Author Archives: Rabbi Paul Steinberg

Rabbi Paul Steinberg

About Rabbi Paul Steinberg

Paul Steinberg is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California and is the Head of the Etz Chaim Hebrew School. He previously served as the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at Levine Academy: A Solomon Schechter School in Dallas, Texas.

The Final Hours Before Rosh Hashanah

Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year (Jewish Publication Society).

The day before Rosh Hashanah holds special significance and has its own special customs. In preparation for this sacred holiday the Selichot are more extensive and the shofar is not sounded.

In addition, the cover to the reading table, the parokhet (curtain that covers the Torah scrolls), and the dressing of the Torah itself are often changed to white, to represent the motifs of purity and atonement. Other customs include visiting the graves of relatives and loved ones, contributing something significant to charitable causes, and sending greeting cards.

Hatarat Nedarim, the Annulling of Personal Vows

On erev (the day, or evening, before) Rosh Hashanah, some people choose to perform a ritual of introspection and spiritual mediation called hatarat nedarim, the annulling of vows. The ritual covers only vows made to themselves or to God — not vows made to another person.

In hatarat nedarim an individual asks to be released from vows that may have been said in a heated moment, but were not truly of the heart, and from casual statements that may have been worded as vows, but were not intended as such. This ritual is part of Judaism’s system for giving people second chances; but of course not every vow can or will be annulled.

In this case, a person who wishes to be released from vows finds three other people who also wish to be released from vows. One of those people makes a declaration in the presence of the three others, who serve as a beit din (literally, “house of judgment”) — a legal court according to Jewish law. After the first person is absolved of these vows by the others, another takes a turn asking for absolution while the remaining three serve as the beit din, and so on with the group.

Whether or not one uses the traditional formula found in some prayer books, it is important to practice hatarat nedarim with people who can be open and honest, as well as thoughtful, in their responses.

How to Prepare for Rosh Hashanah

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

Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year (Jewish Publication Society).

Because there is so much at stake spiritually during Rosh Hashanah, we make preparations beginning a full month earlier. At Rosh Hodesh Elul, or the start of the new month of Elul, we begin to stir with anticipation for this day of spiritual renewal. We set out our spiritual provisions by readying our minds for prayer and our hearts for forgiveness and by doing whatever we can to attain God’s compassion and mercy when the Day of Judgment arrives.

shofar and tallit

Blowing the Shofar Before Rosh Hashanah

The most prominent feature of the month of Elul is the sounding of the shofar each morning, except on Shabbat. Three primary reasons are given for this practice. The first one is to confuse Satan about the date for Rosh Hashanah, so that he will not be able to affect God’s judgment of people with his accusations against them.

The second one pertains to a rabbinic legend, which says that Moses’ ascent to receive the second tablets on the first of Elul was accompanied by blasts of the shofar. Therefore, the shofar reminds us of the story of the Golden Calf and that we must always be aware of our potential for sinning.

The third one has as its source the famous phrase heard at many weddings from the Song of Songs (6:3) Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, meaning “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” The first letters (aleph, lamed, vav, lamed) of each Hebrew word form an acrostic for the word Elul. From this hint, we gather that the period extending from the beginning of Elul through Yom Kippur (a total of 40 days) is a time ripe to become beloved by God. The shofar alerts us to that loving relationship.

Reciting Selihot, or Penitential Prayers

Another important practice during Elul is the recitation of Selihot (literally, “forgivenesses”), which are penitential prayers and poems added to the daily morning prayers. This custom is based on a legend portraying King David as troubled over how the Israelites will be able to truly atone for their transgressions. God responds by advising him that the people should confess their sins by saying poems and prayers of penitence.

Why is Hanukkah Eight Days?

Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays, published by Jewish Publication Society.

When the Greeks entered the Temple they defiled all the oils and when the Hasmoneans prevailed and defeated them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the Kohen Gadol. It contained only enough oil to light for one day, yet a miracle happened and they used it to light for eight days.

