When it comes to the Gregorian calendar, there are things we Jews do and things we don't do: the Peculiar case of Birkat Tal u'Matar vs. Thanksgiving
(This gets a bit complicated so put on your thinking cap!)
Some wonder why, in our standing devotion (Amidah), we request that God send "dew and rain" for a blessing from December 4th until Passover [and discontinued after]. Why is this tied to the secular calendar and not to the Jewish calendar? Actually, in Israel, it is tied to the Jewish calendar because the blessing for "dew and rain" (Tal u’Matar) begins on Cheshvan 7 each year. Why? This is because the Israelis didn't want rain for two weeks when they began their pilgrimage back from Jerusalem. Who needed mud and rain during travel?
It was the Jewish community of Babylonia, followed by all of the diaspora, that decided to wait 60 days following the autumnal equinox (Sept 23) to recite the blessing, because the harvested crops took 2 months to fully dry. Well then, why do we not begin to pray for rain on Nov. 22, which would be 60 days from the Autumnal Equinox? The answer is that Pope Gregory, in the 16th century, decided to rob October of ten days to correct a discrepancy in the calculation of the length of the year. Unlike the Greco-Roman Julian calendar, which assumed the length of the year to be 365.25 days, the actual time computation, based on the earth's orbit, is 365.2422 days. That difference would henceforth be corrected, according to Gregory, by not taking a leap day (a Feb 29) during the century year unless it was a century year divisible by 400 (which is why we had a leap day in Feb. in the year 2000). It was determined by astronomers of the day that the calendar had gotten 10 days ahead of itself. So these ten days were omitted in that year of 1583.
The Jewish community of that century didn't accept the correction to the Julian Calendar. As far as they were concerned, the 60 days from the Equinox would henceforth fall on December 2, not November 22! So why are we now beginning prayer for rain on December 4th? Because they also didn't accept Pope Gregory's correction to omit a leap day each century year. Therefore, in 1700, the date advanced to December 3. In 1800, the date advanced an additional day to December 4th. In 1900, many prayer books failed to make the adjustment to December 5. In 2000 both the Julian and Gregorian calendar agreed to include a leap day. Presumably, if prayer books do due diligence in the future, the prayer will advance to December 5 in 2100, where it should have been already, and to December 6 in the next century, 2200. Fast forward 30,000 years or so, and our descendants will pray for winter rains as we approach summer! But we should be so fortunate that Judaism has the staying power to have such problems! Or who knows, some great sage in a future era may say we should accept Pope Gregory's leap day omission on century years.
We have, however, some unanimity to accept the November computation of Thanksgiving as the 4th Thursday in November. There are some ultra-Orthodox communities that don't believe in observing any holiday on the secular calendar–only Jewish ones–but most traditional communities of the last 150 years or so accept the observance of the civic holiday of Thanksgiving. There ought not to be a problem observing a civic holiday that all Americans mark. Most importantly, Thanksgiving, as currently observed, is a day of gratitude to God for the precious blessings our country and our God bestows. That, actually, is a Jewish imperative every day of the year. We mark that very sentiment each and every day when recite the psalm in the morning "it is good to give thanks to God and to sing Your praises on High!" Naturally, it can and should be marked with our dietary restrictions and so forth as American stands for the right of all to practice their religion. We also have no problem with observing it on the appropriate day rather than 10 days later. Since it is anchored in the American calendar, which has accepted the Julian accounting of time, there is no reason to make adjustments.
If any of this information is wrong, by the way, because math is not my strong suit, please let me know! To quote Wilbur Cross' 1936 proclamation, "as the chill and frost begin to set in in these darkening days of autumn under the heel of Orion" Beth and I wish you and your families a year that is fertile and prosperous, a year of plenty–rich in blessings, and a very happy Thanksgiving.
It is hard to envision Sukkoth on the other side of the High Holidays because of the monumental place of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the American Jewish holiday cycle. I composed a sermon a couple of decades ago bemoaning the slow death of Highway 66, which holds an iconic place in the American imagination. The article rued the demise of the charming and distinctive locales now no longer encountered because of the interstate system. Little towns, motels and restaurants are bypassed by truckers, bikers and tourists as they make their way to the west coast. “Sometimes,” I wrote, “the holiday cycle is the same as the Jewish calendar. The interstate highways of Passover, Hanukah, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are travelled so well by so many, but the little locales of the other holidays in Judaism get such short shrift and are sadly victim to this infrastructure.”
