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Jewish feasts

This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you." (Exodus 12, 1)

The ‘beginning of the year’ in Judaism

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Synagogue in Jerusalem

In fact, the Jewish liturgical year has different feasts for “beginnings of the year”.
The first one is Rosh ha Shanah, the official beginning of the calendar. Rosh ha Shanah literally means “the head of year”, even though it falls on the first day of the seventh month. It is followed by a series of autumnal feasts.

The second one is Tu Bishvat, or “New Year of Trees”. Although today a minor feast, it is important in Israel.

The third one is probably the most known feast by non-Jews: the Passover, Pesach.

And of course, throughout the year there are other feasts which we are going to discover one by one.

First of all, we need to mention, the “High Holidays”, ROSH HA SHANAH and KIPPUR, which are feasts of biblical origin.
These rather ‘austere’ high holidays extend into the joy of SUKKOT and SIMCHAT-TORAH (Rejoicing with/of Torah) finishing the autumnal celebrations.

Sukkot is the third of tree pilgrimage festivals. Its origins are also biblical and refer to the moment when the whole people came to Jerusalem to celebrate it in the Temple.Also, this is the only great feasts without any comparable celebration in the Christian liturgy.

The other two pilgrimage feasts, the Pesach (Easter) and Shavuot (Festival of Weeks, Pentecost), are generally well known by Christians.

Today, the synagogue and the family liturgy substitute the destroyed Temple.

Then, there are some minor though very popular festivals.

CHANUKAH, festival of the Lights, commemorates the victory of the Maccabees against the Greeks (2nd century BC) and the purification of the Temple. It is celebrated in December.

PURIM, remembers the Persian Jews’ liberation through the intervention of Queen Esther. It is celebrated in March or April.

And finally the already mentioned New Year of Trees, celebrated in February. These three festivals are no public holidays.

But the most important place is, of course, granted to the Shabbat. It returns weekly as a holy visit of God to his children, a visit welcomed with joy and gratefulness. Coming after a whole week full of work, troubles and fatigue, it gives beneficial rest and also reinvigorates the spiritual forces of the faithful. Later, we will dedicate to it one page.

Finally we need to keep in mind, that the Jewish calendar is a clever combination of lunar and solar calendars; This means compared to our calendar, Jewish festivals have no fixed date. However they fall into roughly the same period each year thanks to a patch - the equivalent of the leap year - which intercalates in some years, in spring, an additional month, the so-called second Adar. These years are called embolismic years. They occur seven times within a cycle of nineteen-years.

Also, bear in mind, that Judaism accords time for the preparation of festivals, which can be compared to our Lent or Advent. For example, the month of Elul is a time of repentance in preparation for Rosh ha Shanah and the autumnal feasts…

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Chalice for kidouche
 

Two feasts : Passover and Shavuot

Pessah (Passower)

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Table of Seder

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.

This day shall be for you a memorial day and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance forever.Exodus 12

On that day, or rather that night, a slave people came out to his new destiny to become what he is, that means the people of sons.

The event of the Exodus has not only deeply marked the history and moral, but specially fashioned the identity and faith of the Hebrew people, even if will be needed centuries before that the prophets of Israel begin to proclaim that the election is not only a grace but also a mission: the one to make known the One God for all the nations and to invite them to worship Him and serve Him.

All the nations, yes, but even so, “My firstborn son is Israel”, the Lord said to Pharaoh. And, unless they sell their birthright for a morsel of perishable goods such as Esau did, when one is the elder son, one is it for eternity.

So, from generation to generation, after that at the beginning of Seder (liturgical meal Pascal), the father presented the dish of matzah (unleavened flat bread) saying: It is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in Egypt. Let the hungry come and eat…

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Matzo

So, the youngest child asks the same ritual question:

Why this night is different from all other nights?

And he receives the same ritual response:

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the LORD our God made us out of this country with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. And because the Holy One had not take our fathers out of Egypt, then we would still, our children and grandchildren, remain slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt…

Because of that, from generation to generation, each Jew should consider himself as if he had gone out of Egypt:
You shall tell your son in that day, this: That is why the Lord has done this for me when I came out of Egypt. This is not only our fathers that the Holy One has freed of Egypt, but He has also freed us with them, as it is said: It’s us that He went from there down, to take us into the land which He promised to our fathers.

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Kiddush cup and booklet of Haggadah

Therefore it is our duty to thank, to praise, glorify, exalt, adore, bless, celebrate and honor the One who made these miracles for our fathers and for us all. He made us move from slavery to freedom, from sadness to joy, mourning and celebration, from darkness to light, from servitude to freedom. He then sings a new song: Halleluiah, Praise God!

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Feast candles
 

 

Shavuot

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Wheat heads

This feast is - at least for us Christians who are trying to understand - the most paradoxical of all Jewish holidays:
* First, the Torah does not say much: two small passages, plus a sentence to indicate the feast.

Leviticus 23, 15-21

And you shall count from the morrow after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven full weeks shall they be, 16 counting fifty days to the morrow after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall present a cereal offering of new grain to the LORD.17 You shall bring from your dwellings two loaves of bread to be waved, made of two tenths of an ephah; they shall be of fine flour, they shall be baked with leaven, as first fruits to the LORD.18 And you shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish, and one young bull, and two rams; they shall be a burnt offering to the LORD, with their cereal offering and their drink offerings, an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the LORD.19 And you shall offer one male goat for a sin offering, and two male lambs a year old as a sacrifice of peace offerings.20 And the priest shall wave them with the bread of the first fruits as a wave offering before the LORD, with the two lambs; they shall be holy to the LORD for the priest. 21 And you shall make proclamation on the same day; you shall hold a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work: it is a statute forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations”.

Deuteronomy 16, 9-11

You shall count seven weeks; begin to count the seven weeks from the time you first put the sickle to the standing grain.10 Then you shall keep the feast of weeks to the LORD your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the LORD your God blesses you;11 and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your son and your daughter, your manservant and your maidservant, the Levite who is within your towns, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow who are among you, at the place which the LORD your God will choose, to make his name dwell there.

Then, it is with Passover and Sukkoth the third pilgrimage feast: that means it is very important.

* However, we cannot find anywhere in these texts the mention of the gift of Torah at Sinai, while the oral tradition will be the first object of this feast.

* Then there is the second the party reading the book of Ruth, a Moabite converted to Judaism, while the feast implies the election of the people who received the Torah at Sinai…

* And finally, no sign, symbol and not even any particular rite is associated with the feast, as it is for other feasts of Israel.

And one could continue to multiply paradoxes…

Let’s add that despite the importance of the feast of Shavuot, which nevertheless continues to assert is that which is less “practiced” at least as for the presence to the synagogue.

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Wheat sheaves
 
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