Shabbat and holy days at Baycrest

 

 

“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”
Exodus 20:7

Shabbat is one of the best known and least understood of all Jewish observances. People who do not generally observe the stringencies of the day think of it as a day filled with stifling restrictions, or as a day of prayer. But to those who observe Shabbat, it is a day of great joy eagerly awaited throughout the week, a time when we can set aside all of our weekday concerns and devote ourselves to higher pursuits.

In Jewish literature, poetry and music, Shabbat is described as a bride or queen. It is said “more than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Shabbat is primarily a day of rest and spiritual enrichment. The word “Shabbat” comes from the root meaning to cease, to end, or to rest. Shabbat is the most important ritual observance in Judaism and is the only ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. It is also the most important special day, even more so than Yom Kippur. Shabbat is not specifically a day of prayer.

Although substantial time is usually spent in synagogue praying, prayer is not what distinguishes Shabbat from the rest of the week. Observant Jews pray every day, three times a day. To say that Shabbat is a day of prayer is no more accurate than to say that Shabbat is a day of feasting: we eat every day, but on Shabbat, we eat more elaborately and in a more leisurely fashion. The same can be said of prayer on Shabbat. We are commanded to remember Shabbat; but remembering means much more than merely not forgetting to observe Shabbat. It also means to remember the significance of Shabbat, both as a commemoration of creation and as a commemoration of our freedom from slavery in Egypt. On Shabbat, we refrain from engaging those kinds of work generally referred as creative, or that exercises control or dominion over your environment, in favour of living in harmony with God’s Creation.

“In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of shofar horns, a holy convocation.”
Leviticus 23:24

Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year) commemorates the Creation of the Universe and the birth of humanity. While a joyous occasion, it is also a time of reflection and introspection, when Jewish people around the world take a spiritual stock of their actions and seek to make amends with those they’ve offended and seek forgiveness from God. It is customary to eat apples and honey as a symbol of fruitfulness and a sweet New Year as well as round challah breads as a reminder of the changes of seasons and the cyclical nature of the year as well as the cycle of life. We also eat “new” fruits—something not eaten before—to celebrate the “new” year with a blessing of Thanksgiving for something new.

“For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall you be clean before the LORD”
Leviticus 16:30

Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. Jewish people traditionally observe this holy day with a 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, often spending most of the day in synagogue services. The preceding 10 Days of Repentance are a solemn time of reflection and introspection, when Jewish people around the world seek to make amends with those they’ve offended and seek forgiveness from God. Those who are susceptible to illness and those who are infirmed are not required to fast even if fasting poses no apparent danger to their lives.

“…the feast of ingathering, at the end of the year, when you gather in your labours out of the field.”
Exodus 23:16

Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) is a biblical Jewish holy day celebrating the fall harvest in the Land of Israel as well as a reminiscence of the type of fragile dwellings in which the Israelites dwelt during their 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. The holy days last seven days (eight in the diaspora) with the first day (and second in the diaspora) observed as a Sabbath-like yom tov (holiday) when work is forbidden, followed by the intermediate Chol HaMoed and Shemini Atzeret at the end. Traditionally, Jews eat their meals inside the sukkah throughout the holy days. Ritual items associated with this holy day season are the Arbah Minim (Four Species) consisting of a palm branch (lulav), two myrtle branches (hadas) and three willow branches (aravah) as well as a citron fruit (etrog). They are used in the synagogue worship service to acknowledge God’s omnipotence and omnipresence.

“On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly: you shall do no manner of servile work.”
Numbers 29:35

Shemini Atzeret (the Eighth [day of] Assembly) is a Jewish holy day directly following the Jewish festival of Sukkot which is celebrated for seven days, and thus, Shemini Atzeret is literally the eighth day; but it is a separate yet connected holy day devoted to the spiritual aspects of the festival of Sukkot.

“Moses commanded us a law, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.”
Deuteronomy 33:4

Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of Torah) is a Jewish holy day that celebrates and marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle. Simchat Torah is a component of the Biblical Jewish holy day of Shemini Atzeret (Eighth Day of Assembly), which follows immediately after the festival of Sukkot. The main celebration of Simchat Torah is when the worshippers dance and sing with the Torah scrolls in a joyous celebration.

