Seasons and Festivals
Each of the different months of the Jewish year has its own unique character and feel. There is hardly a single month that does not have a festival or special observance of some kind. In most cases these are closely linked with the season of the year in which they fall.
The Jewish People is eternally and inseparably attached to the Land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the various festivals are intimately bound up with the agriculture of Israel and the ecology in general. Both for the Jews in Israel and for those presently living elsewhere, the festivals provide a wealth of opportunities for spiritual connection through ecology and nature.
The ecological dimension of the Jewish festivals and other seasonal observances deserves an entire study by itself. Within the confines of the present work it is possible only to provide a few brief notes and suggestions, leaving further investigation of this subject to the student.
"This month will be for you the head of the months" (Exodus 12:2). Nissan, the month of redemption for the Children of Israel in all ages, is the first of the months. It is also called Aviv, Springtime, for in Israel the rains and clouds of winter are mostly gone, the hills are green and aflower, the fruit trees are in blossom, and the wheat and barley in the fields are reaching full ripeness.
The mild sunny spring days are ideal for walks in the country to reconnect with nature after being closed up at home during the winter. Release and joy are the themes of the Pesach (Passover) festival that takes place on the night of the full moon of the month of Nissan. In preparation for the festival, Chassidim would go out into the woods and meadows for lengthy periods of prayer and meditation. Those who are unable to go out into nature before or during Pesach can experience the natural beauty of spring through the customary reading of Song of Songs after the Pesach Seder and on the Shabbat that falls during the festival (Shabbat Chol HaMoed).
Because of the requirement for our homes to be free of all Chametz (leaven) during Pesach, people tend to be preoccupied with home cleaning in preparation for the festival. While the autumn Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur season of awe is associated with looking inside ourselves with introspection and self-examination, the spring-time pre-Pesach cleaning of our closets and drawers, houses and yards puts the focus on the outer home and surrounding environment. Pesach cleaning is a good opportunity to think carefully about our lifestyle how to bring it into greater harmony with God and nature.
The seven day festival of Pesach is the first of the three annual pilgrim festivals. In Temple times Jews would flock to Jerusalem to enter the awesome, sacred courtyards of the Temple and offer the Pesach and other festival sacrifices, after which they would join with their families, friends and the poor and needy for ritual meals where they would eat of the sacrificial meat and joyously partake of Maaser Sheni, the special tithe of all the different kinds of produce of the land which they would bring to eat in Jerusalem in holiness and purity. The streets of Jerusalem were bedecked with produce and filled with excited crowds together with their sacrificial sheep, goats and cows.
At present we can only imagine all this and think ourselves into the spirit of the festival using the Machzor, the Festival Prayer Book, with its many references to Temple practice. Thus on the afternoon of the fourteenth of Nissan, eve of the Pesach Seder Night, it is customary to recite passages about the Pesach sacrifice that was brought on that day. Reference has already been made to the connection between the paschal lamb and the Ram or Aries, the astrological sign of Nissan (see Month by Month).
In our time when we do not have the Pesach sacrifice, the main focus of the festival celebration is the Seder Night ritual, when we recite the Haggadah telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, drink four cups of wine, and eat Matzah, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs (Maror). Sitting at our tables bedecked with the Pesach plate and its colorful greens, vegetables and the shankbone and egg symbolizing the Pesach sacrifices, our homes are once again a mini-Temple and our tables an altar.
At the heart of the idea of redemption from Egypt is that of spiritual redemption from distorted, restrictive worldviews and mindsets. Egypt represents the ultimate in sophisticated city decadence and corruption, from which the Children of Israel had to escape in order to build a new way of life founded on a simple, pure truth that could be learned only amidst the stark natural grandeur of the wilderness. The Exodus teaches that God rules over everything. The Haggadah can be understood on a multitude of levels. For the ecologically-minded, the account of the ten ecological catastrophes or "Plagues" with which God smote the Egyptians should provide plentiful material for thought.
