Author Archives: Lesli Koppelman Ross

About Lesli Koppelman Ross

Lesli Koppelman Ross is a writer and artist whose works have appeared nationally. She has devoted much of her time to the causes of Ethiopian Jewry and Jewish education.

Shavuot in Medieval Times

Excerpted from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook. Reprinted with permission of the publisher (Jason Aronson Inc).

In the weeks before Shavuot in 1096 the Crusades began, claiming hundreds of Jewish lives in the Rhine valley. To honor the dead without interfering with the joy associated with the holiday, a communal prayer for those martyred in that barbaric outbreak of anti-Semitism was introduced for the Sabbath prior to Shavuot. The timing was considered doubly significant, because the day fell during the Omer period, which commemorates the massacre of an earlier persecution, that of Akiva’s students by the Romans. Along with Av Harachamim (Father of Compassion), the first form of the memorial prayer, the list of the rampage’s victims was read.

Since more people attended synagogue on Shavuot than on the Shabbat prior to it, the memorial service was moved to the holiday itself and expanded to

encompass the one done on Yom Kippur since talmudic days, which honored all dead, not only martyrs but also pious Jews and deceased loved ones. (In time, it was added to the liturgies of the last days of the other pilgrim festivals as well).

When Simchat Torah developed several centuries later, the intense expression of joy for Torah was shifted to that occasion. It was not that the people of the time felt that the beginning of our covenantal life had lost any significance, they recognized that, as in a good marriage, depth of understanding and appreciation for one’s partner a grows over time. The love and attachment at a 25th or 50th wedding anniversary is more substantial, and more substantiated, than at the wedding. So, too, there is more reason for joyous celebration after the Torah has been examined, studied, and lived with than when it has merely been presented.

For the kabbalists [mystics], in particular, though, Shavuot remained an opportunity to express intense devotion to Torah. A midrash [commentary] says that even though the Israelites knew that God was going to give them an incredible gift on the afternoon of Sivan 6, at noon they were still asleep. Moses had to go to their shelters (according to one version), or thunder and lightning had to be used (according to another) to rouse them. So in the 16th century, the Jewish mystics–who believed that every action of every individual affects the state of the world–developed an all-night vigil to compensate for the sleeping Israelites’ affront to God. A compilation of selections from Torah, Talmud, and Zohar, called Tikkun (improvement, or remedy) Leil ([for the] night [of]) Shavuot, was published for use on the holiday (although the learned often chose their own texts). Dark-to-dawn study on the first night of the holiday became customary.

Tashlikh, the Symbolic Casting Off of Sins

When is Rosh Hashanah 2015? Click here to find out.

Excerpted from Celebrate!: The Complete Jewish Holidays Handbook, reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 1994 by Jason Aronson Inc.

What Is Tashlikh?

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, before sunset, Jews traditionally proceed to a body of running water, preferably one containing fish, and symbolically cast off (tashlikh) their sins. The ceremony includes reading the source passage for the practice, the last verses from the prophet Micah (7:19), “He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities. You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”

Selections from Psalms, particularly 118 and 130, along with supplications and a kabbalistic prayer hoping God will treat Israel with mercy, are parts of tashlikh in various communities.

History of Tashlikh

Hasidic Jews performing tashlikh on Rosh Hashanah, painting by Aleksander Gierymski, 1884. (Wikimedia Commons)

Hasidic Jews performing tashlikh on Rosh Hashanah, painting by Aleksander Gierymski, 1884. (Wikimedia Commons)

The custom developed around the 13th century and became widespread despite objections from rabbis who feared superstitious people would believe that tashlikh, rather than the concerted effort of teshuvah, had the power to change their lives. Religious leaders were particularly opposed to the practice of tossing bread crumbs, representing sins, the water, and even shaking one’s garments to loosen any evil clinging to them was discouraged.