“A Day of General Thanksgiving to God Almighty for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.”
Parliament of Canada, January 31, 1957

Thanksgiving Day is an annual Canadian holiday which celebrates the harvest and other blessings of the past year. The history of Thanksgiving in Canada can be traced back to the 1578 voyage of Martin Frobisher from England in search of the Northwest Passage. His fleet of 15 ships was outfitted with men, materials, and provisions to start a settlement. However, the loss of one of his ships through contact with ice along with much of the building material prevented him from doing so. The expedition was plagued by ice and freak storms which at times had scattered the fleet. On meeting together again at their anchorage in Frobisher Bay, Robert Wolfall, their chaplain, “… made unto them a godly sermon, exhorting them especially to be thankful to God for their strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places.” The Thanksgiving holiday in Canada and the US was inspired by and based on the biblical thanksgiving feast of Sukkot.

“…at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.”
Armistice of Compiègne, November 11, 1918

On Remembrance Day we commemorate members of the armed forces who gave their lives protecting freedom and democracy in Canada during World War I and subsequent wars. The other common name for this day is Armistice Day, which marks the date and time when armies stopped fighting World War I on November 11th at 11 a.m. in 1918. Some 100,000 Canadian soldiers died in the First and Second World Wars. Jewish Canadians were overrepresented in the Armed Forces of Canada with approximately 10% of the Jewish community serving their country in time of war although representing only 1% of the total population of Canada. In Canada, all government buildings fly the Canadian flag and people remember those who fought for Canada during a two minute silence at 11 a.m.. Many people wear poppies before and on Remembrance Day to show their respect and support for Canadian troops.

“God of heaven whose name dwells there put therein his blessing and they were able to light from it [a cruse of oil meant to last one day] eight days.” 
Book of Antiochus

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights and Feast of Dedication, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple (the Second Temple) in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire of the second century BCE. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days with Jews kindling lights of a unique candelabrum, the nine-branched menorah or hanukiah, one additional light on each night of the holiday, progressing to eight on the final night. The extra light is called a shamash (“attendant”) whose purpose is to have a light available for practical use, since the purpose of the Hanukkah lights themselves is solely to publicize the holy day. Other festivities include playing dreidel and eating oil-based foods such as doughnuts and latkes (potato pancakes).

“Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.”
Genesis 1:11

Tu B’Shevat, the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat on the Jewish calendar is the day that marks the beginning of a “new year” for trees. This is the season in which the earliest-blooming trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle. Legally, the “new year” for trees relates to the various tithes that are separated from produce grown in the Holy Land. We mark the day of Tu B’Shevat by eating fruit, particularly from the kinds that are singled out by the Torah in its praise of the bounty of the Holy Land: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. On this day we remember that “man is a tree of the field” (Deuteronomy 20:19), and reflect on our partnership with God to “till and tend the earth” by engaging good ecological practices.

“The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honour.”
Esther 8:16 

Purim (from the word meaning “lots”) commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire where a plot had been formed to destroy them. The story is recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther. Haman, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus, planned to kill all the Jews in the empire, but his plans were foiled by Mordecai and Esther, his cousin and adopted daughter, who rose to become Queen of Persia. The day of deliverance became a day of feasting and rejoicing. Jews wear costumes for the reading of the Scroll of Esther and blot out the name of Haman with noise makers called graggers. It is customary to have a feast at which hamentaschen, sweet filled three-cornered pastries, are eaten. Based on the conclusions of the Scroll of Esther (Esther 9:22): “… they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.” Purim is therefore celebrated by: exchanging reciprocal gifts of food and drink known as mishloach manot; donating charity to the poor known as mattanot la-evyonim; eating a celebratory meal known as a se’udat Purim; public recitation (“reading of the megillah“) of the Scroll of Esther, known as kriat ha-megillah, usually in synagogue.

“Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought you out of Egypt.”
Exodus 12:17 

The Jewish people celebrate Passover as a commemoration of their liberation over 3,300 years ago by God from slavery in ancient Egypt that was ruled by the Pharaohs, and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. It commemorates the story of the Exodus as described in the Hebrew Bible especially in the Book of Exodus, in which the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. Passover lasts for seven days (eight days in the diaspora). The rituals unique to the Passover celebrations commence with the Passover Seder. It is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays. In the narrative of the Exodus, the Torah tells that God helped the Children of Israel escape from their slavery in Egypt by inflicting ten plagues upon the ancient Egyptians. When the Pharaoh freed the Israelites, it is said that they left in such a hurry that they could not wait for bread dough to rise (leaven). In commemoration, for the duration of Passover no leavened bread is eaten, for which reason Passover was called the feast of unleavened bread in the Torah. Thus matzah (flat unleavened bread) is eaten during Passover and it is a tradition of the holy day.