In Temple times the sixteenth of Nissan was the time of the Omer, a national offering of a portion of the finest barley flour from the new crop specially harvested the previous evening and brought to the Temple together with special animal sacrifices. The weeks following Pesach are in Israel the time of the grain harvest, and the Omer offering was the first from the new grain. Before the sixteenth of Nissan it is not permitted to eat from the new crop, for man may only partake of the fruits of this world after first giving thanks and acknowledgment to God. The humble offering of barley (which is primarily an animal food) brings us into the harvest season with the proper attitude of respect and gratitude. According to the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a), Pesach is the time when God judges the world for grain, determining the success of the harvest. The Omer offering brought at this time of judgment has obvious ecological implications.
The second major climax of the Pesach celebrations comes on the seventh day of the festival, recalling the splitting of the Red Sea, which the Children of Israel crossed on dry land while the Egyptians were finally destroyed. The timely parting of the waters was one of the most striking historical exceptions to the normal workings of nature, showing that God is in total control of every part of creation, making and suspending the laws of nature at will. The Seventh day of Pesach is an appropriate time for reflection on God's control of natural processes and the concept of miracles. It is also a time for looking forward to the messianic redemption that we are now awaiting, hailing the restoration of the Holy Temple and bringing the world to be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the seas.
The Omer offering on the sixteenth of Nissan inaugurates a period of counting forty-nine days ("Counting the Omer") until the festival of Shavuot, second of the main festivals, recalling the Giving of the Torah by God to the Children of Israel at Sinai, which was the purpose of their redemption from Egypt.
The period of the Omer count is one of steady spiritual work, day by day and step by step internalizing the lessons of Pesach in preparation for the culminating experience of "Receiving the Torah" on Shavuot. Fields and meadows are good places for this work, as discussed in the writings of Rebbe Nachman:
"When summer begins to approach it is very good to meditate in The fields. This is a time when you can pray to God with longing and yearning. When every bush of the field begins to return to life and grow, they all yearn to be included in prayer and meditation." (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #98).
Most of the Omer period falls during the month of Iyar. Rebbe Nachman specifically discusses this "season when the earth gives forth her bounty and puts strength into all the trees and plants. Now that the fruits are ripening, all medicinal plants have greater power, because the earth then puts strength into them.... The Hebrew letters making up the name of Iyar are thus the initial letters in the verse (Exodus 15:26) Ani YHVH Rofecha, "I, HaVaYaH, am your healer" (Likutey Moharan I, 277). The month of Iyar is thus an appropriate time for healing amidst nature.
The eighteenth day of Iyar, Lag BaOmer (thirty-third day of the Omer count), is the memorial day for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (3rd century C.E.), author of the Zohar. Crown of all the kabbalistic writings, the Zohar contains the keys to the Jewish mystical view of this world and the place of nature within it. In Israel large numbers of people visit Rabbi Shimon's gravesite amidst the hills of the Galilee in Meron, and many camp out for days in the surrounding woods and fields. Throughout the world people celebrate Lag BaOmer by lighting bonfires, joining together for an outdoor kumsitz, and taking hikes and rambles in the countryside.
The festival of Shavuot on the sixth of Sivan commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. When the Torah was given, the mountain burst forth with a carpet of lush verdure. In memory of this, it is customary on Shavuot to decorate the synagogue with flowers and foliage. Thus we surround ourselves with natural beauty as we stand in the synagogue to "receive the Torah" anew each year.
Shavuot is called "the harvest festival" (Exodus 23:15). It falls at the climax of the grain harvesting season in Israel. In the Temple two loaves of the finest leavened wheat bread were presented on Shavuot as a thanksgiving offering. Shavuot is also called the "day of the first-fruits" (Numbers 28:26), and in Temple times it inaugurated the season when farmers would bring their choicest first-fruits of wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, figs, olives and dates to the Temple court-yard. There they would present the fruits to the priest and make a declaration of acknowledgment and thanksgiving to God. The Talmud states that on Shavuot God judges the world for the fruits of the trees, which in Israel mostly ripen in the ensuing summer months.
