Jewsh-Holiday-art - 12/23/01
"Jewish Holiday Traditions of the Sephardic Peoples" by Lady Sindara Lind Rachael of the Falconshield.
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Mark S. Harris
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Jewish Holiday Traditions of the Sephardic Peoples
By Lady Sindara Lind Rachael of the Falconshield
"Tu B'Shevat" (translated "the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat") is known as "Hag Ha'elanot - the Birthday of the Trees". It is called that because it is traditionally when new trees are planted. It is also called "Rosh Hashana Ilanot" the New Year of the Trees, because it is said that on this day Hashem decides which trees shall bear fruit and which will dry up. There are four New Years on the Jewish calendar: "Rosh Hashana", the First day of Elul, the First day of Nisan and "Tu B'Shevat". In the Holy Land this holiday is the traditional beginning of the "Ma'asros - tithing of crops."
In the Middle East and the other lands of the Sephardic Jew, "Tu B'Shevat" is celebrated with a "Seder" (similar to the one on Passover), with four cups of wine and discussions on the origins and symbolism of various fruits, nuts, berries, and grains. The custom of the Seder first began in the city of Safad in the 1300's. Safad is a city in the northern part of the Holy Land, and is a great center of Torah and Kabalah learning.
As in the Passover Seder, there are four cups of wine. Each of the four cups is a different color wine, beginning with a pale white wine, then a golden colored wine, followed by a rose or pink wine, and ending with a deep red wine. The first group of fruits in the "Seder" is fruit with inedible shells such as, carob, pomegranates, and oranges. These fruits represent winter, the season when the earth is dormant. Next are fruits with an edible outer flesh and containing a pit. This group of fruit represents spring. The fruit included in this group are olives, dates, apricots, and plums. The third group are those fruits that are totally edible except for their little seeds. These fruits include apples, pears and figs, and grains such as wheat and barley. This category represents the season of summer. The last group contains all other fruits and represents fertility and the season of fall. The "Seder" is followed by a "Se'udah" - festive meal which includes foods made with fruit and grains. During the meal it is required that a "new" fruit be eaten so that the brocha (blessing) of Shehechiyanu (a blessing said on new things) can be recited.
For children, this holiday is very special. It is a custom for them to go from house to house to receive treats of fruit and sweets. In Ladino (the Sephardic equivalent of Yiddish) Tu B'Shevat is called Las Frutas (the fruits). In the Holy Land there is a custom of planting cedar or cypress trees for each new born boy and pine trees for each new born girl. Branches from these trees were later used to carry the Chupa (wedding canopy).
Ashkenazic Jews (Eastern Europe and the Rhine) do not celebrate Tu B'Shevat with a Seder. They do mark the holiday by planting a tree or other plant and eating foods made from fruit. Upon returning from the synagogue, children are given treats of dates, figs, raisins and almonds.
Traditional Sephardic foods for this holiday include Moostrahana or Prehito, a pudding made of cracked wheat, walnuts, and honey; M'rouzya Tajine a stew containing meat, prunes and quinces; and T'mar Baba, date-filled puff pastries. Traditional Askenazic foods include Picadillo, a dish of ground meat, olives, raisins, apples and almonds; fruit strudel, Lebkuchen - spice bars, Mandelbrot - almond bread, and Rugelach - fruit filled crescent cookies.
On the fourteenth and fifteenth of the month of Adar is the holiday of Purim. Purim commemorates the victory of the Jews over the evil Haman, during the time of Xerses II of Persia. It is referred to as the holiday of freedom, because Haman wanted to destroy the entire Jewish nation and his plan was thwarted by a miracle.
It is customary on this holiday to read the "Megilat Esther - The Book of Esther", which recounts the story of the holiday. After reading the Megila, Jews hold a "Se'udah" - festive meal and exchange Mishloakh Manot (Hebrew for "sending portions") - presents of food. Other customs include giving money to the poor, collecting funds so that poor people will have matzah on Passover, and having a "Purimshpiel" (humorous theatrical presentation of the story of Purim followed by a discussion). It is also a custom to get so drunk that "one cannot tell the difference between Haman and Queen Esther."
