Yom Tov – Miscellaneous

Question: I am a Christian that feels lost like I am missing something very important.  I need to know my Jewish history, feast dates, etc.  I know God said a lot of the feasts were forever to be observed and I am greatly confused as to why the churches I have been to do not.  However, in attempting to research this and asking questions, I keep getting conflicting info. For instance, the egg was not part of the original passover table but was added later. (I have a problem with the whole egg thing because of “Easter Eggs” and most Christian churches even have egg hunts!)

Therefore, my question is .… is there a source that gives me an ACCURATE accounting of how the original passover and all other feasts were to be celebrated and how do I find it?

Answer: The closest you can get to a description of the original festival observance would come from the Torah — Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy.  However, all of them (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Pesah, Sukkot, and Shavuot) underwent significant development in late Biblical/early Rabbinic times.  No festival exists in a vacuum.  For example — if you were to celebrate Passover in the time of Jesus, it would resemble today’s Seder more than Moses’ Seder.  Which “original” observance do you seek?

As far as a source to look into this, I would recommend a book entitled, “The Jewish Holidays” by Michael Strassfield, which gives a fairly complete history and description of these Festivals and a few others as well.

Question:  What is an “Eruv Tavshillin”?

Answer: An Eiruv Tavshillin allows one to prepare food for Shabbat when it falls immediately after a Yom Tov.  Normally one is only permitted to cook on Yom Tov for the Yom Tov itself — not for any days following Yom Tov.

In order to prepare for a Shabbat which immediately follows Yom Tov, and thus requires us to prepare on Yom Tov, we must have begun preparing for Shabbat before the onset of Yom Tov, and then we may continue the preparations on Yom Tov.  This requires a special beracha and declaration of our intent to set aside foods prepared before Yom Tov for Shabbat, known as making an eiruv tavshillin.

To make an eiruv Tavshillin, prepare at least two kinds of cooked or baked food that you will eat on Shabbat.  Before candlelighting on the first day of the Yom Tov, take portions of this food, set it aside, and recite the following berakha and declaration:

Barukh ata Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al mitzvat eiruv.

The Source of blessing are You, Adonai our God, Eternal Sovereign, who has made us holy with commandments, and commanded us concerning the mitzvah of eiruv.

“By means of this mixture (eiruv) we are permitted to bake, cook, warm, kindle lights, and make all the necessary preparations during the Festival for Shabbat, we and all who live in this place.”

Question:  I would like to know the origin of eating apples with our honey on Rosh Hashanah.  Why not grapes, or oranges, or some other tropical fruit?  When did apples first get used?  Is there a connection to the fact that an apple tree was the tree of knowledge in the garden?

Answer: The farthest back I could trace the custom of eating apples and honey came from Rabbi Jacob Molin (c. 1360-1427), known as the Maharil, who cites the custom of eating an apple dipped in honey as a long-established tradition based on Nehemiah 8:10.  Chapter 8 of Nehemiah is a description of the first Rosh Hashanah celebration in the land of Israel after the return from the Babylonian exile.  In verse 10, Ezra said, “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks . . . “

The Maharil also alludes to a Kabbalistic meaning for apples and honey, connected with the mystical meaning of an apple orchard.  In a well known Talmudic story, study of mysticism is described as “entering an orchard.”  The Maharil does not, however, go into any more detail.

The tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden is never explicitly identified by the Bible or later Jewish tradition with the apple tree, so I see no  connection there.

Question:  My question is for my husband who is president of our congregation.  On the High Holidays, do you think  that a Rabbi, during his sermons, should primarily deliver educational talks or should a Rabbi primarily attempt to spiritually charge/uplift people?

Perhaps a better way to word the question would be:  “Do you think the congregation rather hear sermons that are akin to Jewish Adult Education, or would they rather hear an emotionally-directed uplifting sermon?

What do you think it is appropriate for people to hear on the High Holidays?

