Friday, June 10, 2011

Pesaḥ and Shavu‘oth

Jewish date:  8 Siwan 5771 (Parashath BeHa‘alothekha).

Today’s holidays:  Friday of the Seventh Week of Easter (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of Basilides, (Thelema), Feast Day of St. Wacky Wall Walker (Church of the SubGenius).


I hope to finish up Pesaḥ (Passover) and also discuss Shavu‘oth (Pentecost) today.  (Working on that got delayed by the whole Lady Gaga business and other things I have been working on.)  Let’s see what we can do…

Yom ṭov sheni (second day of festivals):  Before Rav Hillel II enacted the current version of the Jewish calendar, the start of months was determined by empirical sighting of the new moon.  This was long before modern communications, and so places far from the court declaring the new moon might not hear about it for some time.  Thus communities in the Diaspora often had a real doubt what day it was, and thus they kept an extra day of the holidays in the Torah just to be sure.  When the current calendar was enacted, the practice remained despite the lack of a doubt; the reason I heard is that people liked having an extra day off.  It has been retained to this day except for Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement); apparently no one liked fasting for two days in a row.  In Israel, the practice is (and apparently always has been) not to add an extra day.  Nothing felt wrong about it, though it did make both Pesaḥ and Shavu‘oth noticeably shorter.  I also ended up doing things on days I previous had treated as festivals that I would never have considered doing before.  E.g., yesterday was the second day of Shavu‘oth in America but an ordinary day here in Israel.  And I went to work and did laundry, both of which are simply not to be done on a festival.

Also:  It is not quite correct that yom ṭov sheni is observed in the Diaspora and is not in Israel; how one practices is actually dependent on where one lives.  I knew some Israelis back in Charleston who did not keep yom ṭov sheni, though they were very private about it.  I have also heard of Jews from America visiting Israel keeping yom ṭov sheni to various degrees.

The sedher:  I attended a sedher (only one) by a mixed Middle Eastern-’Ashkenazi family.  Liturgically there was not really anything unusual, though the tunes used for singing were not the ones I was used to.  This was the place I first ate soft maṣṣah.  They also had multiple sedher plates, and the man of the house gave some Qabbalistic explanations of details of the sedher.  I was very impressed with the handling of the children, which encouraged their participation and involved handing out prizes to them.

Qiṭniyyoth:  ’Ashkenazim (such as myself) have the practice of not eating qiṭniyyoth during Pesaḥ.  This group formally consists of legumes and grain-like seeds, e.g., rice, corn, peas, and beans.  There is a good deal of controversy over what the boundaries of this prohibition, e.g., whether peanuts and quinoa included.  There is even controversy over where the practice came from, and some ’Ashkenazim have dropped it altogether (“A New Explanation for Eschewing Qitniyoth”, “The Prohibition Against Qitniyoth on Pesah: Anatomy of an Error”, “The Road Map from Qitniyoth to Qorban Pesah”).  I did not go to such an extreme, but buying food for Pesaḥ in Israel is complicated that much of what is available contains qiṭniyyoth (as opposed to Pesaḥ food in the United States, which never does).  I did, however, keep three cans of kasher for Pesaḥ corn on my coffee table as a demonstration of my lack of paranoia.

Restaurants:  In the United States, I never heard of restaurants open for Pesaḥ.  Having a restaurant open on Pesaḥ requires a lot of preparation and cost, and the turnout has to be large enough for just a few days to make it worthwhile.  Previously, I had only heard about it being done at McDonald’s here in Israel, something about “matzoburgers”.  This Pesaḥ I found lots of restaurants open on Pesaḥ with their food certified as being kasher for Pesaḥ.  And on a date in Yerushalayim I ate pizza with a potato-based crust at one such restaurant.

Shavu‘oth:  This holiday is largely ignored and unknown in the United States outside of observant circles.  Here in Israel, it is a national holiday, and everyone takes it off.  It is so well-known over here that  I even saw a relevant advertisement:

Pardon the perspective, but sometimes one does not find a good place to stand while taking a photograph. This one is for cheesecake, which is commonly eaten on Shavu‘oth.

I did not notice anything particularly unusual about the observance of Shavu‘oth, other than everything was compressed into one day rather than two.  I did find out that Sefaradhim/Middle Eastern Jews read the Book of Ruth at night rather than during the day, but this did not strike me as more than a mere variation.

OK, someone remind me to blog soon on the holidays which occur during the counting of the ‘Omer.

Shabbath shalom.