If we took a holiday, yeah
Took some time to celebrate
Just one day out of life
It would be
It would be so nice —Madonna, again, her music is just so oddly relevant to this entire course curriculum
Seventh installment in an ongoing series
There are a lot of Jewish festivals and holidays. That’s the first thing you should know before settling into the Jan. 28 Judaism for Beginners class with Rabbi Eli Yoggev.
Topic? Festivals, natch. The next thing you should know is they’re not all joyous occasions. One more thing, and perhaps the most confusing of all, we don’t mark the holidays today like they did back in the Old Biblical Times (O.B.T.). Additionally, they don’t even all take place in a linear or historically chronological fashion (as in they all came about in different eras).
As Rabbi Yoggev says, “One day you’re celebrating trees and the next week you’re getting drunk on Purim.”
OK, got that?
Let’s break this down (or more accurately, Rabbi Yoggev broke it down and I’ll relay):
The Biblical holidays consist of three festivals and the High Holidays. The Rabbinic holidays are a mere two. Can you guess which ones? Never mind, there’s no time for that. It’s Chanukah and Purim.
The three major festivals are Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. These are pilgrimage festivals when Jews were expected to make the trek to Jerusalem to see and be seen. According to Rabbi Yoggev, the Torah discusses the festivals in terms of gathering the harvest (Sukkot), reaping the harvest (Shavuot) and spring (Passover, a.k.a. Pesach). But we’ve long since moved away from those definitions.
Back in O.B.T., the star of the Passover show was the sacrifice. It was the one time you’re actually supposed to eat meat. (Rabbi Yoggev is a vegan, FWIW.) The meaning originally had something to do with marking doorposts with blood from a slaughtered animal so that the destroying angel of some sort would know to pass over the firstborn child of those homes. And voila! a holiday is named!
Nowadays, the focus of Passover is much more about making a family connection and sharing the Exodus story. (I’m going to skip the part where Rabbi Yoggev compared constipation brought on by too much matzoh to slavery.) I’m definitely up for a more in-depth Passover primer, so I intend to check out Rabbi Yoggev’s Haggadah workshop on April 8 (stay tuned).
You can’t really have a fully informed discussion about the festivals and holidays without getting into the Hebrew calendar and dates and counting and the thing with Moses and his thrice 40 days, but I hate math, so I’m going to gloss right over all that. One tidbit that did sink in was that “most holidays fall on the 15th of the month because that’s the time of the full moon. The 15th is an auspicious day,” said Rabbi Yoggev.
Returning to the origin stories of the festivals, Shavuot was originally a time to bake and bring your first wheat to the Temple to celebrate the harvest. Today it is celebrated as the day the Torah was given, so you’re meant to stay up all night reading and learning the Torah. Mad props to Rabbi Yoggev who apparently did just that this year.
There is a custom to eat dairy products on Shavuot, but Rabbi Yoggev says most of the explanations for this are not all that convincing. There is another mathematical formula that looks something like this:
Chalav (the Hebrew term for dairy products) = the numerical value of 40 = the days Moses was on Sinai. Got milk?
Then there’s Sukkot, a holiday of celebrating your new produce (kind of like what I do every time I go to the downtown Farmers’ Market), which is why it’s all connected to branches and fruits. Rabbi Yoggev suggested one reason we shake the lulav (date palm tree) all over the place is because we’re thanking God for all that goodness and God is also all over. Rabbi Yoggev, ever the movie-lover, took time to recommend the 2004 Israeli film “Ushpizin,” which translates to “welcoming guests,” which you’re supposed to do in your sukkah (a temporary dwelling structure constructed for Sukkot).
As you can probably tell, we were really flying through these festivals at an accelerated clip. So, moving right along to the High Holidays (read that with a bullhorn and some reverberation).
Moses came down from Mount Sinai after 40 days to receive the “Ten Commandments,” sees the people inappropriately hobnobbing with the Golden Calf, gets severely pissed off, breaks the Tablets. Goes back up the mountain for another 40 days to try to score some forgiveness, gets a second set of Tablets, goes back up for another 40 days – talk about a sabbatical – and there you have Jews being involved in repentance for the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, Jews were forgiven for that whole Golden Calf debacle.
Before we got into the good stuff – Rosh Hashanah – Rabbi Yoggev stepped out of the classroom to get his shofar, only to return with “How’s it going shofar?” Groan!
Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, even though the Torah doesn’t say as much. It does mention the blowing of the shofar, however. And there are different ways to think of the intentions there: A shofar was blown at Sinai, is blown during the coronation of a king, can be seen as a wake-up call (“get up, return to God”), as a prayer or even as a return to innocence. Once I heard Rabbi Yoggev blow his shofar, I decided it was clearly a wake-up call. The sound certainly had me sitting up straight in my chair. For his part, Rabbi Yoggev said it was a good thing he “has a few months to practice.”
Here’s a fun little tidbit: You’re not supposed to eat walnuts on Rosh Hashanah because they have the same numerical value as “sin” (again, with the numbers), and you’re not even supposed to mention the word “sin.” You talk about the foundations of sin during Rosh Hashanah. On Yom Kippur, you talk about the actual sins.
Yom Kippur is supposed to be a day of affliction so it comes with its own set of prohibitions – no food or drink, no leather shoes (again, no problem for vegan Rabbi Yoggev), no bathing (just lost me again), no anointing with oil and, alas, no sex. Between being encouraged to get jiggy with it on Shabbat and being told to refrain on Yom Kippur, I think a “when you can and when you can’t” sex chart might make a good new tractate of the Talmud.
You’re also supposed to wear all white on Yom Kippur. One interpretation is that you want to be as pure and angelic as possible to elevate yourself. Back in O.B.T., it was common to put all of your sins on a goat and send the goat off a cliff. Hence, a scapegoat! They don’t do that anymore.
We’ve covered all of that and there’s only three minutes left in class, but we haven’t even talked about Chanukah or Purim. So, know this. They’re the Rabbinic holidays, which is why you can drive on them. Chanukah is the more spiritual of the two. Purim came first (way back in 355 BCE) and is the more physical celebration. You’re supposed to take part in physical acts to show that we are alive, thriving and enjoying life. Celebrate the body and get drunk doing so. I think I’ll stick to Purim.
Chag Sameach (Have a joyous festival)!
Next up: Feb. 4 — Hot Button Issues (the moment we’ve all been waiting for)
Basics — Nov. 19: What You Need to Know About Judaism, Nov. 26: Foundations of Jewish Belief, Dec. 3: Jewish History 101
Jewish Life and Spirituality — Dec. 10: Daily Jewish Living, Dec. 17: Life Cycle Events, Dec. 24: Prayer, Jan. 7: Jewish Spirituality
Practical Judaism — Jan. 14: Introduction to Jewish Law and Custom, Jan. 21: Shabbat, Jan. 28: Festivals
Judaism for Today — Feb. 4: Hot Button Issues, Feb. 11: “Ask the Rabbi” Session
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Eli Yoggev returns to Your Weekend Agenda on Facebook Live at facebook.com/jmoreliving Feb. 8 at 12:30 p.m.