Saturday, May 19, 2018

Shavuot

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In Hebrew, Shavuot means "weeks" (referring to the 7 weeks between Passover and Shavuot.) Jews believe that Shavuot is when God handed down the Torah on Mount Sinai. It's also one of the harvest festivals in Judaism, specifically the festival of the harvest of wheat.

Story of Shavuot

The story of Shavuot starts with the story of Passover, you can find a brief version of the Passover story on my previous post on Passover. So, picking up from there.

Pharaoh lets the Israelites leave Egypt, and they start the 40 year journey to the Promised Land.  Weeks later, the Israelites make camp at the base a mountain in the Sinai desert known as Mount Sinai. Over the time they are camped out there, Moses goes up the mountain several times to talk to God, and God gives Moses. During Moses' trips up the mountain, God gives him the 10 Commandments, along with laws concerning the altar, slaves, violence, property, restitution, the sabbatical year, the sabbath, festivities, the Tabernacle, and more. (You can read the full story in Exodus 19:1-34:30 of a Christian Bible.)

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Celebrations

How long you celebrate Shavuot depends on if you're in Israel or not. In Israel, it's a one day holiday, while the rest of the world extends the holiday to two days.


  • Prayers for Shavuot are said to thank God for the Torah and God's law, especially at dawn.
  • The Synagogue is decorated with flowers and plants to symbolize the flowers on Mount Sinai. Also, Jews go to the synagogue to hear the 10 Commandments be read there.
  • People typically stay up all night to study the Torah on the first night.
As for food, it's customary to eat dairy food on Shavuot. Why? To Jews, the Torah is like nourishing milk, along with a few other reasons.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Yom HaShoah

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Yom Hashoah is the day the Jewish calendar has set aside as Memorial Day for the victims of the Holocaust during WWII. It occurs on the 17th of Nissan, a week after Passover ends and a week before Yom Hazikaron. The date was set in 1951 by the Israeli Parliament. The full name (Yom HaShoah Ve-Hageurah) was adopted in 1953 and translates to "Day of remembrance of  the Holocaust and the Heroism.

Historical

Back in the 1950s, education about the Holocaust primarily centered on the suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. Since then, there has been a shift to include how some resisted being tormented by the Nazis.
The day hasn't been embraced by all in the Jewish community. Some Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbis have refused to recognize the day, but they haven't formally rejected the holiday either.
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Observance

In Israel, at sundown on Yom Hashoah and again at 11 am, a siren sounds throughout Israel to stop traffic and pedestrians for 2 minutes of silence. Also on the day, radio and television programs in Israel have some connection to the Holocaust and how it affected the Jewish people, including interviews with survivors.

In North America, the day is observed by Jews in both the synagogue and the Jewish community as a whole. Talks from survivors, educational programs, vigils, songs, reading, etc are all ways different Jewish communities outside of Israel choose to commemorate the day. Since 1979, there have been civil ceremonies in Washington D.C. to commemorate the day.

Communities aren't held to the rituals that have been observed in the past either. Every community is open to develop new rituals, even rituals that haven't been observed in any community before.

Opinion

If I may stray and give my opinion, this is a day that I think should be commemorated worldwide by Jews and non-Jews alike. It marks a part of our history as a species that I believe we should be ashamed of (as a species) and that I believe we have to learn to understand so that we can ensure that nothing like it ever happens again. When I say understand, I mean not just understand what did happen, but what led to it happening, right down to ALL factors that made it possible in the first place, including the scapegoating of Jews that made it possible for people who would normally have been against all of it to be able to justify actions taken during the Holocaust, from making Jews wear the Star of David on their clothes, to the murder of Jews simply for being Jewish.

As a result of that, in my opinion, talks and interviews with survivors and educational programs are the best ways to commemorate the day.

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The Holocaust

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter Traditions

Since I already did a post about Holy Week, the post today will focus on traditions, specifically in the US and a few European countries.

