by Sam Glaser
A summary of every Jewish holiday:
“They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!
“I got a job on Madison Avenue in New York…and they fired me cause I took off too many Jewish holidays!”
As soon as the Passover seders have passed, most are happy to NOT celebrate so much for a while. And yet, there are another six days of matzah munching and another dozen holidays in the space of a month and a half. Who needs to work? Several important commemorations dot the calendar during the seven weeks leading up to the anniversary of receiving the Torah, Shavuot. I felt that any description of the Jewish festive cycle must make mention of these milestones that are typically left out of the holiday hall of fame. Therefore, for this chapter I’m cramming in all of the lesser blips on the radar so that you don’t miss out on any of the fun.
The 15/16th of Nissan:
The Passover Seders…it’s matzah time!
The 16th of Nissan:
As soon as the first day of Pesach is over we start a special period called S’firat Ha’omer, where we count the forty-nine days until Shavuot, which occurs on the fiftieth day. Forty-nine is a crucial number in Judaism; since the number seven runs throughout the fabric of reality, logically seven squared is also significant.
In the days of the Temple a certain measurement known as an “omer” of barley was offered on the second day of Pesach. Then we would start the countdown, building up our excitement for the climactic event of human history in the year 2448, the first Shavuot at Mount Sinai. Eventually this period became associated with the various permutations of the seven kabbalistic s’firot (Godly emanations through which God interacts with the world.) This daily roadmap of spiritual growth opportunities allows us to refine our character traits to prepare for the ultimate “kabbalah,” personally receiving the Torah. These days we commemorate this count with a simple blessing and then a counting of our own each night. It’s a tremendous burden to remember to count every single day…if we miss even one, we can no longer make the blessing the rest of the nights! God forbid I miss out on a chance to make a blessing! I’m very grateful for technology to keep me in the mix: I get an email every day to remind me and my iphone siddur concludes the ma’ariv service with a listing of the proper day.
During Rabbi Akiva’s time, the Talmud tells us that 12,000 pairs of his students died during S’firat Ha’omer since they didn’t treat each other with proper respect. Therefore this period became associated with an awareness of the importance of achdut (Jewish unity) and a state of semi-mourning. Celebrations like weddings, bar/bat mitzvah parties, concerts or even niceties like the joy of a shave or haircut are prohibited. The bottom line is that what should have been a time of joyous anticipation is now subdued. I must admit that these restrictions are somewhat of a bummer, especially for frum musicians. With no parties or events in need of live music, many hunker down in the studio or take extended vacations, wondering how they will pay the rent come June. The one exception to the rule is singing without instruments and thanks to this leniency, grateful a capella groups sell lots of albums this time of year.
The 17th of Nissan:
The intermediate days of Passover begin as soon as the second day (or the first day in Israel) of the holiday has ended. Yes, it’s still officially Pesach! The status of these four intermediate “Chol Hamo’ed” days is one of festive nature but most types of work can be done. Our prayers are of the weekday variety with special holiday insertions, plus the addition of a celebratory Hallel, Torah reading and Mussaf. That means that the whole week one is spending a lot of time in shul! FYI: Chol Hamo’ed also takes place during the week of Sukkot in the fall. Many in the working world attempt to keep their jobs intact by showing up in the office normally, or as normal as one can appear when munching matzah at the lunch break. I think it’s best (and the rabbis agree,) if at all possible to take the time off, to relax and enjoy day trips with friends and family. We love the fact that the amusement parks, hiking spots and beaches are empty, unless of course Passover coincides with Spring Break. There are certain restrictions in place to keep a sense of the sacred…check with your favorite rabbi for details. The Shabbat of Chol Hamoed is a unique collision of holiday joy and Sabbath sanctity. The services are usually particularly sweet and are enhanced with the public reading of the evocative love poetry of Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs.