Superstitious rites most likely did influence ceremony. Primitive people believed that the best way to win favor from evil spirits living in waterways was to give them gifts. Some peoples, including the Babylonian Jews, sent “sin‑filled” containers out into the water. (The Talmud describes the practice of growing beans or peas for two or three weeks prior to the new year in a woven basket for each child in a family. In an early variation of the Yom Kippur kapparot ritual, the basket, representing the child, was swung around the head seven times and then flung into the water.) Kurdistani Jews threw themselves into the water and swam around to be cleansed of their sins.

The Fast of Esther

Excerpted with permission from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook (Jason Aronson Inc.).

A day of fasting from sunrise to sunset is supposed to be observed on the day before Purim (Adar 13). It ostensibly commemorates the fast Mordecai and Esther endured, which Esther instituted among all the Jews, prior to her visit to the king (Esther 4:16). In keeping with Judaism’s system of measure-for-measure reward and punishment, it is the flip side of feasting in celebration of Purim’s outcome: denying pleasure to the body appropriately atones for the transgressions committed by the Jews when they shamelessly indulged their bodies during King Ahasuerus’ banquet.

minor fasts quiz

Fasting was also commonly practiced among Jews whenever they prepared for battle (as with the Persians who had been instructed to massacre them), in remembrance that their strength and victory would come from God.

The fast on Adar13 became the custom well after other observances were adopted for Purim, possibly as an adaptation of the periodic Monday and Thursday fasts the Jews followed. While it carries less obligation than the fasts ordained in Tanakh[the Hebrew Bible] and others in Talmud, some, particularly the Persian (Iranian) Jews, have kept it as faithfully, reciting special selihot (penitential) prayers and selections of Torah recited on all other fast days. [The same is true for traditional Jews outside of Iran as well.]

The Fast of the First Born

Excerpted from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook (Jason Aronson Inc.).

The sunrise to sunset ta’anit (fast) bekhorim (of the firstborn) is the only fast that applies to just a segment of the community: all males who are the firstborn children in their families (if the firstborn child is female, the first son born after her is not obligated). The father of a child too young to fast fasts for him, and if he himself is bekhor, the mother fasts for the child on the day of ErevPesach [the day in which Passover begins at nightfall]. Since it is forbidden to abstain from eating on Shabbat (except for Yom Kippur), when ErevPesach falls on Saturday night, the fast takes place on Thursday.

There is a widely practiced exemption: On the principle that fasting is prohibited on a joyous occasion, Judaism allows for anyone who attends a religious feast to forego fasting. It is customary to hold a celebratory meal on the completion of study of a tractate of Talmud, called a siyyum (conclusion). So rabbis initiated the practice of studying a portion of a Talmud tractate after morning services, held especially early on Erev Pesach. All the firstborn are invited to be present for the conclusion and share cake and schnapps afterward, considered a seudat (meal) mitzvah (in honor of a commandment; in this case, studying the Torah).

Among some Sephardim [Jews of Mediterranean descent], women used to observe the fast of the firstborn. The Syrians, who stringently observe it, include their women in the siyyum and seudat mitzvah following morning services. As an alternative, a community would sometimes arrange for the poor to be married on the day of ErevPesach. The firstborn were invited, since the wedding meal is a seudat mitzvah exempting them from the fast.

Kinot for Tisha B’Av

Excerpted with permission from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook (Jason Aronson Inc.).

Instead of the regular siddur [prayerbook] we use a special prayer book for the holiday, Kinot (Elegies), which contains the prayer services (Ma’ariv, Shacharit, and Minchah, the evening, morning, and afternoon services), the text of Lamentations, a selection of additional elegies, and the scriptural readings for the day.  Copies are usually provided by the synagogue or service organizers.Kinot


Most of the kinot chanted after Eicha (Lamentations) were composed during the difficult times of the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. Describing the transgressions of the Jews and their love for Israel, the most popular ones were written by Elazar Hakallir (the eighth-century liturgical poet), Judah Halevi (1085- 1145, the Spanish philosopher also considered to be the greatest post-biblical poet), and Solomon ibn Gabirol (another product of the Golden Age of Spain, 1021-1058).

Embodying a timeless quality that has given them lasting impact in the liturgy, they express the prayers and dreams of a persecuted people who look to God for hope. Often in acrostic or altered acrostic form, they frequently draw on imagery from Talmud and Midrash.