The ecological significance of the two loaves and first-fruits is obvious. Ecology and agriculture are also prominent themes in the Book of Ruth, which is read in the Synagogue on Shavuot morning. Ruth, the outstanding Moabitess convert to Judaism, was the great grandmother of David, the messianic king. The Book of Ruth begins with famine in the land of Israel and goes on to tell the moving story of Ruth's encounter with Boaz in the course of the grain harvest. Boaz teaches his workers about the mitzvot of gifts to the poor (see Cultivating the Land). Caring for the poor and needy is the very essence of the Torah that was given on Shavuot.
During these hot, arid summer months in Israel much of the spring vegetation dries up. The three weeks from the seventeenth of Tammuz are a period of semi-mourning culminating in the fast of the 9th of Av, Tisha BeAv, commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples.
As discussed throughout this Course, the Temple promotes peace in the world and harmony between man and the natural environment. The destruction of the Temple signifies the driving of the Divine Presence from the world because of human folly and excess, leading to discord in the world and imbalance between man and nature. As we witness the destruction and abuse of the natural environment in the present day through human greed and waste, we would do well to use this period of the year to think carefully about the lessons taught by Jewish history and to contemplate the meaning of the Temple and its importance for the world.
After Tisha BeAv, the mood changes from mourning to one of repair, regeneration and renewal. This is the summer vacation period, and many people take the opportunity to refresh and inspire themselves by touring and hiking in the countryside.
The month of Elul corresponds to the astrological sign of Virgo, the maiden, symbolizing the unspoiled purity of the relationship between God and the Jewish People. The Elul period is one of self-examination and return to God in preparation for the Days of Awe -- Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). With the summer days now beginning to cool, Chassidim endeavor to spend time in the woods and meadows for meditation and prayer.
The month of Tishri corresponds to the astrological sign of Libra, the Scales. The first of Tishri is Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, the day of judgment for the whole world, when "all who come into the world pass before Him like sheep being numbered" (Rosh Hashanah 16a). While much of the emphasis on Rosh Hashanah and the ensuing Ten Days of Repentance is on individual self-correction, a central focus of the Rosh Hashanah prayers is on universal repair and fixing, for the judgment that is made on this day is one that takes in "all who come into the world" -- which means not only all humanity but all other creatures and even the very angels. Our prayers on this day should be not only for ourselves but for the whole world.
The days of awe culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The high point of the Yom Kippur prayers is during the additional Mussaf service, in which we recount step by step the special Yom Kippur service of the High Priest in the Holy Temple, which is replete with mysteries relating to the rectification of all creation. The climax of the service was the high priest's entry into the Holy of Holies. As he left, he would offer a prayer for a year of blessings and goodness. We too should pray on Yom Kippur for a year of blessing and success for ourselves, for the House of Israel, and for the entire world.
Five days after Yom Kippur on the fifteenth of Tishri, the night of the full moon, the seven-day festival of Succot begins. The ecological significance of Succot is more apparent than that of any other festival.
The first major mitzva of the festival is that of dwelling in the Succah (see The Succah and the House). As discussed throughout this Course, the human home is the ultimate in the man-made. It is the homes, houses and buildings that make up our contemporary urban civilization that are the main focus of the human consumption that is presently causing such destruction to the earth environment. The festival of Succot challenges us to think about the real meaning and purpose of a home, which is to serve as a mini-Temple in which the Divine Presence may dwell with us as we go about our lives, sanctifying our consumption through moderation and with blessings of gratitude.
The mitzva of Succah is to take our daily eating, drinking and other activities including our very sleeping out into a temporary structure whose roof may be made of nothing but natural cut branches and leaves, etc. According to the halachah, the roof of the Succah may be made only of materials that are specifically not man-made in any way. Wood and other vegetation that have been turned into even the most primitive kind of utensil or instrument are invalid. The stars should be visible through the Succah roof at night.