21st/22nd of Nissan:
The last two days of the week of Pesach: These days are treated with the same restrictions as any Jewish holiday. There are no special observances other than the pleasure of hearing the Torah portion featuring the splitting of the Red Sea read on the anniversary of our crossing. The eighth day of the holiday is one of a few times per year that we stop to remember those loved ones who have left the earth in a short memorial ceremony called Yizkor. Since I’m typically leading Passover programs around the country, these extra two days after a busy week of concerts for Chol Hamo’ed offer much needed r&r. If you have the opportunity to share the final meal of the eighth day with Chassidim you will be treated to another four cups of wine and plenty of song and spirit during their annual “Mashiach Seudah.” This festive meal echoes the themes of the Haftorah reading of the day, which heralds the imminent arrival of the Messiah.
The 26th of Nissan:
The first of the many commemorations on the heels of Pesach is Yom HaShoah. This date was chosen by the Israeli government to memorialize the six million since it is close to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, representing the indomitable Jewish spirit, even though the uprising was doomed. Whereas the Orthodox world maintains that Tisha B’av covers all the maladies throughout history, I think it is appropriate that the Holocaust has it’s own milestone to keep the memory fresh. While it is much more of an event in the Holy Land, Diaspora organizations typically hold memorials featuring survivor testimonials, and it is also the day that over 10,000 participants on the annual March of the Living meet in Auschwitz. I am often asked to perform songs like my Born To Remember or One Hand, One Heart songs at ceremonial gatherings and I appreciate the opportunity to help my fellow Jews connect both to the vast destruction and the miracle of our survival.
The 1st and 2nd of Iyar:
The next special day is actually one that occurs every month. Rosh Chodesh (head of the month) and is the celebration of the new moon/new month. This mitzvah is the very first commandment given to the Jews as a free people in Egypt. In other words, now that we are no longer slaves, not only are we accountable for how we spend our time, but we also have the opportunity to sanctify it. The first month we had the chance to commemorate in Egypt was Nissan, and knowing when Rosh Chodesh occurred gave us the chronological awareness of when to take the lamb for the Passover sacrifice and then which day the seder (and exodus) would occur. Two weeks after the full moon on Nissan ushers in Pesach it’s time for the next Rosh Chodesh, this time for the month of Iyar.
Rosh Chodesh is formally announced during the Torah service on the prior Shabbat. Leading that “Shabbat Mevarchim” service is one of my favorite pieces of chazzanut and is always a happy moment for the community, not only for the optimism with which we greet the new month, but also because in many synagogues in our neighborhood it means that there will be a sumptuous free lunch. One of the beautiful aspects of Rosh Chodesh is that determining the precise day was the job of the Sanhedrin; in other words, it was up to mankind to determine exactly when our sacred holidays take place. The Sabbath comes every week but the holidays are a powerful sign of man’s partnership in the destiny of the universe.
Rosh Chodesh prayer service includes Hallel and a special Mussaf. Hallel is a series of King David’s Psalms that describe our national redemption, God’s love for the Jewish People and how we reciprocate with dutiful partnership and gratitude. Yes, you should buy my Hallel album to get into the feeling and memorize the words! These poetic verses are typically sung with abandon and have served as a beacon of hope in our long exile.
The primary theme of Rosh Chodesh is the
miracle of the eternal Jewish People, how like the moon we wax and wane over the millennia but keep on shining. Chodesh is also closely related to the word for newness, chadash. The fact that we follow a lunar-based calendar demonstrates that we emphasize the importance of welcoming newness in our lives. New insights, fresh inspiration, renewed hope and of course, new music. Rosh Chodesh is also known as the women’s holiday; according to the Talmud it is a special day of the spirit given to women as a reward for their unwavering faith throughout the ages.
The 3rd of Iyar:
Yom Hazikaron is Israel’s official Memorial Day for the remembrance of those who fell in war or in acts of terrorism. Back in 1951 the Israel government declared that it was best to separate the ecstatic celebration of Independence Day from the mourning and memory, so Yom Hazikaron was moved to the day before. One-minute sirens are sounded at the start of the day at 8pm and then again the following morning at 11am when the official ceremonies begin. This practice of solemnity before jubilation heightens the awareness of the price paid for Jewish independence. For Modern Orthodox in the Diaspora the two are juxtaposed at large scale public gatherings in most cities during the early evening of the third of Iyar. Typically the events consist of an array of sweet but poorly rehearsed school choirs singing memorial dirges that segue into songs of victory. The requisite theme colors are blue and white, local dignitaries utter sound bites of support and then everyone sings a very moving Hatikvah together.
