This part of the Jewish Guide describes some of the holidays that are significant in Judaism, although there are over 20 (major and minor). All Jewish holidays begin before the date on most calendars. This is because according to Judaism, a day begins and ends at sunset, not at midnight.
This holiday is celebrated for seven to eight days and commemorates the exodus from Egypt. A seder is performed for the first two nights of the holiday. It is a ritual feast that marks the beginning of Passover. Bread and grain products are avoided in remembrance of the ancestors that left Egypt. They left in such a hurry; they didn't have time to wait for their bread to rise.
Strictly observant Jews do not work, go to school or engage in any type of business during the first or last day of the holiday.
1. On all nights we need not dip even once, and on this night we dip twice!
2. On all nights we eat leavened bread or matzah, and on this night, only matzah!
3. On all nights we eat various vegetables, and on this night, bitter herbs!
4. On all nights we eat sitting upright or reclining, and on this night we all recline!
Focus on Questions
Questions are essential to the Seder. They must therefore be asked even when no child is present. For example, even at a Seder attended only by two Torah scholars proficient in the laws of Passover, one scholar must ask the other. One who is alone asks the questions to himself. (Talmud, Pesachim 116a) What is the point of asking oneself the questions? The mitzvahtonight is to tell the story to another person. By asking yourself the questions, you become the “other” to whom you will relate the story. Role-playing in this manner helps a person absorb the information with greater clarity and profundity. (The Rebbe)
Once the children have asked the questions, the leader does not have to repeat them. (Maharil; Shulchan Aruch HaRav) Nevertheless, the rebbes of Chabad, after hearing the children and grandchildren ask the questions, would then recite the questions themselves in an undertone.
This custom coincides with the opinion of Rambam, who maintains that the Seder leader recites the four questions. It is now the universal Chabad practice for everyone to recite the four questions after the children ask the questions. (The Rebbe)
After a Father’s Passing
It was the custom of the Chabad rebbes to preface their recitation of the four questions with the words, “Father, I will ask you the Four Questions.” They did so even long after the passing of their fathers,3 and this is now the standard Chabad custom.
Moses said to Joshua: “This nation that I am entrusting you with, they are still young goats, they are still children. Do not be irritated with them for what they do, for their Master too was not irritated with them for what they did.” As it is written, “When Israel was a youth, I loved him; from Egypt I summoned My son.” When Israel rebelled against G-d at the Sea of Reeds, the angels said to G-d: “They are rebelling and provoking, yet You are silent?!” G-d said to the angels: “They are children. And one does not get irritated with children. Just as a child emerges soiled from the womb and is then washed, so too Israel: ‘I washed your blood from upon you. I anointed you with oil and dressed you in embroidered garments . . .’” (Ezekiel 16:9–10) —Yalkut Shimoni
Like the Love for a Child
It was handed down in the name of the Baal Shem Tov that there are two versions to the introduction to the Four Questions:
1. “Father, I want to ask of you four questions”;
2. “Father, I will ask of you four questions.”
Each version, however, begins in an identical manner—“Father.” This refers to our Father in Heaven, to whom all of Israel ask the Four Questions. (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch)
The child’s asking stimulates G-d’s love for us, like the love of parents for their young child, as in the verse (Hosea 11:1)regarding the time of the Exodus: “For Israel is a youth, [therefore] I love him . . .” The Torah in several instances describes us as being G-d’s children. The above verse, however, emphasizes that G-d’s love for us is like a parent’s love for a young child.
Parents love their children because the parent and child are of one essence. But this love is most felt for young children. As children mature, the parents begin to love them for their accomplishments and qualities as well, for their wisdom, good character, or the honor and care they show to their parents. This latter love obscures to some extent the innate, unconditional parental love.
The love for a young child, by contrast, who is not yet wise, or good, or helpful, is pure parental love, the unconditional love of two beings that are of one essence. The love for the young child is therefore stronger and more evident, since it is not obscured by a conditional love. Similarly, when we speak of G-d’s love for us in the way a parent loves a young child, we refer to this essential, unconditional love born of our inherent bond with G-d.
When we become “mature” and self-aware because of our wisdom and accomplishments, we obscure our essential oneness with G-d with our sense of self and separateness. But when we humble ourselves like a small child before G-d, when we see our wisdom and accomplishments as an extension of our service of G-d, the oneness is restored: we rediscover our youth and the special divine attention that comes with it. (The Rebbe)
We do not ask about the Four Cups, because drinking them is not a biblical requirement, nor does it involve any biblical requirement—it is entirely rabbinic in origin. Reclining and dipping, by contrast, although not biblical requirements per se, are connected to biblical requirements: reclining is done while fulfilling the biblical mitzvah of matzah; and dipping, at least the second one, involves the bitter herbs, likewise a biblical mitzvah in Temple times. (Maharal)
On this night we dip twice. Although we also dip the bitter herbs in charoset paste when eating the korech “sandwich,” we do not consider this a separate dipping from the bitter herbs dipping, since korech is performed only out of doubt as to how bitter herbs should be eaten. (Taz)
On this night, bitter herbs. We do not say “on this night, only bitter herbs” as we say of the matzah, since we eat other vegetables during the first dipping. (Tosafot)
On this night we all recline. This question appears neither in the Mishnah’s version of the questions, nor in that of the Talmud. Some have suggested that it was added at a later time, when people stopped reclining all year round. (The Vilna Gaon)
Development of the Four Questions
We find many different versions of the Four Questions in the various manuscripts of the Talmud—not only in the order of the questions, but in the number as well. Some versions, for example, omit the question about bitter herbs; others omit the question about the Paschal lamb, even in Temple times.
The above would seem to indicate that initially there were various acceptable versions, or perhaps no fixed version at all. This was because, according to Jewish law, one need not ask all the questions.
As the Talmud relates, when Abbaye as a child saw the table being removed from before Rabbah, he exclaimed: “We haven’t eaten yet—and they come and remove the table from before us?!” Rabbah turned to the child and said: “You have exempted us from having to say the four questions.”
At some point, however, the sages consolidated the various customs and instituted a universal practice of reciting all the questions, so that all of Israel would follow the same custom.
Another example of this sort of development is the way we blow the shofar:
The requirement is to blow a wailing sound, called a teruah, preceded and followed by a simple blast, called a tekiah. According to Rav Hai Gaon, for many centuries the definition of the “wailing” teruah remained unfixed, with various communities performing it in their own way. Some Jewish communities performed it as heavy groans. For others, it was very short “cries,” and yet other communities performed it as a combination of both.