“They are like sheep and are destined to die; death will be their shepherd, but the upright will prevail over them…”
Psalm 49:14

Holocaust Remembrance Day, or Holocaust Day, is observed as a day of commemoration for the approximately six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany and its accomplices, and for the Jewish resistance in that period. Most Jewish communities hold a solemn ceremony on this day, but there is no institutionalized ritual accepted by all Jews. Lighting memorial candles and reciting the Kaddish—the prayer for the departed—are common. The Masorti (Conservative Judaism) movement created Megillat HaShoah, a scroll and liturgical reading for Yom HaShoah, and a program of observance for the holiday, including fasting.

“May God remember the soul of our beloved who have gone to their eternal home”
Yizkor Prayer

This day of remembrance for the fallen soldiers of Israel and victims of terrorism since 1860, when Jews were first allowed to live in the Holy Land outside of Jerusalem’s Old City walls. Yom HaZikaron is the national Remembrance Day observed in Israel with memorial services held in the presence of Israel’s top leadership and military personnel. The day opens with a siren the preceding evening. The siren is heard all over the country and lasts for one minute, during which Israelis stop everything (including driving, which stops highways) and stand in silence, commemorating the fallen and showing respect. Many religious Jews say prayers for the souls of the fallen soldiers at this time. The official ceremony to mark the opening of the day takes place at the Western Wall and the flag of Israel is lowered to half-staff. A two-minute siren is sounded at 11 a.m. the following morning, which marks the opening of the official memorial ceremonies and private remembrance gatherings at each cemetery where soldiers are buried. Many Israelis visit the resting places of loved ones throughout the day.

“…To be a free nation in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Hatiqvah, Israel’s National Anthem

Yom HaAtzmaut is the national day of Israel, commemorating the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948. It is celebrated either on the fifth of Iyar, according to the Hebrew calendar, or on one of the preceding or following days, depending on which day of the week this date falls. An official ceremony is held every year on Mount Herzl, Jerusalem on the evening of Yom HaAtzmaut. The ceremony includes a speech by the speaker of the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament), artistic performances, a Flag of Israel, forming elaborate structures (such as a Menorah, Star of David) and the ceremonial lighting of twelve torches, one for each of the Tribes of Israel. Every year a dozen Israeli citizens, who made a significant social contribution in a selected area, are invited to light the torches. Many cities hold outdoor performances in cities’ squares featuring leading Israeli singers and fireworks displays. Streets around the squares are closed to cars, allowing people to sing and dance in the streets.

“Splendor within [the week of] Splendor”
Qabbalistic tradition

Lag B’Omer is a Jewish holiday celebrated on the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer. This day marks the hillula (celebration, interpreted by some as anniversary of death) of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a Mishnaic sage and leading disciple of Rabbi Akiva in the second century, and the day on which he revealed the deepest secrets of kabbalah in the form of the Zohar (Book of Splendor), a landmark text of Jewish mysticism. This association has spawned several well-known customs and practices on Lag BaOmer, including the lighting of bonfires, picnics and pilgrimages to the tomb of Bar Yochai in Meron, Israel. During the Middle Ages, Lag B’Omer became a special holiday for rabbinical students and was called “Scholar’s Day.” It was customary to rejoice on this day through outdoor sports, among which archery has become the most prominent.

“Celebrate the Festival of Weeks with the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year.”
Exodus 34:22

Shavuot (lit. “Weeks”), known as the Feast of Weeks in English and as Pentecost in ancient Greek, commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the entire nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai. The holiday is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals (Passover and Sukkot being the other two). It marks the conclusion of the weeks of counting of the Omer, and its date is directly linked to that of Passover. Shavuot is celebrated in Israel for one day and in the diaspora (outside of Israel) for two days. Besides its significance as the day on which the Torah was revealed by God to the Israelite nation at Mount Sinai (which includes the Ten Commandments), Shavuot is also connected to the season of the grain harvest in Israel. Dairy foods such as cheesecake, cheese blintzes and cheese kreplach are traditionally consumed on the Shavuot holiday. The Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot. The practice of staying up all Shavuot night to study Torah – known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot – has its source in the Midrash, which relates that the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites retired early to be well-rested for the momentous day ahead. They overslept and Moses had to wake them up because God was already waiting on the mountaintop. To rectify this perceived flaw in the national character, many Jews stay up all night to learn Torah.

“How deserted lays the city, once so full of people!”
Lamentations 1:1

The Fast of Tisha B’Av (ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av) commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and the subsequent exile of the Jewish People from the Land of Israel. Due to other calamities that befell the Jewish People during the centuries that followed, Tisha B’Av became regarded as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. It is customary to eat only dairy meals for the days preceding the fast since meat is considered a delicacy and we temper our joy during this time. Those who are susceptible to illness and those who are infirmed are not required to fast even if fasting poses no apparent danger to their lives.