-B. Talmud Shabbat 21b

It’s Miraculous

This aspect of the Hanukkah story, learned from the Talmud, is commonly taught to Jewish children in Hebrew and Sunday schools across America; and it is surely the most remembered part of the holiday narrative, told and retold throughout the world. Perhaps this miracle-centered version occurs so often because Jews are more familiar with the Talmud than with the Apocrypha where the historical books of the Maccabees are found.

why eight days of hanukkah?Or perhaps the frequency is inspired by the emphasis on the oil and the hanukkiah (Hanukkah menorah); they offer something tangible with which to express our deep connection to and appreciation for the valor of our ancestors. Most likely though, the recounting of the miracle is so dominant and popular because it focuses on the role of God in this story, as opposed to the Maccabees’ military accomplishments–a focus echoeing a phrase from the biblical Book of Zechariah that is always chanted during Hanukkah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit…”

Whatever the reason, the talmudic legend remains the account of Hanukkah that most Jews know. Within it, however, are layers of items to ponder and criticize and questions to answer. For example, even people who seem to accept the legend and not question the miraculous nature will ask why we must celebrate for eight days; after all, if there was enough oil for one day, then the duration of the miracle was only seven days not eight! The common response from the tradition is that the oil burned extraordinarily slowly, diminishing only a bit for each of the eight days, and therein lies the miracle.

Antiochus the Madman

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Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays, published by Jewish Publication Society.

In 175 BCE, amid this social-political unrest, a new ruler, Antiochus IV, ascended to the throne of Greco-Syria. As did many rulers, he appended the title Epiphanes (“God Manifest”) to his name; but many people referred to him instead as Antiochus Epimames (“The Madman”).
Immediately upon assuming power, he decided to pursue the conquest of Egypt, which no other Seleucid king had been able to accomplish. The Romans were advancing eastward and expanding their empire. If Antiochus could conquer and annex Egypt, his kingdom’s size and power would be greatly increased and the Romans might be resisted.

But before doing so, he would have to stabilize his own country and consolidate political support by uniting the disparate cultural, social, and religious elements. Under Alexander the Great, hellenization had been a movement that still allowed room for cultural variation; under Antiochus, hellenization was intended to take a big step further and become the agent of cultural totalitarianism.

Antiochus’ Relationship with Jews

The Jews were clearly targets of Antiochus’s strategy of Hellenization. He understood that to ultimately succeed in Egypt, he would need to disrupt the influence of the Jews within his own territories. He decided to tackle the priesthood in Jerusalem by replacing Onias the Third, the latest Kohen Gadol (high priest), with Onias’s brother Joshua, who was loyal to the Greeks. Joshua became High Priest and immediately changed his name to Jason.

To a certain extent, Antiochus’s plan worked. Jason submitted to the king’s will and helped implement the new totalitarian doctrine. Jerusalem became a little version of Antioch, replete with a gymnasium where the Jewish Kohanim often played Greek sports in the nude. Meanwhile, King Antiochus had access to the Temple treasury to help fund his military campaign to conquer Egypt.

How Long Have Jews Been Celebrating Hanukkah?

Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays, published by Jewish Publication Society.

The underpinnings of Hanukkah differ from those of the other Jewish holidays, because the origins of Hanukkah and the development of its practices are not drawn from the Bible and are only given slight mention in the Mishnah. The first notable mention of Hanukkah appears circa the sixth century CE in the Gemara with this question: What is Hanukkah (Shabbat 21b)?

Most likely, the question is rhetorical. We can surmise that the sages were already aware of Hanukkah, because its story was widely circulated within sources known to Jews. The talmudic Rabbis would have been familiar with the Books of the Maccabees, which we generally consider the primary historical sources for the story of Hanukkah. These are found in the “deuterocanonical” books, most of which are in a fifth century CE collection called Apocrypha.

Although such books are not part of the canonized Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh), they were popular among Jews and early Christians and were set in the biblical canon of the Catholic Church, as well as the canons of Ethiopian, Oriental, and Eastern Orthodox churches.


Centuries earlier, however, the Books of the Maccabees had been part of the first Greek translation of what was then described as the Hebrew Bible. This translation was called the Septuagint (literally “The Seventy”), and the story of its origin comes from a legend found in the fictional “Letter of Aristeas.” Retold by Philo of Alexandria, the first century CE, assimilated Jewish philosopher, the legend saysthat the Greek king of Egypt in the third century BCE requested a Greek translation of the Bible for the magnificent library of Alexandria.

The High Priest of the Jews commissioned six members from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, for a total of 72 (not 70, but close!) who were taken to Alexandria and placed in separate chambers.

Therein they transcribed their own translations. After exactly 72 days, each of the translators emerged with an identical translation of the Torah. This legend served to affirm the validity and sacred status of the books of the Septuagint as a legitimate Bible. A version of this legend would later appear in the Talmud itself (Megillah 9a-b).

Intermarriage and Purim

When reading the Purim story, we might easily expect the subject of intermarriage between the Persian king, Achashverosh, and the Jewish queen, Esther, to have been examined over the years, yet the topic tends to have been ignored. In today’s world when intermarriage is particularly common and often considered the most significant contributor to the decreasing Jewish population, the theme presented within Purim is ripe for examination.