For those who don't know the story of Purim, I will be brief. Persia was an Empire that existed between the Babylonian Empire and the time of Alexander the Great. Cyrus the Great was one of her greatest emperors. His daughter Vashti married a commoner - Ahashvarosh. This commoner was later known as Xerses. Xerses was a drunkard and a weak king. He was easily swayed to behead Vashti, when she refused his order to dance naked in front of the court at a party. Once he realized what he had done, Xerses had all the virgin maidens in his empire brought to his palace to become part of his harem. One of these maidens was a Jew by the name of Esther. The king fell in love with her and made her his queen.
There was an ambitious person in the court by the name of Haman. Haman convinced the king to make him Prime Minister and give a decree that all should bow to him. The Jews refused to obey this order and Haman plotted their destruction. Word of his plans became known to Esther's uncle - Mordehai, who told her of the plot. Esther risked her life to expose Haman's plan and free her people.
There are many delicious treats that are customary in Sephardic countries, for this holiday. Our Mishloakh Manot are presented on a beautifully decorated, fish-shaped plate. (The fish is the symbol of the month of Adar - the month when Purim takes place.) On this plate you will find Malboof, which are rolled puff pastries filled with nuts, Masafan, which are star-shaped macaroons, Orejas de Haman - Haman's Ears, which are fried pastries, Huevos de Haman, which are hard-cooked eggs that have been baked inside a pastry basket; and Sambusak - Chick pea or cheese filled dumplings. Ashkenazic Jews have a custom of serving Hamantaschen - Haman's hats, which are triangular pastries filled with a mixture of honey and poppy seeds. Other traditional Ashkanizic foods include Kreplach which are similar to Sambusak and filled with meat and Lekach - honey cake.
Pesach (Passover) is the holiday that celebrates our deliverance from our slavery in Egypt. On Pesach we hold a great feast for 2 days called a Seder. During the Seder we retell the story of how we came to be slaves in Egypt, of the terrible ways that the Pharohs used to try to destroy us, the birth of Moshe (Moses), the ten plagues that God, the Master of the Universe, visited on the people of Egypt, and of his taking us out of slavery. Jews have been celebrating this holiday for over 2000 years. It is the first pilgrimage festival mentioned in our Torah. Passover starts on the Fourteenth day of Nisan and lasts for eight days.
There is traditionally much preparation done for this holiday. We cannot use any food that contains leaven. We cannot use the utensils that we use the rest of the year. We must completely clean our homes of all that is used the rest of the year. Any food that remains in our homes on the day before the holiday is given to the poor of other faiths. If we are able, we try to find someone who will temporarily "buy" our utensils and food until after the holiday. In this way we show that we are free of "Hometz" - that which contains leaven and is used all year round.
The Seder meal also requires much special preparation. There is a special plate containing six symbolic foods on it that is used only at the Seder meal. These foods include the Paschal lamb, an egg, "Haroset", "Maror" - bitter herbs, "Karpas" and "Zeroah". The Paschal lamb is a leg of lamb that symbolizes the Passover sacrifice that was performed on the first Pesach described in the Torah. The egg - "baytza" is a symbol of the cyclical nature of life. "Haroset" is a mixture of fruit and nuts whose color represents the mortor and bricks we used to build Pharoh's cities. The "Maror" and the "Zeroah" are bitter herbs- traditionally romaine lettuce or endive, that we use to remind us of the bitterness of our bondage. The "Karpas" is a symbol of spring and is traditionally parsley. Along side the Seder plate is the "Matzah - unleavened bread". Matzah is called the "bread of affliction and haste," because we did not have time to let our bread rise as we left Egypt. Matzah is a flat, hard bread made of flour and water and prepared in eighteen minutes. The last symbol found on the Pesach Seder table is salt water or vinegar. This is a symbol of the many salty tears shed by our ancestors because of their fierce bondage and the other afflictions they suffered in Egypt.