The 4th of Iyar:
Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day is a serious party throughout the Land of Israel. Crowds gather for concerts and dancing and proudly display Israeli flags on their apartments, cars and bodies. BBQ’s abound and an interesting custom of bashing strangers on the head with squeaky plastic hammers has evolved. Since we usually don’t have that day off in the Diaspora the commemorations are typically moved to the Sunday before or after with gala concerts taking place in large outdoor settings. Yom Ha’atzmaut is an amazing time of Jewish unity since love for Israel is one thing upon which all Jews can agree. I love seeing all my holy brothers and sisters from the four corners of the earth rejoicing together and that experience alone is worth braving the traffic and heat at the local events. Most synagogues have special morning services to commemorate the day and include Hallel to acknowledge the miraculous nature of Israel’s founding.
The 14th of Iyar:
Pesach Sheni is perhaps the dimmest blip on the annual holiday radar. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach called it the “capitol of second chances” since its initiation came as a result of spiritually impure individuals arguing to Moses that they too had a right to a Passover celebration. God established that the month after the official seder would be the designated time when such individuals could bring the offering to the Temple. Nowadays most forget about the holiday until it’s time to utter the penitential Tachanun prayers in the morning service and the rabbi reminds everyone, to their immense relief, that thanks to Pesach Sheni they can be skipped.
The 18th of Iyar:
Lag B’omer is an acronym of the Hebrew letters lamed and gimel, signifying the 33rd day of the counting of the omer. The day commemorates the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the great mystic who popularized the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah in his text, the Zohar. He commanded his disciples to rejoice on this day and therefore parties replete with bonfires, concerts and dancing erupt throughout the world in celebration of his life and the revelation of the hidden secrets of Torah. Also, according to tradition the aforementioned tragedy with Rabbi Akiva’s students ended on this day so most Jews welcome the end of the mourning aspect of the S’firat Ha’omer period.
My brother Yom Tov makes an annual pilgrimage to the site of Rabbi Shimon’s grave in Meron where hundreds of thousands of Chassidim dance in an all night bacchanalian frenzy. Many save the official third birthday first haircut of their boys for this event. Here in the States I am usually leading a citywide jam session sponsored by Chabad, attended mostly by young adults. These outdoor gigs are always rowdy and amusing. One local LA rabbi who hired me to do his event on the beach insisted that I bring my full PA system. I wasn’t excited about the combination of my expensive electronics, drunken revelers and sand, but I acquiesced. Sure enough he had dragged hundreds of feet of extension cords across the bike path so that I could properly crank it up. Of course before the first note sounded the local authorities promptly put an end to this negligent behavior. I then had to scramble to find a local friend with a guitar and endeavored to make hundreds of people happy without the help of amplification.
The 28th of Iyar:
Yom Yerushalayim commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem following the 1967 Six Day War. Many remember this time as the apex of international Jewish pride and unity. For all of us who have spent time in the holy city and feel so connected and at home while wandering it’s golden pathways, we relish in this day to dwell upon her triumphs. Religious Zionists insist that the recitation of Hallel is even more pertinent on this day than Israel Independence Day. While not widely celebrated outside of Israel it is often occasion for public gatherings and concerts, especially on the milestone years.
The 1st of Sivan:
Rosh Chodesh once again! That makes for a total of a dozen “holidays” for your enjoyment between the seders and Shavuot on the 6th/7th of Sivan. Welcome to the Minor Leagues! Whoever said “it is hard to be a Jew” clearly missed the point; being Jewish is a PARTY! I hope to celebrate with all of you together in Jerusalem, speedily in our day.