United States

As somebody that has lived in the Midwest US my entire life, this is the part where I am the most knowledgeable before research.

Probably the biggest Easter tradition in the US is the "Easter Bunny" delivering a basket of treats on Easter. The baskets typically have candy in plastic eggs, chocolate rabbits, and some small toys and/or gifts. Families will even dye hard boiled eggs for Easter and you can buy kits of dye at stores like Target or Walmart.

Some small towns hide eggs in a local park for an Easter Egg hunt. It's also a common thing for families to do in their own yard, also.

At the US White House, the annual Easter Egg Roll has been an Easter tradition since 1878.

Scandanavia


PĂ„skekrim (Easter crime) is a Norwegian Easter tradition that may surprise you. It's a tradition of reading mystery books and/or watching detective shows or movies.

It's also common for Norwegian families to escape into the mountains for a week over Easter in a ski cabin. While at the cabin, playing games like Yahtzee is a popular tradition.

In neighboring Sweden, it's traditional for children to wear old, discarded clothing to dress up as Easter witches in the days before Easter and go from home to home trading paintings and drawing for sweets. There's a similar tradition in Finland, children dress up as witches, and go around begging for chocolate.


Italy

In Florence, Scoppio del Carro (explosion of the cart), has been an Easter tradition for over 300 years. The locals pack an ornate cart with fireworks and lead the cart through the streets while wearing costumes from the 1500s. After stopping outside of the Duomo, the Archbishop of Florence lights a fuse during mass that leads outside to the cart.

In the town of Panicale , locals gather the day after Easter to roll huge wheels of Ruzzola cheese around the town's perimeter in a tradition they refer to as Ruzzolone.

In Sicily, Abballu de daivuli is a tradition where locals wear red robes along with masks to represent devils. Those dresses up in the costumes then pester as many "souls" as they can. (By pestering souls they mean make people pay for drinks.) In the afternoon, people dressed as the Virgin Mary and the risen Jesus, send the devils away with the help of people dressed as angels.

  • Mental Floss article on the origins of some Easter traditions
  • My Little Norway post from 2010 on traditions 
  • Explore Italian Culture post on traditions

Sources

  • HuffingtonPost.com post from 2009
  • Woman's Day post from 2018
  • Reader's Digest post

Friday, March 30, 2018

Pesach/Passover


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Passover (in Hebrew Pesach) in one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar. It's celebrates the story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The holiday has been celebrated since about 1300 BCE (BC to us older folks.) The holiday lasts for 8 days, from the 15th to 22nd of Nissan.

The Passover Story

During the time of the Egyptian pharaohs, the Hebrews were held as slaves in Egypt. After generations of slavery, the Pharaoh a Hebrew baby came to be raised in the palace, spent part of his adult life in Midian with other Hebrew's who weren't slaves, and returned to Egypt to free the enslaved Hebrews. When the Pharaoh didn't release the Hebrews on command, the Hebrew god sent a plague that affected the Egyptians, but not the Hebrews. 10 plagues in all. (1. Water turned to blood,  2. frogs, 3. lice, 4. flies, 5. death of livestock, 6. boils, 7. hail, 8. locusts, 9. darkness, and 10. death of the first born.).

Just before the 10th plague, the Hebrews were directed to slaughter a male lamb 4 days before, brush the blood on their door frame, and make a special meal with the meat of the lamb. When the angel of death came to kill the fist born child of each family in Egypt,  it "passed over" the homes with blood on the door frame, giving the holiday it's name.

After the 10th plague, the Pharaoh agreed to let his Hebrew slaves go free.
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How Passover Is Celebrated

The central ritual of Passover is the Passover Seder. That is a ritual meal that is played out almost as if it's a play.  It consists of symbolic foods and a script from the Haggadah. The celebration is primarily at home, but traditional Judaism prohibits working on the first and last days of the holiday. The community part of the holiday includes special services in the synagogue with readings, psalms, and the Yizkor service of remembrance is recited on the last day.
The most important of the symbolic foods is the matzah, a type of unleavened bread. Other symbolic foods are Karpas (green vegetable, usually parsley); Haroset (sweet fruit paste), the bitter herbs Maror (usually horseradish) and Hazeret (usually Romaine), Zeroa (shank bone), and Beitzah (egg). It's also common to have salt water or vinegar on the Sedar table.

