"Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy" (Exodus: 20,8). "It is a sign between me and the Children of Israel forever: for, in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and on the seventh day, he rested, and was refreshed" (Exodus: 32,17).
The Medrash states that God said to Moses: "I have a precious gift in my treasure house and its name is Shabbat; go and let them know of it."
Shabbat is the most important institution of Judaism. It is the primary ritual, the only ritual mentioned in the Ten Commandments, the very touchstone of our faith. The observance of Shabbat is the confirmation of our belief in God as the Creator of all things. It is Shabbat which contributed the most in keeping Israel as a distinct nation throughout 2,000 years of exile while living in the midst of hostile gentile neighbors.
The Shabbat is to be kept distinct from the rest of the week. Yet, it is not all spiritual; it is the fusion of the spiritual and the materialistic. On Shabbat, we spend more time in prayer and study of Torah, but it is also required to eat well, sleep well and put on clean and respectable clothing.
On Friday afternoon, the table is set with the best dishes and silverware; two loaves of bread are placed on the table to recall that our ancestors gathered a double portion of the Manna on Friday while in the desert. Light, the symbol of peace in the home, is provided with candles in a beautiful candelabra. The family gathers around the table to partake from a delicious meal amid chanting songs and discussing topics of Torah. In the morning, after an uplifting prayer service which includes reading of a portion of the Torah, another regal meal is awaiting at home.
Our sages say: "Whoever delights on Shabbat is rewarded a portion without limits." Furthermore, he, who honors, observes and delights on Shabbat, has a great reward in this world and the world to come.
Rosh-Hashanah is Yom Hadin - the day of judgement. It is the time for introspection or self examination in the spiritual sense. We must look at our past, search carefully into our actions and make a determination to renounce all wrongdoing of the past and start on a new path of Teshuba, a new direction leading to the study of Torah and fulfillment of the Mitzvot. The books are opened, and the Almighty looks at the tally of our Mitzvot or, God forbid, Aberot and renders a judgement accordingly.
On the two nights of Rosh-Hashanah, the Sephardic Jews hold a mini-Seder in which specific foods are eaten while prayers are recited asking God to grant us a good, peaceful and bountiful year. Some foods used are: apple dipped in honey for a sweet year, pomegranate for increasing the fulfillment of Mitzvot, leek to remove our enemies, and the head of a sheep for being spiritually elevated to the top.
On Rosh-Hashanah the world was created by the All-Powerful King of Kings, Hashem; consequently, we reiterate in our prayers our belief in his kingship, and we extol and glorify Him with songs of praises which proclaim Him as "Our King". The Shofar (ram's horn), the sound of which slices through our heart and shakes us to the bone, reminds us of the awesomeness and solemnity of this day. Repentance, together with the special and melodious prayers, and the distribution of charity help inscribe us in the Book of Life.
Yom Kippur ("Day of Atonement") is the tenth day of the month of Tishrei. It is the holiest day of the Jewish year. On this day, G-d seals our fate for the coming year, therefore, the entire day is spent fasting and praying to G-d for forgiveness and a good year.
Shlomo Hamelech in Mishleh writes, "Have you shown weakness on the day of adversity. Then your real adversity was your lack of strength" (24:10).
Life has many challenges and adversities and the verse in Eyob tells us that this is the lot of mankind, as the verse states "man was created to struggle" (Eyob 2:7).
However, many of us are unaware of our strengths and are left crippled and disabled by the challenges we are faced with during our lifetimes.
One of our greatest strengths is the power of prayer that each one of us posses. A man complained to a Rabbi about how many problems he had. The rabbi told him to pray and Hashem will help him. "But how do I know to pray properly" the man asked.
"Then that is your real problem," the rabbi answered. It is easier to blame our difficulties in life on external problems rather than on our own shortcomings. We then try to fix the external things while we remain the same, whether regarding problems at work or problems in our married lives. Changing our external circumstances leaves the "self" unchanged, and this manipulation of our environment rarely results in lasting relief.
The greatest adversity is not outside of us, but rather lies in our failure to fully develop our inner strength. And that is an important part of prayer, for the word "prayer" in Hebrew is "Mitpalel" which translates literally to mean to "judge oneself"; we must judge ourselves to see if we are on the right track and pray to receive help from Hashem in correcting ourselves.