In Talmudic times, the sages sought to unify all of Israel with a universal custom. They therefore instituted that all Jews blow the shofar in a manner that included all three customs. (The Rebbe’s Haggadah)
Sitting vs. Reclining
Chassidic teachings differentiate between two levels of loyalty and devotion to G-d: an imposed devotion and an innate devotion. The first kind is experienced by those who are filled with an awareness of “self,” a feeling of being independent from G-d and outside of Him. Yet, through study and contemplation, they come to the recognition that it is logical and good to devote themselves to their Creator, who is infinite. They therefore overcome the “self” and devote themselves to G-d. But the independent “self” remains intact; it is merely suppressed. (This is called bittul hayesh, and is associated with the lower three worlds, beriah, yetzirah and asiyah.)
A higher level of devotion, usually associated with the saintly, is an existential and innate devotion, one in which there is no “self ” that needs to be overcome. Such a person is not susceptible at all to sin. (This is called bittul b’metziut and is associated with the highest world, atzilut, which is entirely permeated with divine awareness.)
Sitting and reclining are manifestations of these two levels of devotion:
• Sitting: Imposed Devotion (beriah, yetzirah, asiyah).
• Reclining: Innate Devotion (atzilut).
When we sit down, our heads are brought to a lower position. This symbolizes a partial bowing to the divine, since the head is not completely lowered. But when we recline, our heads are nearly if not completely lowered. This symbolizes an absolute and innate “bowing” to the divine.
Tonight we all recline: Tonight, because of the intensity of the divine revelation that occurred on this night, and which reverberates each year, kulanu mesubin, we all recline—we are all imbued with an innate devotion to the divine. This fleeting revelation that overwhelms us on Passover gives us a jolt, a jump-start for the work of refining the “self” during the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot. (The Rebbe)
Of all the rituals addressed by the child, dipping seems to be least important. Unlike matzah and bitter herbs, it is not a biblical or rabbinic mitzvah; and unlike reclining, it does not express a central theme of the holiday.
How striking, then, that the first of the four questions addresses neither the first ritual the child encounters—reclining while drinking the kiddush wine—nor the more essential rituals of the night, but a custom! The haggadah thereby addresses a misconception regarding the place of custom in Judaism. Some consider customs to be nonessential, a “luxury.” They recognize the need to make sacrifices for fulfilling G-d’s commandments, but they would not do the same for “mere” customs. In regards to educating children, they argue, we ought to compromise on the customs so as to better focus on the primary obligations.
The Four Questions tell us otherwise. What is the first thing that the child asks about? What grabs his or her attention and makes the deepest impression? Jewish customs. Not only are they not expendable, they are central. For the customs have the unique capacity to sensitize a child to the sanctity of Torah and G-d’s commandments. The customs give our children a strong Jewish identity and the sense that they are part of a nation chosen by G-d to be beacons of goodness and holiness in this world. (The Rebbe)
Questioning is essential to acquiring wisdom. Without critical analysis, one’s wisdom is incomplete. On the other hand, the quality of faith and simplicity precludes questioning, as in the verse (Deut. 18:13), “You shall be wholehearted with G-d.”
Intellectualization and simplicity are two mutually exclusive traits that cannot possibly coexist. Our sages therefore instituted questions within the realm of holiness. These have the mystical effect of refining the phenomenon of “questions,” enabling us to maintain simplicity even while engaged in intellectual endeavor. (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch)
This order of the questions— (1) dipping, (2) matzah, (3) bitter herbs, (4) reclining—is the order found in the version of the Mishnah as it appears in the Jerusalem Talmud, Alfasi and Rosh (though the last two questions do not appear there). This is also the order found in the siddurim of Rav Amram Gaon and Rav Saadiah Gaon, Rambam, Tur, Avudraham (by implication, since his commentary addresses the question about dipping before the others), Abarbanel, Pri Etz Chaim, siddur of the Arizal, Mishnat Chasidim, and others. It is also the order found in the first printed haggadah (Soncino, 1485).
It also follows the order of the night, where dipping (of the karpas, at least) precedes the eating of matzah, which is followed by bitter herbs. The question about reclining comes last, since it was added long after the first three questions were composed. (The Rebbe’s Haggadah)
From a mystical perspective, the order of the questions follows the order of the spiritual worlds, from the lowest to the loftiest, as follows (Pri Etz Chaim):
• Dipping: Asiyah—World of Actuality
• Matzah: Yetzirah—World of Formation
• Bitter herbs: Beriah—World of Creation
• Reclining: Atzilut—World of Emanation
Father, I will ask you four questions:
Ma nishtana halai-lö ha-ze mikol halay-los?
What makes Passover night different from all nights of the year?
The first question is:
Sheb’chöl halay-los ayn önu matbilin afilu pa-am echös, halai-lö ha-ze sh’tay f’ömim. On all nights of the year we do not [need to] dip even once, but on Passover night we dip twice! The first time, we dip karpas in salt water, and the second time, bitter herbs in charoset paste.
The second question is:
Sheb’chöl halay-los önu och’lin chömaytz o matzö, halai-lö ha-ze kulo matzö. On all nights of the year we eat chametz or matzah, but on Passover night we eat only matzah!
The third question is:
Sheb’chöl halay-los önu och’lin sh’ör y’rökos, halai-lö ha-ze möror. On all nights of the year we eat various vegetables, but on Passover night we eat bitter vegetables!
The fourth question is:
Sheb’chöl halay-los önu och’lin bayn yosh’vin uvayn m’subin, halai-lö ha-ze kulönu m’subin. On all nights of the year we eat either sitting upright or reclining, but on Passover night we all eat while reclining!
(Father, I have asked you four questions, now please give me an answer.)
This holiday is the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah lasts from one to two days. It's a joyous, festive holiday in which many Jews attend synagogue and have jovial gatherings with relatives. Similar to the American New Year, most Jews look back at the previous year and make resolutions for the upcoming one.
What Is Rosh Hashanah?
The Jewish New Year, anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, a day of judgment and coronation, and sounding of the shofar . . .
What: It is the birthday of the universe, the day G-d created Adam and Eve, and it’s celebrated as the head of the Jewish year.
When: The first two days of the Jewish new year, Tishrei 1 and 2, beginning at sundown on the eve of Tishrei . Rosh Hashanah 2017 begins at sundown on September 20 and continues through nightfall on September 22 (see more details here).
How: Candle lighting in the evenings, festive meals with sweet delicacies during the night and day, prayer services that include the sounding of the ram’s horn(shofar) on both mornings, and desisting from creative work. See our calendar for details.
Why Rosh Hashanah Is Important
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah actually means “Head of the Year.” Just like the head controls the body, our actions on Rosh Hashanah have a tremendous impact on the rest of the year.
As we read in the Rosh Hashanah prayers, each year on this day “all inhabitants of the world pass before G-d like a flock of sheep,” and it is decreed in the heavenly court “who shall live, and who shall die ... who shall be impoverished and who shall be enriched; who shall fall and who shall rise.”
