Shalom y’all and welcome to this edition of Better Know a Jewish Holiday: Tu B’shevat, the fightin’ New Year of the Trees!
This is the day when the Jews stand up and get all:
The name of the holiday comes from its date on the Jewish Calendar. It’s celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Shevat and dates in the calendar are signified using letters that correspond with numbers. In this case, “tet” - 9 combines with “vav” - 6 to make the 15 that marks the day.
Like many Jewish holidays, Tu B’shevat has its roots in the annual agricultural cycle that governed the lives of the early Jews.
In America, Tu B’shevat is celebrated during the winter, but it’s timing is meant to coincide with the first blossoming of spring plants in Israel. It’s a sign that winter is drawing to a close and life is once again returning.
To celebrate Tu B’shevat, we have a special kind of feast called a “seder.” Seders are more commonly associated with Passover and the word means “order” because there’s a specific order to the meal.
The tradition for the Tu B’Shevat seder comes from the 16th century Jewish mystics who practiced Kabbalah.
Unlike Madonna, Britney Spears, et. al., these mystics were very serious about their Judaism and saw great mystical power in the connection between humans and the world around them.
The seder was developed to celebrate those connections and to encourage the eating of seven species of food commonly associated with the Land of Israel.
The seven species are: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates, all of which figure into the seder. In Jewish tradition, if you’re eating a food for the first time in more than a year, you say a special prayer called the Shehechiyanu to commemorate the occasion. Throughout the seder, we say this prayer thanking G-d for “giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this season.”
There aren’t a ton of other traditions associated with this holiday, so i’ll end with the telling of a story illustrating the importance of family, community, and care for the environment in Jewish tradition.
This story comes from the Talmud and centers around a man named Honi the Circle Maker (if you’re interested in learning how he got his name, you can watch this cool video from G-dcast).
So Honi was walkin along a path one day when he came across a man planting a carob tree.
Honi was a bit confused by this and was all like.
He then asked the man how long it would take for the tree to bear fruit, and the dude was all...
The man replied that it would take 70 years, so Honi asked if the man thought he would still be alive in 70 years to eat the fruit of the tree.
The man responded that when he came into the world he enjoyed the fruit of the carob trees planted by those in the generations before him. Knowing that he would never taste the fruit of this particular tree, he was nonetheless doing his work to ensure that there would be carob trees for his progeny and their community.
Honi proceeded to go all Rip Van Winkle and fall asleep for 70 years.
When he awoke, he saw he had a long white beard and that he was underneath a fully-grown carob tree.
He saw a man picking carobs from the tree and asked if he was the same person who had planted it. The man responded that he was, in fact, that man’s grandson and that he was enjoying the fruits of his grandpa’s labor.
At a time when we face ever-mounting environmental issues, it is important to remember that we have a responsibility to pass on a healthy earth full of carob trees and goodness to our grandchildren.
Hope you enjoyed and that you have a great Tu B’Shevat!
Shalom y’all, and welcome to this week’s episode of Better Know a Jewish Holiday!
Today we’re visiting Hanukkah: The fightin’ Festival of Lights!!
Hanukkah (AKA Chanukkah, Hannukah, or pretty much any other spelling with a lot of n’s and k’s) is an eight-day festival celebrated in December—or sometimes in late November ... or maybe even early January. This year it started Sunday night.
The proximity to a certain other December holiday has made Hanukkah among the most popular Jewish holidays for non-Jews, so I’ll try to shed some light on the less commercial aspects of the story.
Let’s start with the story. And I ain’t just talking about just the oil lasting eight nights.
This holiday falls squarely into my favorite category of Jewish celebration:
In this case, the “They” in question are the Assyrian/Seleucid Greeks. Their empire covered much of the Middle East and Mesopotamia, but the culture was very Hellenistic Greek.