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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Holy Week

To Christians, Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday, and runs the entire week through Easter the following Sunday. It's a week to celebrate the part of the Jesus story that begins with him entering Jerusalem for the last time, his betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and rising from the dead.  Easter (along with Christmas) are the two main religious holidays in the Christian tradition.

The date for the week is established based on the date of Easter, which is determined by a combination of the season and the status of the moon. The council of Nicea declared Easter Sunday to be the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox (aka first day of spring.) That is still how the date is determined among non-Orthodox Christian churches.

Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday)

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Palm Sunday is the last Sunday before Easter, and kicks off Holy Week. The church services that day read the story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem that's recorded in Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 12. During services, parishioners are given palm branches to wave.

The history of celebrating the day is uncertain, but there are records of the day being celebrated as early as the 4th century in Jerusalem, and the 9th century elsewhere.  





Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday)

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Maundy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter.  Out of the days of Holy Week covered here, Maundy Thursday is the one that is mostly likely to not be understood  by the average Christian.

Maundy Thursday is believed to be the day Jesus Christ celebrated his last Passover. (My post on Passover will go up later this week.)  According the the Biblical story, his last Passover is when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples (an act of humility), commanded his disciples to do the same with each other, and commanded his disciples to love each other.



Good Friday

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Good Friday is the Friday before Easter and the day Christians believe Jesus was hung on the cross until dead.

In church services held on Good Friday, it's traditional to not serve communion as it's a day of sorrow and communion is seen as a celebration. It's also traditional to remove ornamentation on the altar and cover both the altar and the cross in black to signify death.

It's also not uncommon for some churches to have Stations of the Cross during their service, where each station symbolizes a part of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion in the story of his death.

Easter Sunday

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To Christians, Easter Sunday is believed to be the day that Jesus rose from the dead, making it a day of great joy for Christians.

In many churches, it's customary to have what is called a "sunrise service" in the early morning (ex. 6 am). For churches that have that and the Good Friday service mentioned above, this service starts off dark, then the black covering the altar and cross are removed and the ornamentations replaced. Simultaneously, the lights in the sanctuary (or nave) are brightened to symbolize Jesus rising from the dead.

There are many ways to celebrate the day. One common way Christians celebrate is to get together with their family and enjoy a meal together. Lamb is common as the meat for the meal because Christians see Jesus as the "lamb of God." However, ham is traditional in my family, and I'm sure many others.




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Saturday, March 17, 2018

St. Patrick's Day

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Of course, to understand St. Patrick's Day, we first have to know something about the man  the holiday is named for.

Saint Patrick

St. Patrick
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There are many stories about things Patrick supposedly did during his life. Most of which are nothing more then stories. The most famous example of one of these stories is probably that story that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland. (The snakes weren't there for him to banish.) Besides the stories (you can call them folk tales if you like), there's not much we know about his life.

What we do know is that he was born to wealthy parents in Britain, not Ireland, most likely near the end of the 4th century CE (AD to us older folks.) Even though his father was a Christian deacon, there is no evidence that he came from a deeply religious family.

When Irish raiders attacked his family's estate when Patrick was 16, he was taken prisoner and brought to Ireland and was in captivity for the next 6 years. While he was in captivity, he was put to work as a shepheard away from people. This is when he really turned to religion and became a devout Christian.

After the 6 years of captivity, he escaped and made his way back to Britain. After getting back, he began 15 years of religious training. At the end of the training, he was made an ordained priest, and sent back to Ireland with 2 missions. 1 to cater to the Christians that were already there, and the second to convert as many non-Christian Irish to Christianity as he could. Since he was already familiar with the language and culture, he chose to incorporate those native traditions into Irish Christianity. (He wasn't the first to incorporate "pagan" beliefs into Christianity to convert people.)