It is a day of prayer, a time to ask the Almighty to grant us a year of peace, prosperity and blessing. But it is also a joyous day when we proclaim G-d King of the Universe. The Kabbalists teach that the continued existence of the universe depends on G-d’s desire for a world, a desire that is renewed when we accept His kingship anew each year on Rosh Hashanah.
What’s It Called?
● The most common name for this holiday is Rosh Hashanah, the name used in the eponymous tractate of Talmud devoted to the holiday.
● The Torah refers to this day as Yom Teruah (Day of Shofar Blowing).
● In our prayers, we often call it Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance) and Yom Hadin (Day of Judgement) since this is the day when G-d recalls all of His creations and determines their fate for the year ahead.
● Together with Yom Kippur (which follows 10 days later), it is part of the Yamim Nora'im (Days of Awe, or: High Holidays).
First Priority: Hear the Shofar
The central observance of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, on both days of the holiday (except if the first day is Shabbat, in which case we blow the shofar only on the second day).
The first 30 blasts of the shofar are blown following the Torah readinG-during morning services, and as many as 70 additional are blown during (and immediately after) the Musaf service, adding up to 100 blasts over the course of the Rosh Hashanah morning services (some communities sound another round of 30 blasts after services as well). For someone who cannot come to synagogue, the shofar may be heard the rest of the day. If you cannot make it out of your home, please contact your closest Chabad center to see about arranging a “house call.”
The shofar blowing contains a series of three types of blasts: tekiah, a long sob-like blast; shevarim, a series of three short wails; and teruah, at least nine piercing staccato bursts.
The blowing of the shofar represents the trumpet blast that is sounded at a king’s coronation. Its plaintive cry also serves as a call to repentance. The shofar itself recalls the Binding of Isaac, an event that occurred on Rosh Hashanah in which a ram took Isaac’s place as an offering to G-d.
Other Rosh Hashanah Observances
Greetings : On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, wish a male, “Leshanah tovah tikatev vetichatem;” for a female say,“Leshanah tovah tikatevee vetichatemee” (“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year”). At other times, wish them a “Gemar chatimah tovah” (“A good inscription and sealing [in the Book of Life]”). (More on the Rosh Hashanah greetings here.)
Candles : As with every major Jewish holiday, women and girls light candles on each evening of Rosh Hashanah and recite the appropriate blessings. On the second night, make sure to use an existing flame and think about a new fruit that you will be eating (or garment that you are wearing) while you say the Shehechiyanublessing. Click here for candle lighting times in your area and here for the blessings.
Tashlich : On the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah (provided that it is not Shabbat), it is customary to go to a body of water (ocean, river, pond, etc.) and perform the Tashlich ceremony, in which we ceremonially cast our sins into the water. With this tradition we are symbolically evoking the verse, “And You shall cast their sins into the depths of the sea.” The short prayer for this service can be found in your machzor.
Rosh Hashanah Prayers
Much of the day is spent in synagogue, where we pray that G-d grant all of His creations a sweet new year. The evening and afternoon prayers are similar to the prayers said on a regular holiday. However, the morning services are significantly longer.
The holiday prayerbook—called a machzor—contains all the prayers and Torah readings for the entire day. The most significant addition is the shofar blowing ceremony. However, there are also other important elements of the prayer service that are unique to Rosh Hashanah.
The Torah is read on both mornings of Rosh Hashanah.
On the first day, we read about Isaac’s birth and the subsequent banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. Appropriately, the reading is followed by a haftarah reading about the birth of Samuel the Prophet. Both readings contain the theme of prayers for children being answered, and both of these births took place on Rosh Hashanah.
On the second morning, we read about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. As mentioned above, the shofar blowing recalls the ram, which figures prominently in this story as a powerful display of Abraham’s devotion to G-d that has characterized His children ever since. The haftarah tells of G-d’s eternal love for His people.
The cantor’s repetition of the Amidah (Silent Prayer) is peppered with piyyutim, poetic prayers that express our prayerful wishes for the year and other themes of the day. For certain selections, those deemed especially powerful, the ark is opened. Many of these additions are meant to be said responsively, as a joint effort between the prayer leader and the congregation.
Even without the added piyyutim, the Rosh Hashanah Musaf prayer is significantly longer than it is the rest of the year. This is because its single middle blessing is divided into three additional blessings, each focusing on another one of the holiday’s main themes: G-d’s kingship, our wish that He “remember” us for the good, and the shofar. Each blessing contains a collage of Biblical verses that express its theme, and is then followed by a round of shofar blowing.
Rosh Hashanah Feasts
We eat festive meals every night and day of the holiday. Like all other holiday meals, we begin by reciting kiddush over wine and then say the blessing over bread. But there are some important differences:
a. The bread (traditionally baked into round challah loaves, and often sprinkled with raisins) is dipped into honey instead of salt, expressing our wish for a sweet year. We do this on Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah(the Shabbat before Yom Kippur), in the pre-Yom Kippur meal and during Sukkot.
b. Furthering the sweet theme, it is traditional to begin the meal on the first night with slices of apple dipped in honey. Before eating the apple, we make the ha’eitz blessing and then say, “May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year.”
c. Many people eat parts of the head of a fish or a ram, expressing the wish that “we be a head and not a tail.”
d. In many communities, there are additional traditional foods eaten, each symbolizing a wish for the coming year. Many eat pomegranates, giving voice to a wish that “our merits be many like the [seeds of the] pomegranate.” Another common food is tzimmes, a sweet carrot-based dish eaten because of its Yiddishname, merren, which means both “carrot” and “increase,” symbolizing a wish for a year of abundance.
e. It is traditional to avoid nuts (here’s why) as well as vinegar-based, sharp foods, most notably the horseradish traditionally eaten with gefilte fish, since we don’t want a bitter year.
f. On the second night of the holiday, we do not eat the apples, fish heads, pomegranates, etc. However, before we break bread (and dip it in honey), we eat a “new fruit,” something we have not tasted since the last time it was in season.
Rosh Hashanah is the start of the Yamim Nora’im (High Holidays). The holy day of Yom Kippur when we gather in synagogue for 25 hours of fasting, prayer and inspiration, is just a week later. The days in between (known as the 10 Days of Repentance, or the Ten Days of Return) are an especially propitious time for teshuvah, returning to G-d. Yom Kippur is followed by the joyous holidays of Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
The season of the High Holidays is a time for an epic journey for the soul, and Rosh Hashanah is where it all begins.
More Heads of the Year
Although this is the most famous Rosh Hashanah, the Mishnahactually lists four heads of the year. One is 1 Nissan, in the springtime month when we left egypt, and another is 15 Shevat, the New Year for Trees. And just to make things exciting, chassidic tradition celebrates 19 Kislev as the New Year for Chassidism.
No work or school is permitted on Rosh Hashanah.