Greek culture was super alluring at the time. The Jews had been soundly defeated and were living as second-class citizens in their own land, and besides, Jews had to pray to some imaginary invisible God who was everywhere while the Greeks had awesome impressive statues that could sometimes talk to you:
So like much of the rest of the world, many Jews were assimilating into Greek culture, but a few pesky priests insisted on continuing to pray to their own God and were all like:
Along comes King Antiochus (in Hebrew ant-ee-OH-khoos), who you might say was a little full of himself. He traveled around the empire forcing everyone to give offerings and bow down to statues of him.
This was going swimmingly until they got to Modiin (near Jerusalem) and tried to get an old priest named Mattathias (Jew, not Amish) to do the whole "pray to the king," thing. It went poorly.
Mattathias and his sons killed a Jew who went along with the Greeks and then killed a bunch of the king’s men and ran off into the woods. At this point Antiochus is all like:
And here’s where things get interesting, because the Greeks had a big army, elephants, weapons, and pretty much everything you would think one would need to win a war against a pesky little native group trying to start an uprising. What they didn’t count on was Judah “The Hammer” Maccabee.
Despite being vastly outmanned, the Jews managed to defeat the Greeks thanks to their cunning, knowledge of the land, and… What’s that word again Michele Bachmann?
This military victory is the first big miracle of Hanukkah and the one that many Rabbis focus on when they talk about the holiday.
We celebrate the Maccabees triumph over a repressive government trying to force them to worship a certain way and not respecting their religion. Thankfully we now live in a county where all those who wish to pray can do so however they choose without fear of… oh wait. What’s that?
Seriously, the Maccabees may have been a little zealous in their religious fervor, but Hanukkah is a holiday about spreading light and love. Hopefully that can shine through in these difficult times.
Anyway, as Paula Deen knows all too well, everything always plays second fiddle to oil.
So, after the Maccabees won the war the went back to re-dedicate the Temple in Jerusalem. They needed to light the MENORAH (more on this later) with specially sealed pure olive oil. Unfortunately, they only had one little jar of the stuff and they wouldn’t be able to get more for at least a week!
But straggly modern Vincini was wrong! The oil lasted for 8 whole days!
So to commemorate the miracle, Jews celebrate for eight days by lighting the HANUKKIAH (more on this in a bit), a candelabrum with nine candles. The shamash (shah-MAHSH or SHA-mas depending on who you ask) is lit first every night and then is used to light the other candles based on what night of the holiday it is.
We also eat special oily foods:
And play weird games:
Bonus super geeky data journalism breakdown of dreidel odds:
And, these days, we've created new traditions to supplement the old, including a lot of parody videos to pop culture songs (sampling below):
There's a ton more to this holiday, so feel free to ask any questions you may have in a comment or on the “Ask the Jew” page.
Side story on Menorah Vs. Hanukkiah:
As Hanukkah was set to begin last year, my friends over at the AP Stylebook, who sent out this anti-Semitic tweet:
Well, I was unimpressed.
So I launched a campaign using the hashtags #HanukkiahGate and #MenschUpAP.
At long last, after three furious days of tweets such as the one above, sweet victory was mine:
One of the prouder moments of my life to be honest.
So with all of these victories in mind, go out there and celebrate!
Chag Sameach (Khag sah-MAY-akh)!
Shalom y'all, and welcome to this week’s edition of Better Know a Jewish Holiday: Simchat Torah! The fightin’ Torah Turnaround!!
So let’s break this down. First of all, there’s not a great literal translation for the word Torah (TOH-rah).
It’s commonly translated as “The Law,” but really what we’re talking about are the first five books of the Bible. Translated literally, the Hebrew names for those five books would be: In the Beginning, Names, And He Called, In the Desert, and Things.
You probably know them as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Today I learned through the magic of Google that Leviticus comes from the Greek “Relating to the Levites” (lots of laws in that one) and Deuteronomy means “The second law” because it’s pretty much a recap of the first four books.
Jews read a bit of the Torah every week in synagogue/temple. Each section that we read is called a Parsha and is usually a few chapters long.
This year, I’ve committed to actually read the Parsha (par-SHAH or PAR-shuh, depending on how Israeli/American you want to sound) every week and will be putting a fun and gif-filled recap up on this website for your edification.