Answer: I am hesitating to answer your question, because I am concerned about the motivation behind it.  Given that your husband, the synagogue president, is asking the question, I have to ask myself:  Is my answer going to be used to attack your rabbi’s choice of topics?  Each rabbi is “mara d’atra,” the rabbinic authority, in his or her community.  I generally do not mess around in the internal politics of the relationship between a rabbi and his/her congregation.  I think about this often when I answer questions on “AskaRabbi.”  I don’t want my words to be used as ammunition against one of my colleagues.

That said, I will answer your question, first by giving you a few years of High Holiday sermon topics:


RH – 1st day:  I used the story of Hannah in the Haftarah to speak about the problem of infertility in the Jewish community, and how to be sensitive when speaking to couples without children.

RH – 2nd day:  I spoke about the religious voice in politics, specifically, outlining the Jewish view on abortion and how we should keep this issue, among others, in mind when going to the polls.

YK – Kol Nidre:  I spoke about basic behavioral values in Conservative Judaism, and proposed a “mitzvah pledge” akin to the Kol Nidre financial pledge that we make to the synagogue.

YK – day:  I spoke about and critiqued an article in Commentary questioning how the organized Jewish community is spending its money on outreach, and suggesting we pay more attention to the already active, rather than the potentially active.


RH – 1st day:  I spoke about a midrash comparing the shofar to the voice of a woman, and talked about how we need to more agressively include women’s voices in our prayers – especially to consider adding the names of the matriarchs, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah to the first beracha of the Amidah.

RH – 2nd day:  I spoke about appropriate experiences for children, using the “binding of Isaac” as a religious experience he was ill-equipped to handle; and used this theme to launch a junior congregation program for Shabbat mornings.

YK – Kol Nidre:  I spoke about Michael Lerner’s book, “Jewish Renewal,” and his suggestions to strengthen the fabric of Jewish community.  I concluded with a call for strenthening and expanding the “kesher” committee, which provides various services to members in need.

YK – day – I spoke about rabbinic Judaism and the role of the Talmud in shaping our traditions, calling for renewed study of Talmud as a fundamental text of our tradition.


RH – 1st day:  Prayer and minyan.  My thoughts on language and style of prayer.

RH – 2nd day:  ethical wills

YK – Kol Nidre:  creation of community – havurot.

YK – day:  grieving and memory

Scanning the list, you can see that some are more educationally bent, and some try to create an emotional mood.

I choose my topics based on my perception of the needs of my community; current events which I thought needed addressing; or an interesting book or article that I thought spoke to important issues of being Jewish in today’s world.

A sermon can be both educational and spiritually inspiring at the same time.  I will not choose between the two because it is my goal to do both.  I do not always succeed, but I can always try.  Some sermons begin with a strong educational theme, and from that I try to move into a more emotional charge.  Others begin with an emotional message, and from that I try to add an educational component.  I do not consciously try to do one versus the other.

I hope my answer has given you some insight into my mind.  I close with a suggestion that if there is something that disturbs you about your rabbi’s choice of topics, please talk to him directly.  I have found that direct, focused, and CONSTRUCTIVE feedback about my topics has helped me a great deal.

Question:  Shalom! I am a Colombian Jew; my grandfather from my mom’s side used to do “Kaparah,” I believe around Yom Kippur.  He used to use a hen and spun it around my head while saying a special prayer. I  need more information about it, PLEASE!  I am not sure of the spelling of the word Kaparah; I believe that’s why I can not find any information about this topic; PLEASE help me as soon as you can.

Answer: The tradition of swinging a hen (for women) or a rooster (for men) over the head, known as Kaparot (singular, kaparah), is a folk custom based on the idea of doing repentence through sacrifice.  The prayer (whose exact wording I cannot reproduce here) speaks of crying out to God for atonement, and using the hen (or rooster) as an exchange for the person’s sin.  The custom is to slaughter the chicken after circling it over the head, and give it (or its monetary equivalent) to the poor.

Question:  I’m interested to find out why the Torah portion for the Sabbath during Sukkot is the one that it is.  Thank you!