Only four days after the day of atonement and the day of forgiveness, Yom Kippur, the Bnei Yisrael are commanded to dwell in make-shift booths and wave the four species (Lulab, Etrog, myrtle, and willow of the brook) during the morning services. We leave the comfort of the permanent home and dwell in the frail and temporary booth to remind us of the sheds God had built for our ancestors in the desert after leaving Egypt. But why do we celebrate Sukkot in the fall if the Exodus occured in the Spring?
In the Spring, the weather is warm and the sun is shining; people go out of their homes anyway to the mild air outside. So, Sukkot is celebrated in the fall, when the weather may not be so clement, to emphasize the fact that we are entering the Sukkah solely for fulfilling Hashem's commandment.
The Festival of Sukkot is a very joyful Holiday. In ancient times, people came from all Israel to participate in the special celebration at the Temple in Jerusalem. This is the time of the year when harvesting had been completed, and granaries and store-houses were filled with a plentiful crop. People were content and very grateful to Hashem for such bounty.
At the Temple, special balconies were built (before the Holiday) for women to watch the festivities conducted by the men downstairs. This occasion was called: "Simhat Bet-Hasho'abah". Huge lamps, one hundred-foot high, were set up around the Temple Mount so that all of Jerusalem was illuminated from their flames. All night long, men, including great Rabbis would be singing, dancing and clowning to the tune of violins, flutes and other musical instruments.
At dawn, a special function was added to the morning sacrifice by pouring water over the Altar. Since the Almighty renders judgement on the amount of "water-fall" on this Holiday, we offer water to Him in the hope of rewarding us with an abundant rain throughout the year. This celebration was so magnificent that our Rabbis said: "He who has not seen 'Simhat Bet-Hasho'abah', has not seen a real joyful event in his lifetime"
Immediately after the completion of the seven days of Sukkot starts the Holiday of Shemini Atzeret. It is an independent Holiday, not connected with Sukkot. It is characterized with two major events: Prayer for the rain, and Rejoicing for the Torah (Simhat Torah). In Israel, where this Holiday is celebrated as one day, both events occur on the same day; outside of Israel, the Prayer for the rain occurs on the first day, and Simhat Torah on the second day. Throughout Sukkot, we quietly hint to Hashem at our need for rain. The four species which grow on water are waived every morning during the services, water was poured on the Altar with the morning sacrifice at the Temple, and on Hosha'ana Rabbah, the Altar (nowadays -the Tebah) is circled seven times with the brook willow which growns on water. On Shemini Atzeret, however, we expressly start asking for rain in our prayers. Why not ask for rain on the first day of Sukkot? Rain is not welcome on Sukkot, since it will force everyone to go out of the Sukkah and return home.
Shemini Atzeret is to Sukkot as Shabuot is to Pessah. On Shabuot we rejoice for having received the Torah; on the second day of Shemini Atzeret (Simhat Torah) we rejoice for having completed the reading of the Torah. The Torah is divided into many sections such that each section is read on a particular Shabbat. The last portion is read on Simhat Torah.
In all Synagogues, people take out the Sifrei Torah from the Ark, and sing, dance and rejoice with them while circling the Tebah seven times. Excitement, delight and jubilation are freely expressed by all present, including children, as everyone shows his feelings of love, devotion and admiration for that beautiful and cherished document: the Torah.
One of our brightest times in history, times when our ancestors have demonstrated heroism on the battlefield and self-sacrifice for the cause of Torah, was the era of Hanukkah.
With the banner of, "Who is for Hashem, let him follow me", the Maccabees were able to recruit and instill religious and military confidence in thousands of people to fight the mighty Greek Empire. Jews who were submissive and fearful of the occupying army, became unbeatable freedom fighters, ready to give up their life for Hashem and His Holy Commandments. In return, Hashem helped them win over their enemies by performing miracles. On Hanukkah, the few won over the many; the righteous over the evildoer, the weak over the strong.
After defeating the Greeks, the Jews went to the Temple to cleanse it and rededicate it to Hashem. But, one thing was missing: pure, non-contaminated olive oil to light the Menorah. Miraculously, a small vial of pure oil bearing the seal of the Cohen Gadol was found. The vial contained only one day's supply; a miracle happened and it lasted for eight days which is the reason we light the Hanukiah for eight days. We also eat doughnuts or other pastries fried in oil to recall this miracle.
On Hanukkah, children play with the 'dreidel', a toy which they spin like a top and has four facets with the inscriptions: A great miracle happened there.