The Succah comes to instill in us the trust that what protects us in this life is not the man-made world of tools and trappings we construct around ourselves but rather the divine providence that is with us and cares for us every moment of every day for ever and ever.
The Succah that each Jew builds corresponds to the Sanctuary built in the wilderness. In our Succot we become priests in the Sanctuary, and the blessings and prayers we offer over the festival foods and dainties turn our eating and drinking into the partaking of sacrificial portions.
The foremost ecological theme of Succot is that of the water cycle. Succot is called the "festival of ingathering" (Exodus 23:16), for in Israel, after drying their grapes and figs under the hot summer sun, people would now take them inside their houses before the onset of the rainy season.
Eating our ingathered produce naturally arouses thoughts and worries about how the next year's produce will turn out. In Israel these thoughts center on whether it will be a rainy winter, since agriculture there is totally dependent on rainfall. The Torah tells us that the rainfall depends on man's behavior (Deuteronomy 11:13-14) and teaches us to look trustingly to God, turning our concerns and worries into prayers and acts of service.
The second main mitzva on Succot is thus to take in our hands the Four Kinds -- the Lulav (palm branch), Etrog (citron), Hadassim (myrtle branches) and Aravot (willow branches) and shake them together in the six directions of created space: south, north, east, west, up and down.
Each of the Four Kinds exemplifies dependence on water. The presence of palms in a desert testifies to the presence of an oasis. The Etrog tree is notorious for its need for abundant watering in order to produce good fruits. The fragrant myrtle bush needs plenty of water to grow and stay fresh, while willow leaves dry and shrivel after only the shortest period without water.
The Talmud states that on Succot the world is judged for water (Rosh Hashanah 16a). The mitzva of the Four Kinds is our way of seeking to sweeten the judgment. We wave them in all six directions, manifesting God's power and kingship over every part of creation. Every day of Succot it is customary for the congregants to circuit the Reader's Desk with the four kinds in their hands while reciting special prayers. In the Temple the theme of water was also present in the special daily libation of purest spring-water to the accompaniment of music, singing and dancing -- Simchat Beit Hasho-eva, "the Joy of the Water-Drawing". In our time this is recalled during Succot by singing and dancing in the synagogues and study halls.
The prayers for water become more and more explicit as the festival proceeds. On the seventh day of Succot, Hoshanah Rabbah, the congregants circuit the Reader's Desk seven times with the Four Kinds, after which special prayers alluding to rain and water are recited. Finally the congregants take bundles of willow branches and beat them on the ground. The shape of the willow leaf resembles that of the human lips, alluding to the power of prayer, even that of the weakest and most vulnerable. "Let him put his mouth in the earth, perhaps there is hope" (Lamentations 3:30).
Hoshanah Rabbah is thus followed by Shemini Atzeret, the "Eighth day of Solemn Assembly", conclusion of the Tishri Days of Awe, when we specifically pray for rain.
The onset of rain and colder weather tends to keep people inside their homes. The winter months are a time to work steadily to internalize the many lessons learned during the festival season.
Chanukah, the festival of lights, which starts on the twenty-fifth of Kislev and lasts for eight days, celebrates the victory of the Hasmonean priests over Greek hegemony and culture in the Second Temple period (circa 275 B.C.E.).
The Greek philosophers could not accept that the Creation may contain secrets that lie beyond the capacity of the human intellect to fathom, and they could not tolerate Jewish belief and practice, which are founded on faith alone. Three Jewish practices in particular they tried to obliterate: Shabbat, which testifies to God's creation of the world; Rosh Chodesh, the sign of rebirth and regeneration; and Milah, circumcision, which is a sign of our dedication to God and acceptance of His covenant.
The eight day festival of Chanukah always contains one Shabbat and sometimes two. Rosh Chodesh of the month of Tevet always falls during Chanukah. And a baby boy born on the first day of Chanukah is circumcised on the eighth day of Chanukah.
