S'lichot, a Hebrew word meaning "forgiveness," refers to the special penitential prayers recited by Jews throughout the High Holy Days. Jews recite S'lichot beginning late at night on the Saturday before Rosh HaShanah and continue each morning on the days between the New Year and Yom Kippur.
Observed on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, Rosh HaShanah (literally, “Head of the Year”) is the celebration of the Jewish new year and marks the beginning of the Yamin Noraim – a ten day period of prayer, self-examination and repentance, which culminates with the fast day of Yom Kippur.
Despite elements of joy and celebration, Rosh HaShanah is a deeply religious occasion. The customs and symbols of Rosh HaShanah reflect the holiday’s dual emphasis: happiness and humility. Special customs observed on Rosh HaShanah include the sounding of the shofar, using round challah, and eating apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year.
Yom Kippur (literally, “Day of Atonement”) is observed ten days after Rosh HaShanah with fasting, prayer, repentance: the sacred act of teshuvah. Yom Kippur is the holiest of all Jewish Festivals and holidays.
Yom Kippur enables us to put aside our physical desires and to concentrate on our spiritual needs through quiet reflection, self evaluation, community and prayer. It is customary in the days before Yom Kippur to seek out friends and family whom we have wronged and personally ask for their forgiveness.
Sukkot, a Hebrew word meaning “booths” or “huts,” is celebrated five days after Yom Kippur on the 15th of Tishrei and is marked by several distinct traditions as we give thanks for both the fall harvest and commemorate the forty years of Israelite wandering in the desert after Sinai.
Celebrate the completion of the annual reading of the Torah. Affirm our view of the Torah as an eitz chayim, a tree of life. Dance around the synagogue and embrace the Torah. The concluding passages of the Torah are read, and immediately following, the opening section of Genesis is read; we never stop reading Torah, we end only to begin again.
Chanukah—the eight-day festival of lights—celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of the pursuit of peace over violence, of spirituality over materiality. Over twenty-one centuries ago, the Holy Land was ruled by the Syrian-Greeks, who sought to instill their practices on the people of Israel. Against all odds, a small band of Jews known as the Maccabees defeated one of the mightiest armies on earth, reclaiming the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and rededicating it to the service of God.
Though initially a minor holiday, Chanukah has become one of the paradigmatic Jewish holidays. Commemorating this victory of the Jews over the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE, it is celebrated by lighting a chanukiyah, or menorah, for eight days, eating latkes, and playing dreidel. The word Chanukah itself means “rededication” and now, each of us experiences the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to Jewish tradition and practice.
Tu BiSh'vat or the "New Year of the Trees" is Jewish Arbor Day. The holiday is observed on the fifteenth (tu) of Sh'vat. Scholars believe that Tu BiSh'vat was originally an agricultural festival, marking the emergence of spring. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.C.E. this holiday was a way for Jews to symbolically bind themselves to their former homeland by eating foods that could be found in Israel. In the seventeenth century Kabbalists created a ritual for Tu BiSh'vat similar to the Passover seder.
Today, Tu BiSh'vat has also become a tree planting festival in Israel, in which both Israelis and Jews around the world plant trees in honor or in memory of a loved one or friend.
Purim is celebrated by the reading of the Scroll of Esther, known in Hebrew as the Megillat Esther, which relates the basic story of Purim. Under the rule of King Ahashuerus, Haman, the King's prime minister, plots to exterminate all of the Jews of Persia. His plan is foiled by Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai, who ultimately save the Jews of the land from destruction. The reading of the megillah is typically a rowdy affair, punctuated by booing and noise-making when Haman's name is read aloud.
Purim is an unusual holiday in many respects. First, Esther is the only Book of the Bible in which God is not mentioned. Second, Purim, like Chanukah, is viewed traditionally as a minor festival, but elevated to a major holiday as a result of the Jewish historical experience. Over the centuries, Haman became the embodiment of every anti-Semite in every land where Jews were oppressed. The significance in Purim lies not so much in how it began, but in what it has become - a thankful and joyous affirmation of Jewish survival against all odds.
Pesach, known as Passover in English, is a major Jewish spring festival, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The ritual observance of this holiday centers around a special home service called the seder (meaning "order") and a festive meal; the prohibition of chametz (leaven); and the eating of matzah (an unleavened bread). On the eve of the fifteenth day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, we read from a book called the hagaddah, meaning "telling," which contains the order of prayers, rituals, readings and songs for the Pesach seder. The Pesach seder is the only ritual meal in the Jewish calendar year for which such an order is prescribed, hence its name.
The seder has a number of scriptural bases. Exodus 12:3-11 describes the meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs which the Israelites ate just prior to the Exodus. In addition, three separate passages in Exodus (12:26-7, 13:8, 13:14) and one in Deuteronomy (6:20-21) enunciate the duty of the parents to tell the story of the Exodus to their children. The seder plate contains various symbolic foods referred to in the seder itself.The seder has a number of scriptural bases. Exodus 12:3-11 describes the meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs which the Israelites ate just prior to the Exodus. In addition, three separate passages in Exodus (12:26-7, 13:8, 13:14) and one in Deuteronomy (6:20-21) enunciate the duty of the parents to tell the story of the Exodus to their children. The seder plate contains various symbolic foods referred to in the seder itself.
Lag Ba 'Omer
An omer refers to an ancient Hebrew measure of grain, amounting to about 3.6 litres. Biblical law forbade any use of the new barley crop until an omer was brought as an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Book of Leviticus (23:15-16) also commanded: "And from the day on which you bring the offering…you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete." This commandment led to the practice of the Sefirat Ha'omer, or the forty-nine days of the "Counting of the Omer". The omer is counted from the second day of Passover and ends on Shavuot.
Lag Ba'Omer is the shorthand way of saying the thirty-third day of the omer. It is celebrated to commemorate the day a plague ended in which thousands of students of Rabbi Akiba, a Talmudic scholar, died during the Counting of the Omer. The period of counting is traditionally observed as a period of mourning. The mourning, however, is set aside on Lag Ba'Omer, making it a day of special joy and festivity.
Shavuot is a Hebrew word meaning "weeks" and refers to the Jewish festival marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Shavuot, like so many other Jewish holidays began as an ancient agricultural festival, marking the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. Shavuot was distinguished in ancient times by bringing crop offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem.
Shavuot, also known as the Festival of the Giving of the Torah, dates from biblical times, and helps to explain the holiday's name, "Weeks." The Torah tells us it took precisely forty-nine days for our ancestors to travel from Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai (the same number of days as the Counting of the Omer ) where they were to receive the Torah. Thus, Leviticus 23:21 commands: "And you shall proclaim that day (the fiftieth day) to be a holy convocation!" The name Shavuot, "Weeks," then symbolizes the completion of a seven-week journey.
Special customs on Shavuot are the reading of the Book of Ruth, which reminds us that we too can find a continual source of blessing in our tradition. Another tradition includes staying up all night to study Torah and Mishnah, a custom called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which symbolizes our commitment to the Torah, and that we are always ready and awake to receive the Torah. Traditionally, dairy dishes are served on this holiday to symbolize the sweetness of the Torah, as well as the "land of milk and honey".
Tishah B'Av, which means the "Ninth of Av", refers to a traditional day of mourning the destruction of both ancient Temples in Jerusalem. In contrast to Orthodoxy, Reform Judaism has never assigned a central religious role to the ancient Temple. Therefore, mourning the destruction of the Temple in such an elaborate fashion did not seem meaningful. More recently, in Reform Judaism Tishah B'Av has been transformed into a day to remember many Jewish tragedies that have occurred throughout history.