The Torah commands that the Pesach Seder be performed at night because that was when the Pesach sacrifice was eaten. We begin the Seder with the blessing of Kiddush which again, links this holiday with creation and recalls to mind "L'tziyat Mizraim - our coming out of the land of Egypt". We then say the blessing over the wine and drink the first of the traditional four cups of wine. After refilling the wine cups, a basin of water is brought to all by the eldest daughter and the hands are washed in preparation for eating the "Karpas". The blessing of "Boreh P'ri Ha'adama - Fruit of the soil" is recited, the "Karpas" is dipped in the salt water and then eaten. At this point the youngest child at the meal recites the "Ma Nishtana" (Why is). This prayer asks four questions and addresses the four customs that differentiate the Pesach Seder night from all other nights. In response to these questions the father or grandfather retells the story of our bondage in Egypt, how The Master of the Universe took us out from bondage, and other pertinent pieces of our history. The leader of the Seder recites this information out of a special book called the "Haggaddah".
After the Pesach story is told, blessings are made over the Matzah, Maror, and Haroset. Again the wash basin is brought around and the hands are washed. A blessing is said over washing the hands, because a meal and bread is about to be consumed. The Matzah is first eaten by itself. Then the Maror is eaten by itself. Then the two are eaten together. A prayer is then recited to make mention of the bricks and its symbol, the Haroset. The Haroset is then eaten together with a piece of Matzah and Maror. It was customary during the time of the Beit Hamikdash (the holy temple) that the Pesach sacrifice and the festival sacrifice be eaten after the comsumption of the Matzah and Maror. Because we no longer have a temple we consume a roasted bone at the Pesach festive meal to symbolize the Pesach sacrifice. An egg is consumed to symbolize both the festival sacrifice and the cyclical nature of life. At this point the customary Pesach meal is eaten. At the end of the meal a piece of Matzah called the "Afikomen" is eaten. The "Afikomen" is another symbol of the Pesach sacrifice which was not eaten until "Chatzos - the middle of the night". The "Birkat Ha'Mazone - Grace after a meal" is recited followed by the "Hallel" prayers (Psalms 113-118). The Pesach Seder ends with songs describing the greatness of God and praising him for all that he has done for us.
Some traditional Ashkenazic foods are Macaroons, Matzah Brei - matzah pudding, fruit compote, and Zeesih Kaese Latkes - Sweet cheese pancakes. Some traditional Sephardic foods are Keftes - leek and meat croquettes, Ahashoo - a confection of ground nuts, matzah and honey, Megina - matza-meat pie, Maruchinos - Almond macaroons, Mustachudos - spicy nut balls, and Ma'ina - Matzah cheese casserole.
At the conclusion of Pesach, Sephardic Jews celebrate Maimuna or Mimouna. This word is the Arabic variation of the Hebrew word "Emunah" which means faith. Upon returning from the synagogue at the end of the holiday, Turkish men throw candy, coins and grass to the children. These items represent the wealth the Jews brought with them when they left Egypt. Tables are set with treats such as Macaroons, Marzipan stuffed dates and walnuts. The table is also set with symbols of luck for the spring. A plate of fresh flour with a coin in it, a jar of honey, a bunch of fresh wheat, greens, and a fresh raw fish. The table is set outside and the entire community is invited for much singing, drinking, and feasting.
The next month on the Hebrew calendar is the month of Iyar. Within this month two holidays are celebrated. The first holiday is "Pesach Shaini - the second Passover". There is a section in the Torah, our book of laws that relates a story that happened when the Jews were in the desert. God asked us to keep the Passover on a specific date every year. But what if you were "unclean" because you had come in contact with a dead body. In that situation you could not keep the laws on the designated day. God in his great wisdom, created a day in the month of Iyar, exactly one month after the actual Passover, for individuals who were unable to perform the required ritual. On Pesach Shaini these individuals would eat Matzoh, maror (bitter herbs), charoset, and the festive Sedar meal. For those of us who do not fall into that category, the day is celebrated with the eating of Matzoh and a discussion of the laws pertaining to the holiday.