His death is believed to be 17 March 461 CE

History

The St. Patrick feast day has been celebrated in Ireland since about the 9th or 10th century. However, the first St. Patrick Day parade took place 17 March 1762 in New York City. It was organized by Irish soldiers serving in the British military to reconnect with their Irish roots and to connect with fellow Irish soldiers. The holiday and parades grew from there.

After the Great Potato Famine in 1845, almost 1 million poor, uneducated Irish immigrated to the US in an attempt to escape starvation. Despised for having unfamiliar accents and different religious beliefs, they had trouble finding jobs, and were portrayed in political cartoons as drunk, violent monkeys.
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Traditions

There are several traditions surrounding St. Patrick's Day. Some that cross borders, and others that are particular to a city.

Parades have already been touched on, and is one tradition that crosses borders. Multiple cities in the US have St. Patrick's Day parades. A parade is even part of Dublin's St. Patrick's Festival. At least in my part of the US, wearing green on St. Patrick's Day and pinching people who don't wear green that day is a tradition. Others include drinking Guinness (an Irish beer) and eating corned beef and cabbage.

Perhaps the most famous city specific tradition is Chicago's tradition of  dyeing the Chicago River green

Some of the symbols on the day are Shamrocks, leprechauns.
Some of the places where the holiday is celebrated

Sources

  • More information on traditions can be found here
  • St. Patrick's day in Old Ireland


Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Purim

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Purim is the Jewish holiday that celebrates the 14th of Adar. It celebrates the story of the nations salvation over 2 millennia ago. It starts tonight at sundown, and goes to March 1st most places, but March 2nd in Jerusalem. The name of the holiday (Purim) translates to lots, which refer a part in the story.

Story of Purim

In the 4th century BCE (BC to us older folks), the Persian empire was expansive, and included the land where the Jewish people lived. King Ahasuerus had his wife killed for not following his orders and organized a beauty pageant to find his next wife. Esther, a Jewish girl, caught his fancy and became his wife, refusing to tell her nationality.

Haman, was the King's Prime Minister, and asked the king to order the death of all Jews. His reason, Mordechai, Esther's cousin, refused to bow down to him. The King agreed. The date, 13th of Adar, was chosen by a lottery.

Mordechai asked his fellow Jews to repent, fast, and pray to God. Esther asked both the King and Hamman to a feast. At the feast, she revealed the fact that she was Jewish. The King order the death of Haman, and chose Mordechai to take Haman's place. The Jews were granted the right to defend themselves from those still desiring the massacre, and killed many trying to kill them on the 13th of Adar. The following day, the rested and celebrated.
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How Purim is celebrated

Jews have several traditions when it comes to celebrating Purim. Many go to the synagogue to hear the Megillah (aka the Christian "Book of Esther") read in it's entirety. Both on the night of Purim, and the following morning. Noisemakers can be used whenever Haman's name is mentioned in the reading.

Other traditions include: giving to the needy (Matanot L'Evyonim), sending gifts of food to friends (Mishloach Manot), feasting on Purim day (the 14th of Adar, 15th in Jerusalem), special prayers, and a masquerade.

There are also several tradition to prepare for Purim. Examples are: reading the Zachor, the Fast of Esther (day before Purim), and giving 3 coins in 1/2 denominations (ex. half dollar coins) to charity (Machatzis HaShekel).

Some ancient walled cities (including Jerusalem) celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar (Shushan Purim). They do so to celebrate the battle at the walled city of Shushan, where the battle extended an extra day.

Sources

  • The BBC's page on the holiday
  • There's also plenty of information on chabad.org
  • Information on the Fast of Esther at chabad
  • Judaism 101's site
  • My Jewish Learning's site
  • Reform Judaism's site includes recipes