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The Jewish Holidays Paperback – July 15, 1993


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Editorial Reviews

Review

"This is a delightful, interesting, evocative, uesful, and occasionally outragous book that fills a real need." -- Rabbi Richard J. Israel

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter OnePesah
Feasting for Freedom

Passover (Pesah), which celebrates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, begins on the fifteenth of the month of Nisan and continues for seven days, through Nisan 21, though many Diaspora communities celebrate it for eight days (see discussion of the second day of festivals in Appendixes 1. and 2). The name Passover is taken from the Exodus story: During the tenth and ultimate plague inflicted on Pharaoh to break his will, God passed over the Israelites and struck down only the Egyptian firstborn. That night Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Israelites go; and ever since then, we gather together on that night to commemorate that time, and to contemplate the meaning of being freed by the "mighty hand and outstretched arm" of the Holy One.

The central meaning of Passover is liberation, and hence it is also called zeman heiruteinu -- the season of our liberation. Another name for Passover is hag ha-aviv -- the holiday of spring. The Jewish calendar is set so that certain holidays always occur in a particular season of the year (unlike, for instance, the Moslem calendar). Thus, the holiday of liberation is also the holiday of spring, not simply by coincidence but by design. Following the bleakness of winter when everything is covered with the shrouds of snow, spring marks the rebirth of the earth with the bursting forth of green life. Similarly, a people enshackled in oppressive slavery, doomed to a slow process of degradation or even extinction, bursts forth out of Egypt into a new life's journey leading to a land flowing with milk and honey. The watchwords of both spring and Pesah are rebirth and hope. Thus, the spirit of renewed optimism aroused by the sights and smells of spring are reinforced in a Jewish context by Passover with its trumpeting of the possibilities of liberation. Passover reminds us annually that no matter how terrible our situation, we must not lose hope. Passover holds out the possibility of renewal, proclaiming that such change is as intrinsic to human nature as are blossoming trees to the natural world.

Another name for Pesah is hag ha-matzot -- the holiday of the unleavened bread. The matzah evokes images of that night when the Israelites ate the sacrificial lamb in fearful and eager anticipation of the future. Around them arose the wails of Egyptians mourning the deaths of their firstborn. Suddenly, the word came from Moses to hurry forth. The Israelites had no time to let the dough rise for bread, and so they carried with them this "matzah" as their only provisions.

Matzah as a symbol of liberation is meant to trigger in our minds the whole story, which began in slavery and ended in freedom. It also reminds us of God's role in the Exodus, for it recalls the simple faith of the Israelites, who were willing to leave the home they knew and go off into the desert. Having seen God's redemptive power, they trusted in His promise. As His people, they were willing to follow after Him into "an unsown land" (Jer. 2:2).

It is this act of redemption by God that establishes the Covenant between Israel and God. Prior to the Exodus, the covenantal relationship existed only between God and individuals-for example, between God and Abraham. Passover marks the beginning of the relationship between God and the Jews as a people. God's claim to the Covenant lies in His having fulfilled His promise to bring us out of Egypt. Having redeemed us, God promises: "And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that 1, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians" (Exod. 6:7).

This covenantal relationship lies at the heart of the celebration of Passover. We rejoice for the past liberation from Egypt and for other redemptions by God since then. And because of the fulfillment of past promises, we anticipate at Passover the future final redemption. We create a special role for the prophet Elijah at the seder (see below) as the symbol of our faith in the redemption soon to come.

Because it is the crucial event that marks the beginning of our sacred history, the Exodus is referred to repeatedly in Jewish liturgy and thought. For example, the shema (the central prayer in Jewish liturgy) concludes "I, the Lord, am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I the Lord your God" (Num. 15:41). At Passover we are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus. This commandment, unique to this holiday, leads us not simply to remember the Exodus but to expand upon the tale, to explore its complexities and develop its meaning. Thus the Haggadah, the liturgy we use at the seder, states:

In every generation, each person should feel as though she or he were redeemed from Egypt, as it is said: "You shall tell your children on that day saying, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free out of Egypt.' For the Holy One redeemed not only our ancestors; He redeemed us with them."