The next holiday is Lag Ba'Omer, which translates to "A break in the Omer." The Torah tells us to number seven weeks beginning from the time of the Sabbath during Passover. Those seven weeks correspond to the time that it takes for barley to reach its harvest. On the day after the end of the seventh week, the fiftieth day, we celebrated the first harvest. During the Omer - which means portion, we remember our travel in the desert. Our sages tell us that we count the "Sephira" (another name for the omer period. Sephira means spiritual ascent) to remember that we rose spiritually from the degradation of slavery to the level which allowed us to receive the Ten Commandments and the Torah. The first 32 days of the Omer are days of mourning. It is said that in the time of the great Roman Empire, that students of our Sage Rabbi Akiva, died of a plague during these first 32 days. The plague is said to have abated on the 33rd day - Lag Ba'Omer. Others say that Lag Ba'Omer is when the Manna first began to fall for the Jews to have food in the desert. Traditionally Lag Ba'Omer is celebrated with feasting, song, and dance around a great bonfire. Some traditional Sephardic foods for this celebration are Bisteeya - Chicken in Phyllo Pie, Tabouleh - Cracked Wheat Salad, Tahina - Sesame Sauce, and Kaab el Gh'zal - Marzapan filled Horn Cookies.
On the sixth day of the Jewish month of Sivan, the fiftieth day of the Omer we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot - the Feast of Weeks. Shavuot is also called Hag Ha'Bikurim - The Feast of First Fruits. It is alluded to in the Torah that the Master of the Universe gave us the Aseret H'Dibrot - the Ten Commandments and the Laws of Torah on this day. One of the customs of this holiday is to stay up all night beginning at sundown and study Torah and other books of law such as the Talmud and Pirkei Avoth. This way we show our love and devotion to the laws God gave us. In the morning, at services we gather to sing special songs and recite the Ketubbah de la Ley - The marriage contract between the Torah and the Jewish People. We also read the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of a Moabite convert named Ruth who because of her devotion to the Torah merited being the great-grandmother of King David. It is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot, because dairy represents purity. Some of the traditional Sephardic foods of Shavuot are Bugacho - Yogurt Phyllo Pie, Mejedra - Lentils and Rice, and Riz b'Assal - Rice Pudding. Some traditional Ashkenazic foods are Blintzes - sweet cheese filled pancakes, noodles and cheese Kugel (pudding), cold fruit soup.
The two holiest days on the Jewish Calendar, are Rosh Hashana (The Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur. Both of these holidays fall in the seventh month which is the month of Tishre. Rosh Hashana translates as "the head of the year". According to our sages and the Torah, God began the creation of the world on this day. Our prayer service includes many prayers that make reference to Rosh Hashana as "Ha-Yom Haras Olam - the day the world was created". Rosh Hashana is much more than that though. It is the time of the year on the calendar when it is believed that God opens the "Safer Ha'Chayim - the book of life" and decides the fate of all living beings for the coming year. On Yom Kippur he seals the book.
During the ten days that fall between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur a person's actions are highly scrutinized. He is encouraged to turn from his wicked ways and do "Teshuvah - Repentence". If a person does "Teshuvah" he can change the decree against him for that year. It is for this reason that these ten days are referred to as the "Aseret Yom'a Teshuvah-The Ten Days of Repentence". The Sabbath that falls during this time is called "Shabbat Teshuva-the Sabbath of Repentence". On this Sabbath the Jew is called to return to the ways of God and the Torah as it is written in the prophesies of Hosea and Micah.
