The Meaning of Jewish Holidays

Why are Jewish holidays different from all other holidays?

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Adapted with permission from Holidays: Judaism in a Nutshell,  Jewish Literacy Foundation.

In Japan, February 3 marks the Setsubun bean-throwing festival. September 28 is Confucius' birthday in Taiwan, and October 19 is Ascension of Mohammed Day in Indonesia. Independence Day is May 14 in Paraguay, March 25 in Greece, April 31 in Trinidad and Tobago, and July 4 in the United States.

And what self-respecting list of holidays would be complete without Bastille Day, Soweto Day, Kwanzaa, Passover, and Easter?

jewish holidaysThe very concept of a holiday seems to touch a basic, universal chord. After all, everybody is into them. If you were to show ten people the above list and ask the question, "What's a holiday?" most would probably tell you that they are cultural or religious days that are designated to commemorate something significant in that particular religion or society. And by-and-large they would be correct, with one exception: Passover [and any other Jewish festival].

A Mo'ed Is Not Exactly a Holiday

In the Jewish concept, while holidays may appear to be commemorations of historical events, in fact they are something altogether different. The Hebrew word the Torah uses for holiday is mo'ed, and mo'ed means "rendezvous" [an appointed time]. Every mo'ed, every Jewish holiday, is a meeting of sorts. In fact, Jewish holidays are multidimensional meetings.....

Jewish holidays are rendezvous that incorporate not only the dimensions of time and place, but spiritual dimensions that go to the heart of the Jewish understanding of history, the soul, God, and what it means to be a Jew. To appreciate the depth and import of these holiday-rendezvous events, it is necessary to first take a look at the primary components that converge to form the experiential framework of what we are used to calling holidays, but as we will see, are actually mo'ed, points of rendezvous that bring us to the threshold of the deepest aspects of our existence. Let's take a look:

Rendezvous with Who?

Perhaps the most seminal Jewish perspective on God, and one that shapes the entirety of how Jews relate to God in general and the holidays in particular, is this: Since God is wholly complete and lacks nothing, it can't be that His act of creation was motivated by a need, because a need implies a lack, and He has no lackings. Creation, then, is not for the Creator, rather, it is for us, His creations. If creation is for us, what this implies is that existence is for our benefit; in other words, existence is good for us....

Judaism understands that the entire purpose of our existence is that we enjoy being able to receive and partake of the greatest good possible. The key words in all of this are "enjoy" and "good." Consequently, God's relationship to us is one in which He is the giver par excellence, and we are the receivers of the best He has to offer. What flows from this is the Jewish perspective that the way we partake in the purpose we were created for is to be engaged in a relationship with God. And it is with this perspective that we can gain a comprehensive understanding of the Jewish holidays.

A full appreciation of the holidays begins with understanding them in the context of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. In a word...a marriage. The unique depth, intimacy, love, and bonding in marriage provides the best possible analogy for the spiritual connection that is present in the relationship between God and the Jewish people. In fact, King Solomon's Song of Songs, a deeply passionate and poignant tribute to the longing and love of a husband and wife, is understood to be an allegory for the love between God and the Jewish nation....

"On Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot [the three holidays when the Jews visited the Temple in Jerusalem] the curtain was opened so the people could see the two Cherubs on the Ark of the Covenant embracing. It was then announced to the people, 'God's love for you is like the love of a man and a woman.'"

-- Talmud

A Word about Marriage

Beyond the physical and beyond even the emotional, there is a profound spiritual dimension to marriage. When two people get married, more is taking place than just the first part of sharing a life together; marriage is a spiritual transformation. The souls of two people who marry become blended together as one.

"Therefore a man will leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and they will become one flesh."

-- Genesis 2:24

When the Torah speaks about two people becoming "one flesh," it means that marriage is a metamorphosis of essential identity; it is the shift from one's essence being perceived in terms of "I" and "mine" to "us" and "ours" in the deepest and most actual way. It is in the realm of the soul--of the ultimate reality of two people's being--that Judaism sees the difference between a married couple and an equally fulfilled and happy unmarried couple. The marriage ceremony, then, is a sort of re-engineering of two people's spiritual DNA. It is the vehicle through which a new spiritual reality is brought into being--and the only way to describe this new reality is oneness. ...

Secrets of Weddings and Holidays

If you have ever been to a Jewish wedding, then you have seen some or all of the following: The bride and the groom stood together under the wedding canopy (the chuppah), the rabbi said some prayers, a marriage certificate (the ketubah) was read, a ring or rings were exchanged, a glass was broken, and a great party ensued.

I want to let you in on a few secrets.

Secret number one, as we have begun to see, is that the marriage ceremony is more than just a ritual. It's a spiritual process in which each component has its own role, identity, and profound significance. Secret number two is that these component parts of the marriage ceremony have conceptual counterparts in the yearly cycle of the Jewish holidays. And secret number three is that when taken together, in the context of early Jewish history, a wedding-holiday paradigm emerges that enables us to understand the holidays on a plane very different from what we are accustomed to.

The Jewish holidays, it turns out, are far more than the commemorations of significant historical events. Rather, they are the meta-history of the relationship between God and the Jewish people, and contained within this meta-history are the keys to accessing the great potential of that relationship.

"The period of the patriarchs and matriarchs [Abraham, Sarah, and so on] was like the courtship and engagement that was followed by the Exodus and the giving of the Torah which was the wedding."

-- Commentary of Malbim, Jeremiah 2:2

"The day when the Torah was given at Sinai was the wedding day of God and the Jewish nation."

-- Commentary of Rashi and Tsror Hamor, Song of Songs 3:11

"God became wedded to the Jewish people at the time of the Exodus and through the giving of the Torah. The consummation took place when God's presence enveloped them."

-- Commentary of Eliezer Rokeach, Talmud, Kiddushin

The key to understanding the Jewish holidays lies in being able to see beneath the surface and understand them as a framework for the most transcendent of all relationships: the relationship between the Creator of the universe and the nation of Israel.

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Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf

Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf is the award-winning author of eleven books, including the Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit and Judaism In A Nutshell: ISRAEL.