Yom Kippur is the day of Atonement. It's a day of fasting and repenting for the sins or mistakes that were made in the previous year. It usually falls in late September or early October.
Most Jews take off from work or school on this day. Yom Kippur is the busiest day of the year for synagogues as this is the way most individuals observe this day.
Strictly observant Jews do not work, go to school or engage in any type of business activity on this day.
Yom Kippur In Brief
What: Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, when we are closest to G-d and to the essence of our souls. Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” as the verse states, “For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before G-d.”
When: The 10th day of Tishrei (in 2017, from several minutes before sunset on Sept 29 until after nightfall on September 30), coming on the heels of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year, which is on the first and second days of Tishrei).
How: For nearly 26 hours we “afflict our souls”: we abstain from food and drink, do not wash or apply lotions or creams, do not wear leather footwear, and abstain from marital relations. Instead, we spend the day in synagogue, praying for forgiveness.
History of Yom Kippur
Just months after the people of Israel left Egypt in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE), they sinned by worshipping a golden calf. Moses ascended Mount Sinai and prayed to G-d to forgive them. After two 40-day stints on the mountain, full Divine favor was obtained. The day Moses came down the mountain (the 10th of Tishrei) was to be known forevermore as the Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur.
That year, the people built the Tabernacle, a portable home for G-d. The Tabernacle was a center for prayers and sacrificial offerings. The service in the Tabernacle climaxed on Yom Kippur, when the High Priest would perform a specially prescribed service. Highlights of this service included offering incense in the Holy of Holies (where the ark was housed) and the lottery with two goats—one of which was brought as a sacrifice, the other being sent out to the wilderness (Azazel).
While the High Priest generally wore ornate golden clothing, on Yom Kippur, he would immerse in a mikvah and don plain white garments to perform this service.
This practice continued for hundreds of years, throughout the time of the first Temple in Jerusalem, which was built by Solomon, and the second Temple, which was built by Ezra. Jews from all over would gather in the Temple to experience the sacred sight of the High Priest performing his service, obtaining forgiveness for all of Israel.
When the second Temple was destroyed in the year 3830 from creation (70 CE), the Yom Kippur service continued. Instead of a High Priest bringing the sacrifices in Jerusalem, every single Jew performs the Yom Kippur service in the temple of his or her heart.
What to Do Before Yom Kippur
Forty days before Yom Kippur, on the first of Elul, we begin blowing the shofar every morning and reciting Psalm 27 after the morning and afternoon prayers. In Sepharadic communities, it is customary to begin saying Selichot early every morning (Ashkenazim begin just a few days before Rosh Hashanah)—building an atmosphere of reverence, repentance and awe leading up to Yom Kippur.
For the week before Yom Kippur (known as the 10 Days of Repentance), special additions are made to prayers, and people are particularly careful with their mitzvah observance.
Just as Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, the day before Yom Kippur is set aside for eating and preparing for this holy day. Here are some of the activities that we do on the day before Yom Kippur:
• Kaparot is often performed in the wee hours of this morning
• There is a beautiful custom to request and receive a piece of honey cake, so that if, G-d forbid, it was decreed that we need be recipients, it be fulfilled by requesting honey cake and being blessed with a sweet year
• We eat two festive meals, one in early afternoon and another right before the commencement of the fast.
• Many have the custom to immerse in a mikvah on this day.
• Extra charity is given. In fact, special charity trays are set up at the synagogue before the afternoon service, which contains the Yom Kippur Al Cheit prayer.
• Just before the fast begins (after the second meal has been concluded), it is customary to bless the children with the Priestly Blessing.
• Holiday candles are lit before the onset of the holy day.
How Yom Kippur Is Observed
Like Shabbat, no work is to be done on Yom Kippur, from the time the sun sets on the ninth of Tishrei until the stars come out in the evening of the next day.
On Yom Kippur, we afflict ourselves by avoiding the following five actions:
• Eating or drinking (in case of need, and consult a medical professional and a rabbi)
• Wearing leather shoes
• Applying lotions or creams
• Washing or bathing
• Engaging in conjugal relations
The day is spent in the synagogue, where we hold five prayer services:
• Maariv, with its solemn Kol Nidrei service, on the eve of Yom Kippur;
• Shacharit, the morning prayer, which includes a reading from Leviticus followed by the Yizkor memorial service;
• Musaf, which includes a detailed account of the Yom Kippur Temple service;
• Minchah, which includes the reading of the Book of Jonah;
• Neilah, the “closing of the gates” service at sunset, followed by the shofar blast marking the end of the fast.
• Beyond specific actions, Yom Kippur is dedicated to introspection, prayer and asking G-d for forgiveness. Even during the breaks between services, it is appropriate to recite Psalms at every available moment.
What We Do After Yom Kippur
• After night has fallen, the closing Neilah service ends with the resounding cries of the Shema prayer: “Hear O Israel: G-d is our Lord, G-d is one.” Then the congregants erupt in joyous song and dance (a Chabad custom is to sing the lively “Napoleon’s March”), after which a single blast is blown on the shofar, followed by the proclamation, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
• We then partake of a festive after-fast meal, making the evening after Yom Kippur a yom tov (festival) in its own right.
• Indeed, although Yom Kippur is the most solemn day of the year, it is suffused with an undercurrent of joy; it is the joy of being immersed in the spirituality of the day and expresses confidence that G-d will accept our repentance, forgive our sins, and seal our verdict for a year of life, health and happiness.
• There is a custom that after Yom Kippur, we immediately begin (planning) construction of the sukkah, which we will use for the joyous holiday of Sukkot, which follows in just five days.
Chanukah or Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights in Judaism. The holiday lasts for eight days and eight nights and usually falls between late November to the middle of December.
It commemorates the redirection of the Temple in Jerusalem after a successful victory against Greek armies in 165BCE. As part of the redirection, the victorious Jews needed to light the temple's menorah or candelabrum, but they only had enough oil to last one day and it would take eight days to prepare more oil. Incredibly, the one-day supply of the oil lasted for eight days. Thus, Chanukah is observed for eight days and nights celebrating the miracle of the oil.
Unlike other holidays mentioned in the Jewish Guide, work, school and business activities are permitted during this Chanukah.
The Story of Chanukah
Under Syrian Rule
More than 2000 years ago there was a time when the land of Israel was part of the Syrian-Greek Empire, dominated by Syrian rulers of the dynasty of the Seleucids.
In order to relate the story that led up to Chanukah, we shall start with Antiochus III, the King of Syria, who reigned from 3538 to 3574 (222-186 B.C.E.). He had waged war with King Ptolemy of Egypt over the possession of the Land of Israel. Antiochus III was victorious and the Land of Israel was annexed to his empire. At the beginning of his reign he was favorably disposed toward the Jews and accorded them some privileges. Later on, however, when he was beaten by the Romans and compelled to pay heavy taxes, the burden fell upon the various peoples of his empire who were forced to furnish the heavy gold that was required of him by the Romans. When Antiochus died, his son Seleucus IV took over, and further oppressed the Jews.