There are many customs performed on Rosh Hashana that symbolize our hopes for our lives in the coming year. It is first customary to eat many sweet foods on this holiday and throughout the "Aseret Yom'a Teshuvah" so that our year "will be a sweet one". Several foods are eaten specifically to symbolize this hope. Each food is accompanied by a "Yehi Ratzone-May it be Your will" prayer. The first of these symbolic foods to be consumed is sweet dates. The dates are customarily dipped in a mixture of ground sesame seeds, aniseeds, and sugar called "Yitamu". The prayer that accompanies the eating of the date asks God to remove evil, "Yitamu hata'im-May the wicked of the earth be removed."
The second symbolic food is the Pomegranate. The Torah notes 613 "Mitzvoth-deeds" that a Jew is obliged to perform. A pomegranate contains 613 seeds. The "Yehi Ratzone" that is recited over this food asks that our good deeds be as many as the seeds of the pomegranate.
The third food is the apple. Its roundness symbolizes the hope that the New Year will be a joyous one from beginning to end. It is traditionally dipped in honey so that the New Year will be sweet. The prayer recited over this food asks that the "year be as goodly as the apple and as sweet as the honey."
It is a custom to eat food made from gourds on this holiday, because the gourd symbolizes protection. The prayer that accompanies this food proclaims that "God will protect us and gird us with strength".
The "Kartee - leek" is consumed to request the disbursement of God's enemies. The accompanying "Yehi Ratzone" says "May all God's enemies be cut off" and asks that our luck never lack in the coming year.
The "Silka", which refers to a leafy vegetable such as is found on a beet, spinach, or chard, is eaten on this holiday as a symbol of the word "to beat" (Silka in Hebrew means to beat). The Yehi Ratzone recited with this food expresses the wish that our enemies will be removed.
The last of the symbolic foods eaten on this holiday is the head of a lamb or fish. Here we hope that we shall be at the head of all that we do and not the end. A new fruit that has never been eaten before is served at the beginning of the meal so that the blessing of "Shehechiyanu - make all things anew" can be recited.
Some traditional Ashkenazic foods for Rosh Hashana are Teiglach - Honeyed dough balls, and Tzimmis - honey glazed root vegetables, meat and prunes. Some traditional Sephardic foods are Pollo Con Sesum - sesame seed chicken, Borekas - puff pastries filled with pumpkin, squash or spinach, and Membrillo - poached quinces.
At the end of the "Aseret Yom'a Teshuvah" is the "Day of Atonement - Yom Kippur". Yom Kippur is called the "Sabbath of Sabbaths" and is the holiest day of the year. On this day we fast and "afflict our souls". No food or drink is consumed from sundown to sundown (The Hebrew day begins and ends at sundown). On this day we ask God to forgive our sins and seal us in the Book of Life for a sweet year. This is done through many beautiful but solemn prayers. It is also customary to request forgiveness for all the sins we may have committed against one another.
It is customary on the eve of Yom Kippur to perform "Kaparoth". This is the ritual slaughtering of a chicken for every member of the household. The custom is derived from the goat that was "Sent to Azazel" to atone for our sins. The chickens are slaughtered over a basin of ashes. A bit of the chickens' blood is placed on the forehead of the family represented by that chicken. The custom of Kaparoth is performed to symbolize the forgiveness of sins against God. (Today it is customary to take a unit of 18 in money, 18 being the numeric equivalent of "Chai - Life", or 26 the numerical equivalent of God's name for each member of the family and give that money to the poor.) The chickens are then cooked and eaten in the meal before the fast. If a family has more chickens than is needed, the extra chickens are given to the poor in the community.
From the beginning of the month of Elul (the month preceding Tishre) until the end of Yom Kippur, the sound of the Shofar (ram's horn) is heard in the synagogue during prayer services. The Shofar is sounded to call all Jews to do Teshuvah and return to God's ways. On Rosh Hashana the Shofar is sounded 100 times. On Yom Kippur it is sounded only once at the end of the day. The Shofar is not sounded on the Sabbath.