The uniqueness of Passover is encapsulated in the above passage. It teaches us that Jewish history is also a timeless present, that Passover is not simply a commemoration of an important event in our past-analogous to the Fourth of July or Bastille Day-but an event in which we participated and in which we continue to participate. We are meant to reexperience the slavery and the redemption that occurs in each day of our lives. It is our own story, not just some ancient history that we retell at Passover.

To relive the experience, we are commanded to observe three rituals:

1. To tell the story of the Exodus. As the Torah states: "Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a...

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; Reissue edition (July 15, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062720082
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062720085
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 0.6 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #68,202 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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80 of 81 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 10, 1999
Format: Paperback
I encountered this book as a text for a course on Jewish practices at Spertus Institute of Jewish studies in Chicago. At first glance the simple illustrations and outline seemed too basic to be useful for a serious student. However the discussion of each holiday, both major and minor, provide an extensive explanation of the practices involved in observance of that holiday and the religious principles and philosophy behind each tradition. Also of great help is the margin commentary provided on the text by five different scholars, increasing the breadth and balance of opinion necessary to such a subject. I have found this book of great help in attempting to learn about and return to the faith of my ancestors. I have given my previous copy to a new member of my synagogue who wishes to convert to Judaism and am buying another one for myself.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By + on June 9, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is our standard Bar and Bat Mitzvah gift, which has come in handy this year since one of our children is at the age where there is a simcha every weekend. It is accessible for the kids at this age, and will offer more as they keep it on the bookshelf for adulthood. The production values are nice, and the whole thing neither looks nor sounds (in tone) "too heavy," though in fact the book is thorough and serious. It also works for recipients of all points along the continuum of observance.
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Tevington on February 22, 2002
Format: Paperback
I am a Protestant pastor who also teaches a course on the world's religions. This book is written so that someone outside the Jewish faith can readily understand what happens in each Jewish holiday and why. I recommend it highly to anyone who wants to develop a better understanding of Rabbinic Judaism.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By G. J Wiener on February 7, 2002
Format: Paperback
The Jewish Holidays by Michael Strassfeld gives a fairly comprehensive summary of the major Jewish Holidays. It describes the rituals for kashering a kitchen and preparing for Passover,the varying interpretations during the Omer Period. Much of the meanings behind the holidays are explained as well as some history. Changes over the course of time are explained as well as variations between different Jewish Communities. A nice read which is effective if not overly exciting.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Jan Peczkis on February 28, 2008
Format: Paperback
As a non-Jew, I found this book very informative, not only about Jewish holidays per se, but also aspects of Jewish history and trends in Jewish thinking. What's more, this book has helpful appendices, including a glossary of Hebrew terms. Interestingly, the author of this book does not feel the need to dispense with BC and AD in favor of BCE and CE.

This book provides information on such things as the Passover Seder meal. We learn that celebration of the New Year (Rosh Hashanah) had a late start owing to the onetime association of New Year celebrations with pagan festivities. The book raises the question of the origins of Hanukah (to what extent a successful military revolt and to what extent a rejection of Hellenizing tendencies), and whether or not this relatively minor holiday has assumed the status of a Jewish answer to Christmas.

History is seen as cyclic and linear, in effect combined into a spiral. Thus, each year's observance should see a person on a higher plane of spirituality than the last such observance.

Theological questions are raised in this book. For instance, at Rosh Hashanah, there is the custom of throwing bread crumbs into a body of water to symbolize the fact that God drowns our sins in the deepest sea. Some rabbis raised concern that people may misuse this ritual as an actual removal of sin in place of genuine repentance (p. 102). (This recounts the fear among Christians of "easy believism".)

New Jewish observances are also discussed, including Yom Ha-Shoah. Some traditional rabbis oppose this holiday.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Seth J. Frantzman HALL OF FAME on February 20, 2003
Format: Paperback
this is a wonderful book. I cannot reccoment it enough to add to your collections of books. A must purchase to review the Jewish holidays. With lovable excerts on how to build a Sukkah and other important observations can be found in the text. Historical importance is detailed in each chapter for each holiday. Also present are wonderfulo pieces of artwork and commentaries.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Philip Culbertson on May 19, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I use this with the rabbi under whom I am studing for purposes of converting. We both think it is excellent.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Julia K. Benson on November 30, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I bought this book to help me study for my conversion classes. It's a great way to learn about the holiday cycle and the history behind it. It's an easy read.
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