Added to the troubles from the outside were the grave perils that threatened Judaism from within. The influence of the Hellenists (people who accepted idol-worship and the Syrian way of life) was increasing. Yochanan, the High Priest, foresaw the danger to Judaism from the penetration of Syrian-Greek influence into the Holy Land. For, in contrast to the ideal of outward beauty held by the Greeks and Syrians, Judaism emphasizes truth and moral purity, as commanded by G-d in the holy Torah. The Jewish people could never give up their faith in G-d and accept the idol-worship of the Syrians.
Yochanan was therefore opposed to any attempt on the part of the Jewish Hellenists to introduce Greek and Syrian customs into the land. The Hellenists hated him. One of them told the King’s commissioner that in the treasury of the Temple there was a great deal of wealth.
The wealth in the treasury consisted of the contributions of "half a shekel" made by all adult Jews annually. That was given for the purpose of the sacrifices on the altar, as well as for fixing and improving the Temple building. Another part of the treasury consisted of orphans’ funds which were deposited for them until they became of age. Seleucus needed money in order to pay the Romans. He sent his minister Helyodros to take the money from the treasury of the Temple. In vain did Yochanan, the High Priest, beg him not to do it. Helyodros did not listen and entered the gate of the Temple. But suddenly, he became pale with fright. The next moment he fainted and fell to the ground. After Helyodros came to, he did not dare enter again.
The Madman : Antiochus
A short time later, Seleucus was killed and his brother Antiochus IV began to reign over Syria (in 3586 - 174 B.C.E.). He was a tyrant of a rash and impetuous nature, contemptuous of religion and of the feelings of others. He was called "Epiphanes," meaning "the gods’ beloved." Several of the Syrian rulers received similar titles. But a historian of his time, Polebius, gave him the epithet Epimanes ("madman"), a title more suitable to the character of this harsh and cruel king.
Desiring to unify his kingdom through the medium of a common religion and culture, Antiochus tried to root out the individualism of the Jews by suppressing all the Jewish Laws. He removed the righteous High Priest, Yochanan, from the Temple in Jerusalem, and in his place installed Yochanan’s brother Joshua, who loved to call himself by the Greek name of Jason. For he was a member of the Hellenist party, and he used his high office to spread more and more of the Greek customs among the priesthood.
Joshua or Jason was later replaced by another man, Menelaus, who had promised the king that he would bring in more money than Jason did. When Yochanan, the former High Priest, protested against the spread of the Hellenists’ influence in the Holy Temple, the ruling High Priest hired murderers to assassinate him.
Antiochus was at that time engaged in a successful war against Egypt. But messengers from Rome arrived and commanded him to stop the war, and he had to yield. Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, a rumor spread that a serious accident had befallen Antiochus. Thinking that he was dead, the people rebelled against Menelaus. The treacherous High Priest fled together with his friends.
Antiochus returned from Egypt enraged by Roman interference with his ambitions. When he heard what had taken place in Jerusalem, he ordered his army to fall upon the Jews. Thousands of Jews were killed. Antiochus then enacted a series of harsh decrees against the Jews. Jewish worship was forbidden; the scrolls of the Law were confiscated and burned. Sabbath rest, circumcision and the dietary laws were prohibited under penalty of death. Even one of the respected elders of that generation, Rabbi Eliezer, a man of 90, was ordered by the servants of Antiochus to eat pork so that others would do the same. When he refused they suggested to him that he pick up the meat to his lips to appear to be eating. But Rabbi Eliezer refused to do even that and was put to death.
There were thousands of others who likewise sacrificed their lives. The famous story of Hannah and her seven children happened at that time.
Antiochus’s men went from town to town and from village to village to force the inhabitants to worship pagan gods. Only one refuge area remained and that was the hills of Judea with their caves. But even there did the Syrians pursue the faithful Jews, and many a Jew died a martyr’s death.
One day the henchmen of Antiochus arrived in the village of Modiin where Mattityahu, the old priest, lived. The Syrian officer built an altar in the marketplace of the village and demanded that Mattityahu offer sacrifices to the Greek gods. Mattityahu replied, "I, my sons and my brothers are determined to remain loyal to the covenant which our G-d made with our ancestors!"
Thereupon, a Hellenistic Jew approached the altar to offer a sacrifice. Mattityahu grabbed his sword and killed him, and his sons and friends fell upon the Syrian officers and men. They killed many of them and chased the rest away. They then destroyed the altar.
Mattityahu knew that Antiochus would be enraged when he heard what had happened. He would certainly send an expedition to punish him and his followers. Mattityahu, therefore, left the village of Modiin and fled together with his sons and friends to the hills of Judea.
All loyal and courageous Jews joined them. They formed legions and from time to time they left their hiding places to fall upon enemy detachments and outposts, and to destroy the pagan altars that were built by order of Antiochus.
Before his death, Mattityahu called his sons together and urged them to continue to fight in defense of G-d’s Torah. He asked them to follow the counsel of their brother Shimon the Wise. In waging warfare, he said, their leader should be Judah the Strong. Judah was called "Maccabee," a word composed of the initial letters of the four Hebrew words Mi Kamocha Ba’eilim Hashem, "Who is like You, O G-d."
Antiochus sent his General Apolonius to wipe out Judah and his followers, the Maccabees. Though greater in number and equipment than their adversaries, the Syrians were defeated by the Maccabees. Antiochus sent out another expedition which also was defeated. He realized that only by sending a powerful army could he hope to defeat Judah and his brave fighting men.
An army consisting of more than 40,000 men swept the land under the leadership of two commanders, Nicanor and Gorgiash. When Judah and his brothers heard of that, they exclaimed: "Let us fight unto death in defense of our souls and our Temple!" The people assembled in Mitzpah, where Samuel, the prophet of old, had offered prayers to G-d. After a series of battles the war was won.
Now the Maccabees returned to Jerusalem to liberate it. They entered the Temple and cleared it of the idols placed there by the Syrian vandals. Judah and his followers built a new altar, which he dedicated on the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev, in the year 3622 (139 B.C.E.).
Since the golden Menorah had been stolen by the Syrians, the Maccabees now made one of cheaper metal. When they wanted to light it, they found only a small cruse of pure olive oil bearing the seal of the High Priest Yochanan. It was sufficient to light only for one day. By a miracle of G-d, it continued to burn for eight days, till new oil was made available. That miracle proved that G-d had again taken His people under His protection. In memory of this, our sages appointed these eight days for annual thanksgiving and for lighting candles.
The brightness of the first Chanukah light had dwindled down. But the holy fires on the altar burnt again in the Beit Hamikdash, from morning to morning, as prescribed by the Law. The priests were again busily officiating in the old customary ways, and day in, day out they prepared the offerings. Order and peace seemed established.