After services in Sephardic countries, it is customary to break the fast with a drink called "Pipitada - melon seed milk" to help restore the body after the long fast. "Hojaldres - cheese puff pastries", "Pannekoeken - sweet pancakes", "Tzatziki - dilled cucumber and yogurt salad", and "Avgolemono - chicken soup with egg and lemon" are also served to restore the body's strength. After the meal it is customary to perform the "Jufrah - reconciliation". This is done by visiting others in the community to show respect and friendship.
"Rosh Hashana - The New Year" and "Yom Kippur - The Day of Atonement" have past. Now it is time to build our "Sukkah" in preparation for the holiday of "Sukkoth". Sukkoth commemorates the journey of the Jews through the dessert from slavery in Egypt to Canaan. The "Sukkah" - a hut made of wood with branches for a roof, is what the Jews dwelled in while they journeyed in the desert. The Torah commands us to build a "Sukkah" and celebrate the holiday of "Sukkoth" for seven days beginning on the fifteenth day of Tishre.
Between Yom Kippur and the start of Sukkoth, Jews everywhere spend time building a "Sukkah". According to our sages, it was during this time that the wise king Solomon dedicated the first "Beit Hamikdash - Holy Temple". Therefore, the time spent building the "Sukkah" is filled with great joy. The "Sukkah" is decorated with beautiful fruit and gourds hanging from the roof and tapestries and artwork on the walls. A special elaborately decorated chair is placed at one end of the table for the honored guests called "Ushpizim" that we invite into our "Sukkah" each day. This chair is draped with a cloth of silk and holy books are place upon it. The "Ushpizim" are six leaders from long ago. Each day we invite one of them into our "Sukkah" with a special prayer. The "Ushpizim" are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, and Joseph.
On Sukkoth we are commanded to take four species of trees and make circuits around the synagogue. These circuits are called "Hakafoth". The four species are the "Etrog - citron" which represents the fruit of a beautiful tree, and the three symbolic trees - the "Aravos - willow", "Lulav - palm", and "Hodas - myrtle". The three symbolic tree branches are arranged together in a cluster called a "Lulav" (The hebrew word Lulav has both the meaning of the palm tree and the cluster of branches for Sukkoth). Each of the four species represent a part of the body. The "Aravos" represent the mouth, the "Hodas" represent the eyes, the "Lulav" represents the backbone, and the "Etrog" represents the heart. The men of the community are commanded to make the "Hakafoth" holding the "Lulav" and the "Etrog". Both men and women are commanded to say a special blessing over the "Lulav" and the "Etrog" during the holiday prayers. Since we are commanded to "dwell" in the "Sukkah" for seven days, we eat and some even sleep in their "Sukkah" during the holiday.
During each of the seven days of "Sukkoth" it is customary to visit the "Sukkah" of family and friends. The men and sons go from sukkah to sukkah while the women and daughters stay home to play host to the visitors. It is customary for the eldest, unmarried daughter to serve the guests.
The seventh day of "Sukkoth" has a special name because it is said that God, the Master of the Universe, opens the gates of heaven one more time to forgive sins on this day. The seventh day is called "Hoshana Rabbah" after the special prayers recited on this day. During the "Sukkoth" prayer service a special prayer called "Hoshanath" are recited. "Hoshanath" is a group of seven prayers that ask God to "save us" and forgive our sins. Each day a different "Hoshanath" prayer is recited. On "Hoshana Rabbah" all seven are recited. Part of the custom of "Hoshanath" is to parade around the synagogue, waving the Lulav" and "Etrog". On "Hoshana Rabbah" the men parade around the synagogue with only the "Aravos" and at the beginning of each "Hoshanath" the "Aravos" are waved in the air and beaten on the floor. On the eve of "Hoshana Rabbah" the men of the household spend all night in the "Sukkah" studying passages from the Torah and, in Sephardic countries, the "Zohar - book of splendor". In Sephardic countries those mourning a loved one bring grapes and cake to those who are studying. This is served with sweet coffee and cinnamon tea.