Most liturgies begin with a kinah of Hakallir, and end with a series known as Zionides, which extol the glory of Zion. In a favored elegy, written by Halevi, the poet expands on Jeremiah’s vision of the weeping woman identified as the matriarch Rachel (Jeremiah 31:15). He imagines himself walking on Jerusalem’s holy ground and encountering Mother Zion, who asks about the welfare of her children throughout the world.

Other kinot recited were written in response to tragedies in Jewish history. One commemorates the public burning of the Torah in Paris, another the massacres of German Jews during the first Crusade, another the slaughter of the Jews of York, and a recent one the annihilation of European Jewry in the Holocaust.

Shabbat Hazon & Shabbat Nahamu

Excerpted with permission from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook (Jason Aronson Inc.).

The Sabbaths surrounding the Ninth of Av carry a clear message relating to the holiday. The prophetic readings for the three weeks preceding the holiday–the first two from Jeremiah and the third from Isaiah– are full of admonitions in preparation for this mournful time. Following Tisha B’Av, there are seven prophetic readings of consolation–all from Isaiah–providing comfort after this somber occasion and preparing the individual emotionally and spiritually for the upcoming High holidays. The Sabbaths that immediately precede and follow Tisha B’Av each have a special name reflecting the message of the respective haftarah (prophetic reading)

The Sabbath immediately preceding the ninth of Av is known as the Sabbath of Vision (Hazon) for the prophetic reading Isaiah 1:1-27. After recounting heinous transgressions, it offers the hope of reconciliation, which will come when the people “cease to do evil, learn to do good.” The Sabbath of Vision and Shabbat Nahamu, which provides words of consolation a week later, embrace Tisha B’Av from opposite sides, cushioning the blow of the day of destruction, allowing the mourners to go into it knowing there is salvation and emerge from it reassured that redemption will come. The entire portion [of Shabbat Hazon] may be chanted to the melody of Eicha (Lamentations); more appropriately, only the verses of admonition are rendered in the subdued chant.

The upswing of hope begun on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av continues on the following Shabbat. Called Shabbat Nahamu (Console) after the first line of the day’s prophetic reading (Nachamu, nachamu ami, Console, console my people…”) (Isaiah 40:1-26), it is also the first of seven haftarot of consolation, all drawn from the book of Isaiah, that deliver a message of comfort in the seven weeks following Tisha B’Av and lead us to the period of Rosh Hashanah (49:14-51:3; 4:11-55:5; 1:12-52:12; 4:1-10; 60:1-22; 61:10-63:9).

Grief & Opportunity

Excerpted with permission from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook (Jason Aronson Inc.).

Have you ever been in a relationship that ended? Or watched a great chance come and go? Or made a choice you later wished you could reverse? How many times in your life have you said “I should have” or “if only…” It is difficult enough to let go of something you have in hand. But often a large part of the pain comes from the sense of loss over what you could have had.

You would not engage in “what ifs” if you were happy with a current situation. Displeasure with it and sadness for squandered potential or lost opportunity can be incapacitating: It’s extremely difficult to stride ahead when you are continually looking behind you. The rabbis of the post-destruction decades recognized this. So they concentrated the period and practices of mourning to free the people, so they would be able to move forward with their lives. If in your mourning you focus on identifying what is wrong and figuring out how to make it right, the experience can be cathartic and constructive.

Stepping Back

That is exactly the purpose of a fast day: to give you a chance to momentarily retreat from your imperfect present, the imperfect world, to step back and indulge in your dissatisfaction with it, and then step forward and take action that will lead to positive change. Tisha B’Av allows you to experience loss for what was and what might have been, individually and collectively. If used well, it can help you create what can be, personally and communally.