The Jewish farmer longed to return to his land after two years of hardship, privation and danger in the victorious Jewish army. It was high time to break the ground and to till the soil, if the barley was to grow and ripen in time for "Omer-offering" on Passover. The Jewish farmers had left their ploughs to rally about the heroic Chashmonaim. The first victories had drawn even the hesitant into the ranks of the enthusiastic Jewish rebels, led by the sons of Mattityahu. Farmers had forsaken their land, merchants and tradesmen their stores and shops. Even Torah students had emerged from the four walls of the Bet Hamidrash to join the fight against the oppressors.
But the songs of victory, which had filled the reclaimed Holy Temple with praise and gratitude for the merciful G-d, had ceased. The goal of the battle seemed reached, and Torah again was supreme law in Israel.
One man, though, realized that the time for a return to normal living had not yet come. Israel could not yet afford to relax; it would have to stand ready and prepare to carry on the fight against the overwhelming odds of the enemy. This man was Judah Maccabi. His name was upon everyone’s lips and in every Jewish heart. He was admired as a hero, as a man with the heart of a lion and the simple piety of a child; as the one whose mighty armies fought and conquered, yet who never failed to pray to G-d, the Master of all battles, before he entered the fray.
It was not the spirited warrior’s joy that made Judah Maccabi stay in camp. His heart, too, longed to return to his former peaceful life, to Modiin, the quiet town of priests, which held the grave of his adored father. Bloodshed and battle meant a hard and unwanted profession for the men of Judea, who preferred peace to strife. Yet this was no time for relenting. Not only had he to stay, but with all the persuasion of his magnetic personality he had to hold back his comrades-at-arms. His own reasoning and his two wise brothers, Shimon and Yonatan, told him that only the first phase of this war of liberation had passed. Hard and desperate times were yet to come. Clever enemies merely needed an extended lull to prepare new assaults with more troops and better equipment. And there were enemies all about Judea, besides the defeated Syrians. The neighboring countries begrudged the dazzling victories of the small Jewish armies. They would much rather have seen the people of Judea oppressed and humiliated, than armed and spirited, a threat to their own lands. Whence had come the sudden source of strength, courage and fortitude? What was there in this nation that made history in proud seclusion and isolation from other nations? Old hatred was revived. The descendants of Edom (the Idumeans), the Ammonites, the Philistines and Phoenicians, they all revived their ancient jealousies.
Messengers arrived from Gilead. The pagan people joined forces to destroy Judea. From Galilee came the bad news of similar evil intentions and active preparations in Ptolemais, Tyre and Zidon. The messengers found Judah Maccabi already at work. Fortifications had to be thrown up around Zion. Towers, walls, battlements and moat had to be constructed opposite the fort still held by their worst enemies, the Hellenistic Jews, under the leadership of the false priest Menelaus. These hated everything Jewish, and lived in the hope of the return of the Syrian masters. Judah Maccabi prepared Jerusalem against them and against imminent assault by the troops of Antiochus. Under his supervision the Jewish people worked feverishly to refill their arsenals and turn the whole country into a stronghold.
Once this most important task was accomplished, Judah Maccabi led his freshly trained troops to the aid of the regions and villages harassed by the spiteful neighbors of Judea. He drove the Idumeans from Hebron, which they had annexed, and he punished the people who had acted with hostility towards the Jewish settlers. Then he led his army across the Jordan River against the Ammonites. Their capital fell before the furious onslaught of the Jewish troops, and so did their fortress, Yaeser. Judah’s brother Shimon led an army north to aid the plagued Jews of Galilee. He defeated the enemy and cleared the Jewish land. At his urging, a great many of the Jewish settlers who had fled to Jerusalem, returned to rebuild in safety what had been destroyed during the years of weakness. Judah Maccabi and Yonatan joined forces and marched against Gilead, where they were met with the toughest resistance. By Shavuot, this campaign was successfully concluded.
Judea was again free, and all parts captured by the neighboring nation had been recovered. Celebrations and festivity transformed Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, hardly half a year after the victories over the Syrian armies. The Jewish people expressed their joy and gratitude to G-d in the form of psalms and offerings. For He had restored glory and liberty to the Jewish land.
The Festival of Booths begins on the 5th day after Yom Kippur and lasts for seven. Unlike Yom Kippur, it's very blissful. Jews build shelters in their yards and eat meals or even sleep in it. This commemorates the forty year Biblical period of wandering in the desert and building temporary shelters (called a Sukkoth).
Sukkot is a weeklong Jewish holiday that comes five days after Yom Kippur. Sukkot celebrates the gathering of the harvest and commemorates the miraculous protection G-d provided for the children of Israel when they left Egypt. We celebrate Sukkot by dwelling in a foliage-covered booth (known as a sukkah) and by taking the “Four Kinds” (arba minim), four special species of vegetation.
The first two days (sundown on October 4 until nightfall on October 6 in 2017) of the holiday (one day in Israel) are yom tov, when work is forbidden, candles are lit in the evening, and festive meals are preceded by Kiddush and include challah dipped in honey.
The intermediate days (nightfall on October 6 until sundown on October 11 in 2017) are quasi holidays, known as Chol Hamoed. We dwell in the sukkah and take the Four Kinds every day of Sukkot (except for Shabbat, when we do not take the Four Kinds).
The final two days (sundown on October 11 until nightfall on October 13 in 2017) are a separate holiday (one day in Israel): Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah.
The Significance of Sukkot
Of all the Jewish holidays, Sukkot is the only one whose date does not seem to commemorate a historic event. The Torah refers to it by two names: Chag HaAsif (“the Festival of Ingathering,” or “Harvest Festival”) and Chag HaSukkot (“Festival of Booths”), each expressing a reason for the holiday.
In Israel, crops grow in the winter and are ready for harvest in the late spring. Some of them remain out in the field to dry for a few months and are only ready for harvest in the early fall. Chag HaAsif is a time to express appreciation for this bounty.
The name Chag HaSukkot commemorates the temporary dwellings G-d made to shelter our ancestors on their way out of Egypt (some say this refers to the miraculous clouds of glory that shielded us from the desert sun, while others say it refers to the tents in which they dwelled for their 40-year trek through the Sinai desert).
Dwelling in the Sukkah
For seven days and nights, we eat all our meals in the sukkah and otherwise regard it as our home. Located under the open sky, the sukkah is made up of at least three walls and a roof of unprocessed natural vegetation—typically bamboo, pine boughs or palm branches.
The goal is to spend as much time as possible in the sukkah, at the very minimum eating all meals in the sukkah—particularly the festive meals on the first two nights of the holiday, when we must eat at least an olive-sized piece of bread or mezonot (grain-based food) in the sukkah. The Chabad practice is to not eat or drink anything outside the sukkah. Some people even sleep in the sukkah (this is not the Chabad custom).