The day after "Hoshana Rabbah" is yet another holiday. It is called "Shimini Hag Ha' Atzeret - the Eighth day Assembly Holiday". The Torah commands us to celebrate this day with complete joy. We are not commanded to eat any longer in the "Sukkah". We do not partake of the "Lulav" and "Etrog". We are simply commanded to rejoice. Our God is asking us to spend one more day with him before returning to our mundane lives. During the prayer service it is customary to recite the prayer for "Geshem - rain" so that the Holy One, Blessed Be He, will give a good rain and a good harvest for the coming year.
When the Talmud (set of books that explain the laws of the Torah) was written, its writers, the "Rishonim - first ones", also constructed the Jewish lunar calendar. Because it was questionable when "Rosh Hodesh - the new moon" arrived proclaiming the start of the new month, all holidays were given an extra day at the beginning and the end. Around 500 A.D. the Goanim (great sages) decided to give the second day of Shimini Hag Ha'Atzeret a special name. The name they gave it is "Simchat Torah - Celebration of the Torah" because it is the time of the year when we complete the chanting of the five books and begin again. Hakafoth are performed now with the Torah instead of the "Lulav" and "Etrog". The Torah is paraded seven times about the synagogue. For each Torah "Hakafah - circuit" a special prayer is recited. To be called upon to recite these prayers is a great honor. Those who are given this honor are called "Hatanim - bridgrooms" (They are called thus because the Torah is considered as a bride and the Jewish people are the bridegroom). It is customary for the "Hatanim" to visit other synagogue services and share in their "Hakafoth".
Because "Sukkoth" represents the fall harvest, the meals served reflect the autumn season. Some Sephardic traditional dishes are "M'hamra - Roast lamb", "Hojaldres - meat filled phyllo pastries", "Turshi - pickled vegetables", "Sabzi Pilau - herbed rice", "Nan - a flat bread topped with sesame seeds", and "Shir Berenz - rice pudding with almonds, orange blossom water , saffron and cinnamon" are customarily seen in most sukkahs. Kreplach, Tzimmis, and Holishkes - stuffed cabbage are traditional in Ashkenazic houses.
At the end of the ninth month on the Jewish Calendar - the month of "Kislev", is the joyous holiday of "Chanukah". "Chanukah" commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over the evil Assyrian king Antiochus. Antiochus sought to destroy the culture of the Jews by forbidding us to keep our traditions. He forbade us from eating kosher food, keeping the Sabbath, blessing the new moon - "Rosh Chodesh", and performing "Brith Milah - Circumcision". The Jews, led by the "Cohen Gadol - High Priest" Mattityahu and his sons the Maccabees, revolted against Antiochus and liberated themselves. Chanukah is an 8 day celebration because a male baby is circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. Chanukah also contains both a Sabbath and a Rosh Chodesh. Our sages did this to remind us of the importance of these traditions and that The Master of the Universe will protect us if we keep them.
On Chanukah we light a "Chanukkiyah - eight branched candlestick or menorah" to commemorate the lighting of the menorah in the "Beith Hamikdash - Holy Temple". We light a light on each of the 8 days of the holiday. On the first day 3 "Brachot - blessing" are recited on the lighting of the Chanukkiyah. The first Brachah is the "L'hadlik Ner - to light the flame". This Brachah is always recited upon lighting the oil lamp before a holiday or the Sabbath. The second Brachah is "She'asa nisim la'votanu - For He performed miracles for us". This brachah is recited only on the holidays of Chanukah and Purim to remember the miracles performed by the Master of the Universe on those days. The third Brachah is the "Shehechiyanu - make all things anew" which is always recited at the beginning of a holiday. The first 2 Brachot are recited everyday of Chanukah.