Purim is an illustration of the cyclic story throughout the ages whereby a powerful ruler rises to annihilate the nation of Israel. The Jewish nation then gathers in prayer and fast, and beseeches the Almighty to save them from their enemy. Hashem, seeing a true and honest repentance from his chosen nation, abrogates the edicts against them, and it is the enemy who is obliterated.
On Purim, the enemy of the Jewish nation was Haman, a descendant of the perennial enemy of the Jews, Amalek. The righteous Mordechai and the newly selected Queen Esther led the Jewish nation in three days of fast and prayer which resulted in saving the Jews, and destroying Haman and his family.
The story of Purim is recorded in the Book of Esther, called the Megillah. Written on parchment like the Sefer Torah, it is read publicly twice: at night and again during the day. Other Mitzvot practiced on this Holiday are: Sending gifts to friends (Mishloah Manot), giving charity to the poor, and eating a special dinner in honor of the Holiday. These Mitzvot are intended to promote unity and friendship. Reading the Megillah is required at the Synagogue to publicize the miracle of Purim; giving presents to friends, charity to the poor and inviting guests to a beautiful meal are all ways to emphasize togetherness and kindess reminiscent of the gathering of all Jews during Purim.
Incidentally, on this Holiday it is permissible to overdrink. Although Judaism, in general, does not condone excessive drinking, an exception is made on this day: it is allowed to drink to the point where one does not recognize the difference between the righteous Mordechai and the wicked Haman.
Pessah celebrates the redemption of Bnei-Yisrael from Egypt. Our ancestors were held captives as slaves for centuries by their cruel Egyptian masters till Hashem delivered them with miracles and wonders. One of the greatest miracles was the splitting of the Red Sea allowing hundreds of thousands of the Bnei-Yisrael cross comfortably on dry land while later drowning the pursuing Egyptians and their war machine.
Perhaps the most salient feature of this Holiday is the 'Seder' during which the family gathers around the table to read the Haggadah and recount the story of the Exodus. We eat unleavened bread (Matzah) and bitter herbs (Maror) to recall the hard labor in Egypt; at the same time, we recline like princess throughout the Seder in gratitude to Hashem who delivered us from the house of bondage.
In ancient times, our ancestors used to go on pilgrimage to the Bet-Hamikdash on the day before Passover and celebrate while the whole family partakes from the paschal lamb.
On Seder night, we are required to drink four cups of wine signifying the four gradual types of freedom the nation of Israel experienced while the powerful and fearsome Pharaoh was brought down to his knees with the Ten Plagues. A fifth cup (Kos Eliyahu) is placed on the table to wish for the final redemption which we hope will speedily arrive with the advent of the prophet Eliyahu and the coming of the Mashiah.
The Holiday of Pessah is unique in that it recalls the express miracles Hashem did for the Bnei Yisrael to gain their freedom. Our ancestors were witnesses to the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the sea, the drowning of the Egyptians etc... This Holiday, therefore, reinforces our belief in the Almighty, and infuses in us a shot of faith in his desire to keep us his beloved children and in chastising thos who attempt to persecute His chosen nation.
The Holiday of Shabuot commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. About 3,500 years ago, our ancestors stood on that day at the foot of Mount Sinai, and heard the Almighty pronounce the Ten Commandments. Afterwards, Moshe Rabbenu ascended Mount Sinai to study the details of the Torah for forty days and forty nights.
It is interesting to note that the Torah does not give a specific date for the celebration of this Holiday; instead, it connects it with the Passover Holiday. Starting on the second night of Passover, we count 49 days (seven weeks), and on the fiftieth day Shabuot is celebrated. This is because when the B'nei Yisrael were freed from Egypt, they were told of that beautiful present awaiting them seven weeks later, the Torah. In their joy and excitement anticipating such a treasure, they were counting the days one by one, until the day they received the Torah, Shabuot.
In the time of the Bet Hamikdash, the Bikkurim (first fruits) were brought to the Temple as an offering while reciting a prayer of thanks and gratitude to Hashem for providing such a bounty.
Shabuot is also known as the Festival of the Harvest (Hag Hakatzir) because it is the time for harvesting wheat in Eretz Yisrael. We read the Book of Ruth because it occured during that time and Ruth met and married her husband Boaz while harvesting his crop. From this union came King David and eventually our Mashiah whom we hope will arrive speedily in our time, Amen.