There may be any kind of past loss or regret in your life whose hold you need to relinquish. But what is it Jewishly that you miss? If it’s the smell of chicken soup on Friday night, the sales techniques of Maxwell Street, the colors and characters of the Lower East Side, or Bubbe [grandmother] and Zaide‘s [grandfather’s] Yiddish-accented speech, you’ve got a case of nostalgia, the source of melancholy reminiscence, perhaps, but not a reason to cry. As the once-popular poster of an oversized bagel suggested, there’s more to 2,000 years of Jewish civilization than this.

The Importance of Remembering

While ceremonies to commemorate the Holocaust are still being created, other reactions to this modern catastrophe have arisen within the Jewish community. One of the most widespread reactions is that remembering means preserving and enhancing Jewish continuity. In this article, the author argues passionately for commemoration of the Holocaust through creative and meaningful Jewish living.Excerpted from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook. Reprinted with permission from Jason Aronson Inc.

We always talk about remembering in conjunction with the Holocaust. Remember the six million. The world must remember so that a holocaust can never again happen. Remember those who perished in order to honor them and give their deaths meaning.

Memory has Brought Us This Far

It is memory that has allowed us to last through thousands of years of history. Our religion and our people are founded on the collective memory of revelation at Sinai. Scripture throughout commands us to remember: Remember the Sabbath day (Exodus 20:8), observe the Sabbath as a reminder of the Creation (Exodus 20:11) and of the Exodus (Deuteronomy 5:15); remember, continually, the Exodus; remember what the evil Amalek did

All those memories define us and help us keep focused on the goal of our national mission. As the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of [Hasidism]) taught, "Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption," words that appropriately guard your exit from the history museum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

The wall above the eternal flame in the Hall of Remembrance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC also invokes memory. "Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children" (Deuteronomy 4:9).

Memory as a Positive Force

The biblical citation etched into that wall, while an apt admonition in the face of Auschwitz, is out of context. What the original usage enjoins us never to forget is the experience at Mount Sinai and the laws given to us there, the positive context for purposeful living.

What we have to keep in mind in recalling the Holocaust is that memory must function, as it does in the Bible, as a positive force. It should not be used to inflict guilt and exact vengeance and certainly should not be (as unfortunately occurs) the defining element of Jewish life. We cannot raise our children to be healthy, constructive Jews by cowering them with expectations that the anti-Semitic world will force Jewish identification on them. Being Jewish mainly because the Holocaust happened or because anti-Semitism continues is not sufficient reason to hang on to a culture.

The Jews who maintained their heritage for thousands of years did so not because they were surrounded by rabid anti-Semitism. (Until Hitler’s demonic program, they always had the option to abandon Judaism for another belief system.) They did so because their way of life had value.

Memory and Jewish Renewal

While you are teaching your children about this painful period, remember to teach them that: Don’t talk only about the destruction but about what was destroyed: the rich culture, the intellectual accomplishments, the colorful tradition that was Eastern European Jewish life. Our heritage, our unique value system, our contributions to the world are what we must remember along with our troubled history. These are the memories that will prompt us to effectively engage in the revitalization of Jewish life.

The question each of us must ask is "How will I participate in Jewish renewal?" It may be through your children: raising them to be informed, identified Jews. (One suggested response to the tremendous loss of Jewish life is that each family have one more child than it had planned, to replenish the population, and its potential progeny, cut down by Hitler.)

Strengthening the community by supporting–with money and volunteer efforts–the institutions devoted to promoting Jewish life (physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual) is a widespread response. Helping ensure that Israel continues to grow and progress so there will always be a safe haven for Jews is of utmost importance.

Memory, Creativity, and Learning

If you are creative, produce art, literature, music, dance, or film on Jewish themes. Whether or not you are creative, read Jewish books, visit Jewish museums, attend Jewish programs, subscribe to Jewish periodicals. And, most of all, learn. Learning has always been a cornerstone of Jewish continuity and renewal.

In biblical days, the Israelites emerged from periods of idolatry, devastation, and exile by returning to Torah–reading it, trying to understand and live by it. [In modern times, ] from the ashes of the respected European yeshivot [academies] destroyed in the 1940’s have arisen new Jewish academies and other educational programs in Israel and in America (many of them supported by funds from Jews who are not themselves particularly tradition-minded or Jewishly well educated).

