time a sin is mentioned, the worshiper strikes a fist on his or her chest.

Yizkor, a memorial prayer for the dead. Yizkor prayers are said also during three other holy days: Passover, Shavuot and Shemini Azteret.

Neilah, a chant at the end of Yom Kippur to hold open the gates of mercy for the last repentant souls.

At the end of the Yom Kippur service, the shofar, or ram’s horn, is sounded in a long, steady note, as long as the blower’s breath holds out. For, according to Jewish belief, the judgment is complete, and the fate of each person has been sealed for the coming year.

James D. Davis

Written by Jim Davis

September 13, 2013 at 8:42 pm

2012 in review

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,900 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 10 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Written by Jim Davis

December 31, 2012 at 4:41 am

Posted in author, beliefs, faith, philosophy, religion

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