But Sukkoth is an important holiday in its own right. Back in the time of the Bible, it was really important and even bigger than Passover as a pilgrimage holiday. In the Rabbinic literature it was called “HaHaG,” the quintessential holiday. It no longer has quite that turbo-charge today, although it is still a very big deal in Jerusalem. Sukkoth’s Kohain rite in the Kotel Plaza is like no other spiritual moment. Still, Sukkoth has many things going for it, running on multiple cylinders, and therefore I commend it. Here are some facts in honor of the seven days of Sukkoth:
Sukkoth is the first “local” stop on the Jewish calendar year, off the beaten route of the interstate holidays. Get off at this exit and enjoy the color and vibrancy of this unique calendar moment. Help us celebrate it Yontif morning, October 5th and 6th and on Hoshana Rabbah morning, Wednesday, October 11 at 7 am.
ברכת כהנים THE PRIESTLY BLESSING
One of the most beautiful customs of our shul, not common for Conservative shuls, is Duchaning (in Yiddish, Duchanen), which we do in the Musaf service for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. If you haven’t experienced this lovely ceremony performed by our Kohanim (Kohens), I encourage you to stay through Musaf to do so. There is a special melody in this ceremony in which the Kohanim repeat the words of the Blessing of Aaron, the High Priest, from the book of Numbers (Yevarecha). We uniquely adapt the tune to melodic lines on Rosh Hashanah evening, and the antiphonal response, led by the Cantor, is quite haunting and joyful.
Why do we Duchan? Numbers, Chapter 6, instructs Aaron and his sons to bless the Israelites with the verse “Bless you, guard you…May Hashem lift His face to you and be gracious to you…May Hashem give you peace…” Since every Kohen is a descendant of Aaron, they are to repeat the blessing for every congregation of ten. Kohanim count as a part of the 10 congregants in the minyan that they are blessing. If a minyan dissolves while they bless the congregation, they continue and conclude it. If the Chazzan is the only Kohen, he is allowed to move from his stand on the bima and face the congregation to bless them. During the repetition, he must wash and remove his shoes before beginning the standing devotion. If he is not the only Kohen, he remains in his place.
Why is this custom of blessing the people called duchening? Because the word for bima, or raised platform, in Aramaic is Duchan. The Kohanim ascend the platform as a mediating symbol between the congregation and the Holy Ark. At this moment, they are a conduit for blessing. The Kohen raises his hands and spreads his fingers in a “V” shape. His hands, therefore, form two Shins (Hebrew letter ש), which equals 600. His fingers are ten and his blessings are three, which equal 613–the number of mitzvoth in the Torah. Talmud Hagigah mentions that one should not look at the fingers of the Kohen as they bless, as doing so will “weaken the eyes.” Probably this was so the Kohen, in feeling one’s gaze, would not become distracted. It is not correct, however, to turn around, as many do, and show their backs to the Kohanim as they bless us. Many rabbinic authorities label this a “superstitious custom.” It is far better to face them and simply look downward or place one’s head under one’s own tallit as one receives the blessing.
How many times a year is it customary to do the Kohen blessing with Duchenen? In traditional congregations of the Diaspora (outside of the land of Israel), it should be done on Yom Tovim only (the five major holidays.) In the Ashkenazic congregation of Safed, Israel, it is done on major holidays and each Shabbat, and so, too, in many Ashkenazic congregations outside of Jerusalem. Sfardic synagogues in all of Israel do it every day. Many liberal congregations have discontinued it, considering it a vestige of the past and attached to sacrificial rituals.
There are some interesting facts of Duchening. We take our shoes off, not because the High Priest came in bare feet for the Yom Kippur ceremony, but because the Shulchan Aruch determined that a shoe lace untied can cause a fall, or an effort to tie an untied shoe lace nullifies the hand washing. This would prevent the shoe lace handler from saying the blessing, causing people to think him impure. To avoid this, it was decided that all would take off their shoes before blessing the congregation. A Kohen who doesn’t wish to say the blessing, perhaps because he dislikes someone in the congregation, should get over it! If a Kohen is impure after being in a cemetery, he should intentionally remove himself before the Kohanim begin to ascend the bima.
First and foremost, I would like to say how happy I am to be here at the East Northport Jewish Center. Everyone I have met thus far has gone out of their way to make me feel exceptionally welcome. Thank you.