Anyway, back to the matter at hand: Simchat Torah is the big party we throw when we get to the end of the Torah and all have the exact same feeling:
To celebrate the ending and beginning of the Torah, we dance and sing with the scrolls, and of course:
Simchat Torah will be celebrated Monday night and Tuesday, so throw one (or a few) back in honor of Moses and his five books that started it all.
Chag Sameach! (Happy Holiday!)
Shalom y’all, and welcome to this week’s episode of Better Know a Jewish Holiday!
Today we’re visiting Sukkot: The fightin’ Feast of Booths!!
Right off the top, we need to recognize the fact that my main man Pope Francies is in the country. Big ups to the man and:
Sukkot (sue-KOTE) is a weeklong holiday that begins five days after Yom Kippur ends—so tonight! During this holiday Jews traditionally build little huts outside their homes and live in them for the duration of the week.
The huts—which are called sukkot, singular is Sukkah (soo-KAH or SOO-kah)—are supposed to give the feeling of being in temporary shelters rather than our more sturdy homes.
Living in the huts is meant to remind us of fragile structures our ancestors lived in when they were traveling in the desert for 40 years after leaving slavery in Egypt before arriving in Israel.
The basic rules for the sukkah are:
They must be at least three-sided:
They have to be temporary (i.e. you can’t put a room onto your house and call it the sukkah room) and the roofs are made of branches called s’chach which are supposed to cover more than half the roof but leave enough space so that you can see the stars.
I’m not giving you a pronouncer on s’chach because if you can't say it already, you'll probably just end up looking like this:
As long as weather permits, we are supposed to do pretty much everything in the sukkah. Specifically, we’re supposed to eat all of our meals in the hut and try to sleep in it, as long as it’s not too uncomfortable. Some fun/alliterative/rhyming/clever Sukkah activities can include: Sushi in the sukkah, Pizza in the hut, Cider in the Sukkah, and Sukkot with a Goat:
Sukkot is also one of three holidays (the others being Passover and Shavuot, which you may remember from previous episodes of Better Know a Jewish Holiday) when all of the Jews living in ancient Israel would make pilgrimages up to the Temple in Jerusalem. They would bring the first fruits of their harvest to give as a tithe/sacrifice for the holiday.
There are no funny sacrifice gifs. I looked.
The last interesting element of Sukkot that we will delve into with this email is the shaking of the lulav (LOO-lahv) and etrog (ET-roge).
As you can see, this is a collection of plants that we hold together and shake in all directions in the sukkah. The lulav is made up of a palm frond, a couple myrtle branches, and a couple willow branches.
The Etrog is a tart lemon-like citron with a little pointy tip. People in Israel pay hundreds of dollars for perfect etrogs and they have them checked for blemishes by rabbis:
Unlike a certain other Jewish custom, in this case it’s very important that the tip stay ON the etrog, or else it’s not kosher.
There are many theories/reasons the rabbis give for the lulav and etrog, but the one I like the most is that we hold these four things together to represent the different kinds of people in our community. A palm front has taste but no smell, myrtle has smell but no taste, willow has neither and etrog has both. We are only strong as a community when appreciate people with all of their different shortcomings, talents, and abilities.
So on sukkot we go in the sukkah and we take the lulav and etrog and shake them all around. We shake it up, down, left right and all around to remind ourselves that G-d is everywhere.
Final bonus Sukkot fun fact!! When christmas season is over in America, the christmas light producers unload a lot of their extra materials on the super religious parts of Jerusalem for people decorating their Sukkot. This includes large statues of Santa Claus, because when you give a bunch of Jews a large man with white facial hair, they think something else:
Sukkot is also known as Z’man Simchateinu, and the Rabbis say we’re supposed to be happy for the whole week! Cue Pharrell and his creepy sidekick:
Have a great and happy week! Good Yontif!
- The Jew
About the Jew
The Jew is an Uber driving, Bar Mitzvah DJing, yoga teaching ex-journalist from Ann Arbor, Michigan who attends rabbi School in NYC.