Day school, supplemental, family, and adult education programs are continually being expanded. Make sure your children have access to formal Jewish education (don’t overlook a good Jewish youth group or summer camp), and take advantage of learning opportunities yourself (don’t overlook the possibility of organizing or attending a study group in someone’s home).

All of these acts, while honoring the memory of the generations that preceded us, will create positive new memories and strong new Jewish realities for the generations that follow.

How the Holocaust Challenged Faith

Excerpted from
Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook
. Reprinted with permission from Jason Aronson Inc.

Religion attempts to make sense out of the world around us, finding order and meaning in what often seems chaotic and meaningless. Nothing has shaken the foundation of our religion like the chaotic and senseless Shoah. Its devastation was so widespread, its perpetration of evil so extensive, it raised searing theological questions about God and His role in the world; about good, evil, and justice; about the value of life and death; and about Jewish destiny.

How and why could the Holocaust have happened? Did it fit within the pattern of Jewish history, or was it a unique occurrence that would end it? Could it be read as a fulfillment of an ancient Torah prophecy or did it threaten the integrity of the entire Torah? Could the Jewish people respond to it as we have to previous drastic turning points in our history, or would it totally turn us away from the heritage and its burdens?

What We Expect of God

Until the Holocaust, the traditional view of God and His connection with Israel had remained intact: God was our Provider and Protector. Even though bad things would happen to His people–which [were seen] as the justified result of our failure to honor Him and the way of life He presented to us–periods of oppression would always be followed by salvation, and eventually the persecution-ending, exile-gathering, peace-bringing redemption would occur. As the Passover haggadah expresses it, “in every generation enemies rise up seeking to destroy us, but God delivers us from their hands.”

This expectation carried the Jews through the failed Bar Kokhba revolt, the Crusades, repeated humiliations and expulsions, pogroms and myriad persecutions, even the Spanish Inquisition. But it was shaken (and for some, completely shattered) by the success of the Nazis in decimating European Jewry. The destruction–not only of an astounding number of Jews but of a disproportionate percentage of scholars and rabbis, along with the major centers of Jewish culture and learning–challenged the long-held belief that God intervenes in the world to balance injustice by punishing evil and rewarding good.

Finding Meaning After the Holocaust

Excerpted from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook. Reprinted with permission from Jason Aronson Inc.

[Some] ultra-Orthodox [leaders] asserted that rather than destroying it, the Holocaust actually reaffirmed the covenant. For them, the devastation in Europe clearly fit the covenant’s projected pattern of Jewish history and was a typical case of God punishing Israel for its sins–in this case, assimilation and Zionism.

meaning after the holocaustSuggesting that more than one million innocent children were brutally sacrificed either because German Jews wanted to be acceptable to their non-Jewish neighbors, or because European Jews realized that modernity’s superficial tolerance of differences between supposedly equal human beings ultimately provided no protection for them, is an abhorrent explanation [which is] widely rejected […]

God’s Presence and Human Responsibility

Despite the discomfort the notion of Divine punishment for sins generates, our [biblical legacy] does [seem to] place responsibility for our situations in the world on our shoulders. At the end of his life, when the children of Israel were finally about to cross into the Promised Land, Moses prophetically warned them of what they would bring on themselves if they did not keep the conditions of the covenant: loss of their homeland, degradation, incredible suffering, dispersal to other nations, captivity, disease, idolatry, insecurity, despair, suspense, and terror (Deuteronomy 28:15-68; 32:5). In their distress, they would finally seek God and return to Him, and then they would receive the blessings the covenant promises (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).

As a people, we have experienced other traumatic turning points in our history. They required evaluation and reaffirmation of the Jewish agenda and revolutionary thinking and constructs to allow Judaism and the Jewish people to go forward. After the shocking destruction of the Temple and an entire way of life, the rabbis created new forms of worship, ritual, and structure for the Jewish community. After the Spanish Inquisition, the kabbalists (Jewish mystics) invested existing Jewish practice and new ritual with spiritual and mystical significance and taught that every act could contribute to healing the world.

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