I would like to take this opportunity to tell you a bit about myself. I’m born and raised in West Bloomfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, and grew up at Congregation B’nai Moshe, a Conservative synagogue. From a young age, my relationship to Judaism has always been important to me. My father decided, when I was about 7, that we were going to go to shul each Shabbat. That experience solidified in me a ritual pattern that has stayed with me to this day. Following my Bar Mitzvah, I began working in our synagogue religious school, giving me my first taste of congregational life. I would continue working in religious school all the way through my collegiate career. In High School I was very active in chorus and theatre, and therefore, it was no surprise to my parents when I decided to apply to music programs for college. I settled on Kalamazoo College, a small 1200 student liberal arts school in Western Michigan. I was one of 4 music majors in my graduating class, and the only one without a double-major. While at Kalamazoo College I had the opportunity to explore, and through my first-year seminar professor, became very active in the autism community of Kalamazoo. To this day, I see that experience as an eye-opening event for me that solidified my way to the Cantorate, in that it fostered an appreciation for working with people. Following my graduation from Kalamazoo College, I attended the Jewish Theological Seminary of America to prepare for my Cantorial career. Following my investiture, I had the privilege to serve Temple Torah of West Boynton Beach, Florida, now Temple Torat Emet, in Boynton Beach, for 5 years. There, I took great pride in preparing B’nai Mitzvah students, seeing to the cultural programming of the synagogue through special shabbatot, and concert programming, which I hope to bring here to my new home in East Northport.
If there is anything I can assist you with on your own Jewish journey, I’m happy to provide support. Learning to read Torah, Haftorah, and Megillot, and leading services are just a few of the topics where I can help. I hope to meet many more of you in the coming holiday season. Thank you all again for the warm welcome.
This summer, help us and help yourselves by committing to our regular Minyan
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Your daddy's rich and your mama's good lookin’
So hush little baby, please don't cry…
One of these mornin's, you gonna rise up singin'
Spread your wings and you'll take the sky
Until that mornin' there's a nothin' can harm you
With Mommy and Daddy standin' by
–Words of Porgy and Bess that conjure up the easy days of summer. Some are of the opinion, no doubt, that the summertime months are a time when we should have a break from it all. In fact, congregants have sometimes asked, "Don't you basically close up for the summer?" The answer is NO, there is not much programming until the High Holidays and the school year starts, but the shul never closes up. VeShiviti Hashem negdi tamid…we must hold up God and faith before us at all times–and especially at times when less of us are around!
In our timely Torah portion, Shelach Lecha, the spies of each tribe expand their souls. They do so, says the Midrash, by each being infused with the soul of one of Jacob’s sons, according to which tribe to which they belong– the head of the tribe of Naphtali receives Naphtali’s soul and the head of the tribe of Reuven receives Reuven's soul. But apparently that is not enough. Those spies, fearful of what they see, come back and tell the people there is no hope. Yet two of the spies receive additional reinforcement that gives them optimism and courage. Caleb goes to Chevron and stretches himself out upon the graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and “absorbs” their faith, while Hoshea is given an exta yud in his name and becomes Yehoshua– getting a dose of God's name. Only they, Joshua and Caleb have courage and hope in the end, and they are the only ones of their generation that enter the land of Israel.
This, connecting ourselves to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is what we do when we pray together as a minyan. The very first lines of our Shemoneh Esrai, when we say “their God is our God,” gives us that additional dose of their faith and makes it our own. Its not enough to only connect to our ancestors’ faith, however. We say Elokeinu ve Lokai Avotainu, "Our God and the God of our Ancestors," making God our own in our generation. Declaring this regularly in a community of faith is essential to experience God as our own. The intent of our regular prayer is to receive the double reinforcement of both Caleb and Joshua. That is the potential that regular prayer, “davenning,” can offer. Does this happen for us all the time when we daven? No, I cannot make that claim. But it cannot happen at that special moment if we don't make prayer regular.
I remind you that the shul doesn't close down for the summer. The shul's pulse never stops. But we need davenners or it will. Please take a moment to consider how important regular communal prayer is, not just for those saying Kaddish, but also for each and every one of us. Don't let the pulse stop, particularly when the summer months approach while many are a way. Select two or three extra days each month when you or someone in your household can commit to coming. Put it on your calendar. If our membership of well over 200 families did this, there would never be a shortage of minyanaires, and there will always be a strong pulse at ENJC–summer, winter, spring and fall.
So here are additional words to Porgy and Bess, a la Rabbi Ian:
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Every evening, you're gonna rise up praying
Spread your wings and take to the sky
And when you daven, there's nothing can harm you
With your fellow minyanaires standing by!