Taking the Four Kinds
Another Sukkot observance is the taking of the Four Kinds: an etrog (citron), a lulav (palm frond), three hadassim (myrtle twigs) and two aravot (willow twigs).
On each day of the festival (except Shabbat), we take the Four Kinds, recite a blessing over them, bring them together and wave them in all six directions: right, left, forward, up, down and backward. The sages of the Midrash tell us that the Four Kinds represent the various personalities that comprise the community of Israel, whose intrinsic unity we emphasize on Sukkot.
Hoshanot and Hoshanah Rabbah
Every day of Sukkot we say Hallel, a collection of psalms of praise (Psalms 113-118) as part of the morning prayer service. Every day aside for Shabbat, we recite Hallel while holding the Four Kinds, waving them in all directions at certain key points in the service, which are outlined in the siddur (prayerbook).
Afterward, we circle the bimah (the podium on which the Torah is read) holding the Four Kinds, reciting alphabetically arranged prayers for Divine assistance known as Hoshanot.
The seventh day of the holiday is known as Hoshanah Rabbah. This is the day when our fates for the coming year—which were signed on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur—are finalized. On this day, we circle the bimah seven times. We also say a short prayer and strike the ground five times with bundles of five willows (also known as Hoshanot)
In the days of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, there was a special regimen of sacrifices that were to be brought on the altar. On the first day, no less than 13 bulls, two rams, and 14 lambs were to be sacrificed. Every day, the number of bulls was depleted by one. All in all, 70 bulls were brought, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world.
Along with Passover and Shavuot, Sukkot is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three annual pilgrimages, when every male Jew was to be in Jerusalem. Every seven years, on Sukkot, the king would read aloud from the Torah to the entire nation—men, women and children. This special gathering was known as Hakhel.
Water and Joy
On Sukkot, G-d determines how much rain will fall that winter (the primary rainy season in Israel). Thus, while every sacrifice in the Temple included wine libations poured over the altar, on Sukkot, water was also poured over the altar in a special ceremony. This ritual engendered such joy that it was celebrated with music, dancing and singing all night long. This celebration was called “Simchat Beit Hasho’evah.”
Even today, when there is no Temple, it is customary to hold nightly celebrations that include singing and dancing (and even live music during the intermediate days of the holiday).
This holiday is so joyous that in Talmudic times, when someone said the word chag (“holiday”) without specifying which one, you could know that they were referring to Sukkot.
Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah: Even More Joy
The Torah tells us that after the seven days of Sukkot, we should celebrate an eighth day. In the diaspora, this eighth day is doubled, making two days of yom tov. On the final day, it is customary to conclude and then immediately begin the annual cycle of Torah reading, making this day Simchat Torah (“Torah Celebration”).
Although the eighth day follows Sukkot, it is actually an independent holiday in many respects (we no longer take the Four Kinds or dwell in the sukkah). Diaspora Jews eat in the sukkah, but without saying the accompanying blessing (there are some who eat just some of their meals in the sukkah on the eighth day but not the ninth).
The highlight of this holiday is the boisterous singing and dancing in the synagogue, as the Torah scrolls are paraded in circles around the bimah.
This holiday marks the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai over 3,300 years ago. See History of the Jewish Guide. It usually occurs between Memorial Day and Independence Day. On this day, G-d's law, the commandments, are read in the synagogues, just as they were read on Mt. Sinai.
A Peculiar Custom
Let’s take a walk for a moment. It’s Shavuot night; the festive meal has finished. Like so many other festival nights, you’d expect the events to play out in a familiar pattern. The guests head home, the older family members help clean up, but slowly, one by one, the family drifts off to sleep. But this night, somethinG-different happens. Rather than going to sleep, the members of the household stay up all night—and learn Torah. The obvious question is, why? What is so special about this night that so many people forego a night’s sleep to stay up learning instead?
To understand this practice, we’re going to take a step back in time to the very first Shavuot—the day G-d gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.
A Lazy Reception
The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is one of the most fundamental and famous moments in our history. But any great event is only as momentous as the preparation that leads up to it. This story is about the preparation the Jewish people took the night before the giving of the Torah.
The Midrash records a fascinating story. The night before the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people did what anybody does before an important event—they turned in early for a good night’s sleep. This seemingly innocent decision, however, led to embarrassing consequences. The next morning, when it came time for the Torah to be given, the place was empty. The entire Jewish people had slept in. The Midrash even recounts that Moseshad to wake them—causing G-d to later lament, “Why have I come and no one is here to receive me?”
This story remains a shameful part of our history—and it is at the heart of the custom of staying up late. In order to rectify our forefathers’ mistake, we stay up late every Shavuot night to show that our enthusiasm isn’t lacking at all.
But there’s still much that remains to be explained. Who started this custom of staying up late? How widespread is it? Perhaps most importantly, why is it still necessary to rectify an event that took place thousands of years ago? To explain this, let’s start by taking a look at the sources for this custom.
Kabbalah, Halachah, Customs, Oh My
The custom of staying up late has developed in stages over the years. Tracing its sources leads us on a fascinating journey through our history and the many facets of the Torah.
Let’s start at the Zohar, the earliest source for the custom. This ancient Kabbalistic work, written in the years after the destruction of the Second Temple, recounts that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai—the author of the Zohar—as well as “the early pious ones” would stay up learning Torah on Shavuot night. The Zohar does not mention anything about the Jews sleeping in, instead writing that this practice was a preparation for and in honor of the “bride’s” (the Jews) upcoming marriage to the “groom” (G-d, or the Torah). However, the Zohar does mention that their learning was to help “fix” the bride.
Our journey now skips over a thousand years, leading us to a fascinating occurrence that took place sometime in the early to mid-1500s in Turkey. Rabbi Joseph Caro, the author of the Code of Jewish Law, invited Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, the composer of the Friday night prayer Lecha Dodi, to his house to learn that Shavuot night. R.
Alkabetz relates that, as they started to learn Mishnayot, R. Caro began to speak, his voice turned powerful and loud, his words sharp and enunciated. Those present instantly grasped that this was not R. Caro speaking. The voice praised them, telling them that their learning had pierced the Heavens and reached G-d Himself. As their words ascended, the voice continued, the angels became silent, some standing still while others wept, all stopping to listen to the sound of their learning. This story quickly spread like wildfire throughout the Jewish world.
We continue to the town of Safed, Israel, to the famous Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, commonly known as the Arizal, or Ari for short. The Ari famously never wrote any of his teachings down; most of them were instead recorded by his most prominent student, Rabbi Chaim Vital. Rabbi Vital records that the custom of staying up late is a truly important one, and writes that it had already become widespread throughout Jewry. He then makes a promise: those who stay up Shavuot night—refraining from even a second of sleep—and spend the night learning will be protected from any harm that year.