Chanukah is also called "The Festival of Light". This is because of the great miracle that happened in the Beith Hamikdash after it was liberated. It is said that the Maccabees could only find one jar of holy oil to light the temple menorah. The jar contained only a day's supply. It would take them at least 2 days to purify more oil. But the oil miraculously burned for 8 days. This is another reason why Chanukah is celebrated for 8 days.
The Chanukkiyah is customarily displayed in the window of one's house. This is done to remind us and our neighbors of the great miracles and deeds performed for us by God. Some of us hang our Chanukkiyah from the doorpost opposite our Mezuzah (prayer scroll hung on the doorpost). The Chanukkiyah remains there until Purim to connect the 2 holidays.
The seventh night of Chanukah is a very special night. This is "Rosh Chodesh Tevet - the New Moon of the month of Tevet". This day is called "Rosh Chodesh Banot - New Moon of the Daughters", because special gifts are given to the daughters by their fathers. The seventh day is also dedicated to the heroic women in our history. On this day we retell the stories of Hannah and her 7 sons and Judith. Hannah and her sons were killed because they refused to worship idols. They are remembered because they gave their lives for the sanctification of the Torah. Judith was a young widow who thwarted an attack on the holy city of "Yerushalayim - Jerusalem". She did this by killing the Assyrian general Holofernes. When Holofernes' army found their leader dead, they fled in chaos. In the evening on the seventh day, the women of the community go to the synagogue to receive a special blessing from the rabbi.
"Shabbat Chanukah - the Chanukah Sabbath" is called "Shabbat Halbashah - The Sabbath of giving clothing to the poor". On this day it is customary to bring garments to the synagogue. These garments are then distributed to the poor people of the community.
Children especially enjoy the holiday of Chanukah. It is customary to give them a treat of food and a coin called "Gelt" on each of the 8 days. A favorite game of this holiday is the game of "Dreidel". The "Dreidel" is a special top with the Hebrew letters "Nun, Gimal, Heh, Shin" carved on it. These letters stand for "Nase gadol haya shom - A great miracle happened there". Each letter represents a gain or loss of an amount of money. The dreidel is spun and when it stops the revealed letter instructs the player to place money in the pot or remove some. The Nun causes the loss of all the player's money, The Gimal gives the player the whole pot, the Heh gives the player 2 coins from the pot and the Shin instructs the player to place 2 coins in the pot. There is no limit on the amount of players. Each player takes a turn spinning the dreidel. When a player losses all his coins, he drops out. The person who is left after everyone has been knocked out, wins.
It is a tradition to eat food made with oil on this holiday. "Bimuelos" - raised dough that is fried and dipped in honey is a special Chanukah treat. Other Chanukah treats are "Magados De Sesam" - candy made of sesame seeds, almonds and honey, "Mishmishyahs" - dried apricot balls, and "Yebra" - stuffed grape leaves. Latkas (Yiddish) or Levivot (Hebrew) for pancake are also period and were made of pumpkin or squash or root vegetables such as carrots, parsnips and turnips. Later, they were made out of potatoes and sweet potatoes which is the popular way of making them today. On the seventh day it is customary to make cheese pancakes called Cassola or crepe-like pancakes stuffed with cheese called Zalabia to remind us of the heroism of Judith. At the holiday's festive meal one will usually find "Kibbe Bil Seniyah" which is a fried dumpling made of ground meat surrounded by a shell of bulghur wheat and meat.
For more information on the holiday customs of Sephardic Jews read the following books:
1. The Book of Our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov
2. Hayam Schauss's book on Jewish Holy Days
3. Encyclopedia Judaica
4. Sephardic Holiday Cooking by Gilda Angel
5. The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden
6. The Jewish Kitchen by Alena Krekulova and Jana Dolezalova
7. The World of Jewish Cooking by Gil Marks
Copyright 2001 by Sharon R. Saroff, MSEd., 3702 Labyrinth Road, Baltimore, MD 21215. <sindara at pobox.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
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