Answer: I wish that I could give you a more interesting answer, but the simple answer is that we read Exodus 33:12  – 34:26 on Shabbat Hol Hamoed Sukkot because of the summary of the three pilgrimage festivals, including Sukkot, at the end of the reading.

Question: How many fast days are there in the Jewish calendar?

Answer: There are six public fast days in the Jewish calendar.  The most significant one is Yom Kippur.

Four of them are related to the seige and destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem:

Asara (the 10th of) b’Tevet – beginning of the siege against Jerusalem.

Shiva Asar (the 17th of) b’Tammuz – breaching of the walls of Jerusalem.

Tisha (the 9th of) b’Av – destruction of the Temples.

Tzom Gedalia (the day after Rosh Hashanah) – in memory of the assassination of the last Jewish governor of Judea in late 1st Temple times.

Two are related to other specific historical events:

Ta’anit Esther (The day before Purim) – in memory of Esther’s fast before going before the King.

Ta’anit B’chorim (The fast of the first born the day before Pesah) – in memory of the first born children killed by the 10th plague.

Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av are major (25 hour) fasts.  The others are minor fasts, from sunrise to dark.

Question:  I need some information on the fast holiday of the 10th of Tevet.

Answer: Asarah b’Tevet (the tenth of the month of Tevet) is a minor fast day commemorating the beginning of the Babylonian seige of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., which culminated with the destruction of the Temple on Tisha b’Av, the ninth of Av.

Minor fast days are observed from sunrise to sundown by fasting.  Special prayers and a Torah reading are also added to the regular daily services.  Unlike the major fast days of Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av, working and bathing are permitted.

If you have questions about other aspects of the Jewish calendar, do not hesitate to contact me.

Question:  How is an American supposed to celebrate Tu Bishvat?

Answer: There is not very much required ritual for either an American or an Israeli to celebrate Tu Bishvat.  However, the medieval kabbalists developed a special Tu Bishvat Seder, modeled after the Pesah Seder.  You can find good information about this in the chapter on Tu Bishvat in Rabbi Michael Strassfeld’s “The Jewish Holidays.”

Question:  What are the four Shabbatot and when do they occur?

Answer: There are four special Shabbatot that fall just before or after the holiday of Purim:

(1) Shabbat Shekalim falls on the Shabbat of or just prior to Rosh Hodesh Adar (or Adar II, in a leap year).  Every male Israelite 20 years and older was taxed 1/2 shekel, due by the first of Nisan, for maintainance of the Temple.  The maftir of Shabbat Shekalim is a reminder of this tax, one month before it is due.

(2) Shabbat Zakhor falls on the Shabbat prior to Purim.  The maftir tells of the command to remember (Z’khor) Amalek, and is read because Haman was a descendant of the Amalekites through his father, Agag, king of the Amalekites in the time of Saul.

(3) Shabbat Parah falls on the Shabbat before Shabbat Hahodesh.  We read of the rituals of purification using the red heifer (para adumah), because all Israelites coming to the Temple to eat the Pesah offering were required to be in a state of ritual purity.

(4) Shabbat Hahodesh falls on the Shabbat of or just prior to Rosh Hodesh Nisan, and describes the preparations for Pesah, beginning with the first of Nisan.

Shabbat Hagadol is the Shabbat just prior to Pesah.  It is not one of the special Shabbatot listed above, because it doesn’t have a special maftir Torah reading.  It is called Shabbat hagadol (great) because the rabbi used to give an especially long sermon, explaining the halakha of Pesah.

Question: As a non-Jew I would like to extend best wishes to my Jewish friends and relatives using the correct terminology for the various holidays – Pesah, Rosh Hashanah, etc.

Answer:  For Pesah, Sukkot, and Shavuot, the greeting is Hag sameah or Good Yontif, which means, “a good or happy festival.”

For Rosh Hashanah, either of the above greetings are appropriate, as well as shana tova or l’shanah tova tikateivu v’teihateimu, meaning “a good year” or “may you be written and sealed for a good year.”

For Yom Kippur, g’mar hatima tova, “may you be written and sealed for good.”