Our final step takes us to the Magen Avraham, a prominent halachic authority who lived from 1635 to 1682. He quotes the Zohar about staying up late and then, for the first time in history, suggests the above-mentioned reason for this practice—that it’s to rectify our forefathers’ mistake of sleeping in the first Shavuot. Though there are many Kabbalistic reasons for this custom, the reason of the Magen Avraham is the most widely known and cited. Nowadays, this practice of staying up is kept in virtually all communities.
Let’s Talk Details
So perhaps you’re sold. This Shavuot, you’re going to stay up and learn Torah. There’s one problem—the Torah is a pretty large collection of works. Where do you start? Can you learn whatever you want, or do you have to learn a specific volume?
This question is discussed in detail among the rabbis. Nowadays, there’s a widely accepted booklet known as the Tikun Leil Shavuotthat includes the entire text you need to learn. The halachic authorities strongly encourage reading this text, which includes the beginning and end of every section of the Tanach and theMishnah, choice selections of key Kabbalistic texts, and a list of the 613 mitzvahs of the Torah. Through learning the beginning and end of the basic sections of the Torah, it is as if we learned the entire thing.
Of course, learning other Torah topics is perfectly acceptable, since the main objective is simply to stay up and learn Torah, and indeed many synagogues offer a variety of Torah classes on Shavuot night.
Here’s some parameters for saying the Tikun:
● You can start before the meal and continue afterwards from where you left off.
● You should stay up until daybreak (alot hashachar), after which you can head off for some much-deserved sleep.
● If you feel that you can’t stay up that late, you should at least try to stay up until chatzot, the halachic midnight.
● Finally, if you didn’t manage to finish the text by night, you should try to finish it off the next day.
If you have sons, and they’re able to stay up late, you should encourage them to stay up with you. Though women are not obligated to stay up and learn, many women choose to do so, and there are often Torah classes for women on Shavuot night.
Like every festival, Jews in the Diaspora have an extra day on Shavuot than the Jews in Israel. There is some debate whether or not you should stay up the second night as well, but the opinion of most rabbis—and the custom of Chabad—is that we do not (phew).
Many have the custom to go to the mikvah a few minutes before daybreak to immerse themselves. This is the Chabad custom as well.
An Unusual Preparation
Let’s take a moment to talk about the story we quoted earlier in the Midrash about the Jews sleeping in on the first Shavuot.
Imagine for a moment that you were there. Some 3,000 years ago, you’re there in the desert the night before G-d Himself gives us the Torah. You’re probably a little uncertain what to do the night before such an event. So you ask around, and your friends tell you that they’re going to get a good night’s sleep. Seems reasonable, right? The thing is, how much sleep do you actually think you’ll get? When we go to sleep early before a big event, we usually don’t get that good night’s sleep we’re craving. We toss, we turn, we get up, we go back to sleep. Maybe we cram in an hour or two of shut-eye. We’re too pent up—too excited, too nervous—to really get any sleep in. But the Jewish People did. They slept like babies—so well, in fact, that they slept in the next day. The fact that the night before G-d was going to give them His infinite Torah, they were able to sleep so well, seems to imply that they were genuinely not excited or even overly enthusiastic about the event.
There’s a problem with that, however.
It just isn’t true.
The Jewish people were excited for the giving of the Torah. They were so excited that 49 days beforehand—almost two months—they began counting the days to the giving of the Torah. And they weren’t just counting the days. Kabbalah explains that, during each one of those days, the Jews worked on a different personal characteristic, refining it, elevating it, painstakingly working on it until they’d managed to make it pure. They did this for 49 days, with the goal in mind that in 49 days they would have completely refined their entire personality. They were so enthusiastic about accepting the Torah that they were willing to completely reinvent themselves in preparation for it.
And they did.
And yet, on the night before the giving of the Torah, 49 days later, the night before the event they’d been waiting for for so long, they went to sleep. And slept perfectly, without a sound. And slept in. Something isn’t adding up.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that we’re misunderstanding this story. The Jews didn’t go to sleep out of apathy; they went to sleep out of enthusiasm. To explain this, let’s take a moment to talk about sleep.
Since the dawn of time, countless philosophies have dealt with a question: what happens when we sleep? Kabbalah has its own explanation. When we are awake, our soul stays inside our body, animating our thoughts, actions and emotions. When we sleep, however, the soul leaves the body, leaving behind a mere remnant—just enough to keep us alive. The rest ascends to Heaven and learns Torah with the angels and other souls there. Then, right before we wake up, it returns. Now, though this happens to everybody, how much the soul learns in Heaven—and how much is remembered – is dependent on how much we studied during the day.
Now let’s come back to the Jewish people in the desert. For 49 days, the Jewish people had worked upon themselves, refined themselves, elevated themselves. At that moment, the night before the Torah was to be given, they were holier than they’d ever been. And they were unsatisfied. They were unsatisfied because they felt it wasn’t enough. No matter how much they worked on themselves, they were limited people, trapped by the physical confines of the body. How could they, as coarse, corporeal beings, ever be ready to accept the Torah—the height of spirituality? They needed one more preparation—something that would really express their readiness to accept the Torah. For one night, just one, they wanted to experience something truly spiritual.
And so they went to sleep. They lay down, left their bodies behind, and let their souls ascend to Heaven to learn Torah. They experienced a truly spiritual revelation—the experience of sleep, as witnessed by the genuinely righteous. This preparation, the complete divergence of the physical and the cleaving to the spiritual—this was their final preparation for the Torah.
Yet now we must understand a different issue. If this was what was going on in their mind, what was the problem? Why was it considered a sin? Why, over 3,000 years later, are we still trying to rectify what they did? Their mistake, the Rebbe continues, was that, by going to sleep, the Jews demonstrated that they had completely misunderstood the point of the Torah. The Torah wasn’t given to us so that we can become spiritual beings, devoid of all vestiges of physicality. If that was the goal, G-d would have been better off giving it to the lofty angels. Instead, the purpose of the Torah is for us to use it to elevate and refine this physical world. Judaism isn’t found in the songs of angels or in the piety of ascetics. Judaism is in the struggles of our desires—in getting up early to pray, in giving charity at work, in staying up late to learn a verse or two. Judaism is working with our physical nature and, little by little, civilizing it, refining it, and, ultimately, elevating it. By going to sleep—by opting to choose the spiritual over the physical—the Jews demonstrated that they had missed the entire point.
We therefore stay up. We stay up to fix their mistake. Most importantly, we stay up to show G-d that we haven’t missed the point. We get it. We could opt to go to sleep, to cleave to the spiritual and ignore our physical body. But instead, we spend the night learning, working with our body, inspiring it, purifying it. We stay up so that every part of us, both the physical and the spiritual, is prepared for the Torah.