A Look at 5 Joyous Jewish Celebrations

Chanukah

Chanukah is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, but that doesn’t stop the millions of Jews all over the world from enjoying it with potato latkes and other distinctive foods, dreidels, chocolate or real gelt (coins), candles, feasting, and song.

The non-canonical books of 1 and 2 Maccabees recount the history of Chanukah. In about 160 B.C.E., the Syrian Greeks ruled the conquered Land of Israel and tried to encourage the Jews to adopt the Hellenistic worldview. Many Jews did so, lured by the pagan philosophy and way of life. But others joined the Maccabees—Judah Maccabee and his brothers, sons of the priest Mattathias. After several years of war, the Maccabees and their allies succeeded in recovering the Jews’ holy Temple and rededicating it to the worship of the God of Israel. The word “Chanukah” means “dedication.”

candles, manorah

Tradition has it that, when the Jews rededicated the Temple, the oil they used burned not only for one day, but—miraculously—for eight. This is the reason Jews today celebrate the holiday for eight days. Until recently, Chanukah was considered a minor holiday on the Jewish calendar. After exposure to Western, particularly American, celebrations of Christmas, Jews began to celebrate the holiday as a major gift-giving event.

Today, Chanukah is celebrated on the 25th day of the Hebrew winter month of Kislev. There are special readings in the synagogue, and at home Jews celebrate by lighting the candles of the menorah and saying the special blessings that commemorate the Maccabees’ bravery and the freedom they won for the Jewish people.

Tu B’Shevat

This “New Year of the Trees” occurs on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which falls in January or February of the Gregorian calendar. In many synagogues or religious schools, children plant trees or collect money to finance the planting of trees in Israel. Some communities and families hold Tu B’Shevat seders, similar to the Passover seder, but focused on ecology and stewardship of the earth. Such seders date all the way back to the Kabbalists of the 16th century, who used special music, readings, and foods to honor the earth and its bounty.

In ancient Israel, Tu B’Shevat was one of several “new years” on the Hebrew calendar, and it was originally the time when the Jewish people determined the age of trees for the purpose of tithing. Tu B’Shevat comes with few traditional customs, but these include tasting a new fruit, or enjoying one of the “seven species” that in ancient days grew abundantly in Israel.

Purim 

This often-raucous holiday falls on the 14th day of the spring month of Adar. Purim celebrates the delivery of the Jewish people living in ancient Persia from the genocidal plotting of the prime minister Haman, who has come to symbolize all anti-Semitic oppressors throughout history.

kosher bread

Jews are actually commanded to make merry on Purim, to feast, to enjoy parties, and even traditionally to become so drunk with wine that they cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai, the hero of the Purim story. Today, Jewish children and many adults dress in costume for Purim, as on Halloween. In synagogues, congregants read the scroll of Esther, and each time Haman’s name appears, they rattle noisemakers called “graggers” to drown out the evil sound. Hamantaschen pastries, made with a variety of flavorings, are baked in the shape of Haman’s three-cornered hat.

The Book of Esther in the Bible recounts the Purim story through the central figure of Esther, who marries the Persian king in order to save her people. Her cousin, Mordechai, who had previously saved the king’s life, assists Esther in foiling Haman’s plans, and Haman himself ends up hanged on the gallows he had prepared for Mordechai.

Passover

This eight-day festival, celebrated from the 15th through the 22nd day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, is among the most culturally and historically significant on the Jewish calendar. It is also among those most frequently observed by families, with relatives and friends gathering around the seder table in homes, community centers, and synagogues to retell the story of the ancient Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian bondage.

The Book of Exodus tells the Passover story: When the Israelites suffered as slaves in Egypt, Moses arose as a leader among them. Moses demanded that Pharaoh let the people go, but the Egyptian ruler refused until the last of ten devastating plagues swept over the land. These plagues “passed over” the homes of the Jews, hence the English version of the name. Even after he allowed the Israelites to leave, Pharaoh had his warriors pursue the fleeing Israelites by chariot across the Red Sea (known biblically as the Sea of Reeds). After God parted the waters of the sea to allow the Israelites to pass through, the waves closed upon the heads of the Egyptians.

The theme of redemption from slavery has continued resonance in modern times, and many contemporary haggadot—collections of history, legend, and tradition used at the seder table—draw comparisons with the American Civil Rights movement and the oppression of people around the world today.

Shavuot

This early summer holiday, whose Hebrew name literally means “weeks,” is traditionally known as the day when God gave the Jewish people the tablets of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Shavuot marks the conclusion of the seven-week period after Passover.

Many rabbis teach that, spiritually speaking, all Jews who have ever lived were standing at Sinai to receive the teaching of the commandments. Shavuot is marked by intense Torah and text study, often taking place overnight in synagogues and among small study groups. Traditional readings include the Book of Ruth, which makes this pilgrimage festival of particular significance to people who have converted to Judaism. Dairy foods are the traditional foods of the holiday.

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