Chanukah thus testifies to the Torah's victory over skeptics and atheists. The pure light of holy spirituality shines triumphant from the Chanukah lamp which is lit all eight nights of the festival. Starting with one light on the first night, we add an extra light on each successive night until on the last night we end up with eight, symbolizing infinity (for Judaism counts time in base-seven, as "the world was created in seven days", and eight is beyond seven). The Chanukah lamp is positioned either by the doors of our houses or in our windows, to signify that, having drawn down the light of faith in God inside our very homes, we can now shine this faith outwards to all the world.
The Chanukah lights symbolize the negation of the Greek philosophical approach to the world, (which alienates man from creation by separating the knower from that which he knows), and the vindication of the Torah faith in a loving Creator who rules the world with kindness and justice (see Love and Kindness). Only when we cleanse our minds of the influence of false and distorted world-views can we see the world around us for what it is: God's creation.
In Israel most of the winter rains have fallen by the time of the month of Shevat, corresponding to the astrological sign of Aquarius, the Bucket. After their winter sleep, the trees now draw new strength through their roots from the water-soaked earth. The fifteenth of Shevat, Tu Bishvat, is the "New Year of Trees". It is customary to eat many different kinds of fruit and make many blessings on this day, as the words of our blessings give strength and power to the angels appointed over the trees, sending blessing into the produce of the new year. The ecological importance of Tu Bishvat is quite obvious.
Adar is the last month of the year counting from Nissan. If the keynote of Nissan is birth and vitality, that of Adar might be thought to be the opposite. Indeed, Moses our Teacher left the world on the seventh of Adar. Haman, descendant of Esau's atheistic grandson Amalek and the very archetype of Jew-hatred, thought that the month of Adar would be a propitious time to destroy the Jewish People and wipe out all knowledge of God from the world. Haman tried to exterminate the Jews and plotted to have their leader, the tzaddik Mordechai, hanged. But his plans were thwarted by Mordechai's niece, Queen Esther. Haman was hung on his own gallows, while the Jews went on to rebuild the Temple and keep the Torah alive for all generations.
The festival of Purim on the 14th and 15th of Adar celebrates the miraculous fall of Haman, symbolizing the ultimate destruction of Esau, the unholy counterpart of Jacob. Esau is the archetypal glutton, selfishly consuming and destroying the world. The Purim observances signify the opposite of Esau.
The first mitzva of Purim is to hear twice over the story of the miracle as recounted in Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther. It is read publicly in the Synagogue in the evening and the morning. Thus before we even start thinking about eating and drinking to gratify our bodies, we first go to the level of mind and spirit and listen to a story the entire plot of which develops out of banqueting and wine-drinking. Throughout Purim it is a mitzva to give charity to all who ask. Taking one's money and giving it as charity to needy others is the opposite of selfish greed. The theme of consideration and compassion for others is central in the other two main mitzvot of the day: sending portions of cooked food to friends and giving gifts to the poor.
The Purim celebrations culminate with the Purim feast and drinking party on Purim afternoon. Having risen to the level of soul and spirit through the reading of the Megillah, and having sent portions to our friends and gifts to the poor, we are finally ready to eat and drink in holiness. The carnival spirit of Purim causes the supreme sanctity of the Purim feast to remain concealed from many revelers. In fact it is a thanksgiving offering to God for all his miracles and blessings, and it signifies man's triumph over the serpent who tricked Adam into eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We now drink wine and rise to a level that is beyond Daat-knowledge, a level that lies beyond the knowable and cannot be expressed in words: Keter, the Crown.
If Adam's sin was to consume the fruit of the tree of knowledge selfishly, the fixing is to learn to eat, drink and consume in holiness. As humanity learns to do this, balance and harmony will return to the world and the earth will again become a garden in which all will sing the praise of God.
CLICK TREE TO PROCEED TO THE NEXT COURSE SEGMENT
Back to "The House: Jacob" / Course Guide