Traditional Judaism has been able to generally overlook this issue because odd marriages occur with some frequency in the Bible, including that of Jacob and Leah (a marriage of a patriarch and a matriarch based on deception); Judah and Tamar (a marriage based on a man unknowingly impregnating his daughter-in-law), and David and Bathsheba (a marriage that grows out of adultery between a great king and the wife of his close friend).

Intermarriage in the Bible

The most obvious parallel to the story of Esther is found in the behavior of the patriarch Abraham married to the matriarch Sarah. They are traveling together through foreign lands, and she is disguised as his sister. On two separate occasions, Abraham, to save his own life and ultimately both of their lives, has Sarah hide her identity. This action leads to her becoming a wife of the local king, first of Pharoah and then of Abimelech. Abraham and Sarah are reunited and live to be the parents of the Jewish nation.

Intermarriage in the BibleIn the Purim story, Mordecai, residing in a land ruled by strangers, advises Esther not to reveal her family origins or Jewish identity. She marries the local king, and this action saves that very same Jewish nation.

Responses to Esther’s Marriage

Rashi, the great medieval commentator, justifies the marriage between Esther and Achashverosh by claiming that Esther went against her will and married the king only because she would receive the opportunity to help the Jewish people.” The mystical text of the Zohar goes so far to say that the Shekhinah (God’s presence) concealed Esther’s soul and sent another soul in its place; when the king slept with the queen, she was not the real Esther.

Shushan Purim

Among all the Jewish holidays, Purim has the singular distinction of having its date determined by whether or not a person lives in a city surrounded by a wall. The distinction is derived from a passage in the Megillah:

“But the Jews in Shushan mustered on both the 13th and 14th days and so rested on the 15th and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking. That is why village Jews who live in unwalled towns observe the 14th day of the month Adar and make it a day merrymaking and feasting and as a holiday and an occasion for sending gifts to one another.”
-Esther 9:18-9

Who celebrates what and when?

The story differentiates between Jews who lived and fought their enemies for two days within the walled, capital city of Shushan and those who lived in unwalled towns, where only one day was needed to subdue the enemy. The Rabbis determined we should make that same distinction when memorializing the event. Accordingly, if a person lives in a city that has been walled since the days of Joshua (circa 1250 B.C.E.), as Shushan was, Purim is celebrated on the fifteenth of the month of Adar, a day referred to as “Shushan Purim.”

Walled JerusalemThose who live in unwalled cities celebrate on the 14th, the day referred to as just “Purim.” The sages considered making Shushan Purim conditional on whether a city was walled from the time of Ahasuerus; but they did not wish to honor a Persian city over one in the Land of Israel, given that Israel was in ruins at the time of the Purim miracle. Joshua was chosen because, in the Book of Exodus, he is the general who begins the effort to annihilate the descendants of Haman’s ancestor, Amalek.”

In addition, the time of Joshua is related to the Israelite conquest of the Land of Israel, the memory of which reinforces Purim’s theme of Jewish victory.” For Jews who have been living in the Diaspora, the observance of Shushan Purim is not even a consideration, because we know of no cities in these countries that were walled 3,000 years ago. Anyone visiting Jersualem, though, should be prepared to celebrate a joyous Shushan Purim.”

The Torah Service for Simchat Torah

Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year (Jewish Publication Society).

“Every seventh year…at the Feast of Booths (Sukkot)…you shall read this Teaching aloud in the presence of all Israel (Deuteronomy 31:10-12).”

In much of the Diaspora (the Jewish communities outside the Land of Israel), Shemini Atzeret (the eighth day of Sukkot) is followed directly by a second special day, Simchat Torah (literally, “joy of the Torah”). In Israel and in most Reform congregations, however, all of the observances for Simhat Torah are held on Shemini Atzeret, combining the two holidays into one day and making them almost indistinguishable. Simchat Torah itself is the celebration dedicated to both completing the yearly cycle of public Torah reading and starting it again. 

The first mention of such a cycle appears in the Bible, in Deuteronomy, where Moses instructs the tribe of Levi and the elders of Israel to gather all the people for a public reading from portions of the Torah once every seven years. The need to read the Torah publicly intensified after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE; Jews were dispersed into other parts of the Middle East, into North Africa, and into Europe; and their earlier religious and cultural world became decentralized.

Triennial & Annual Readings

rolled torahBecause a reference in the Mishnah (the first effort to permanently record Jewish custom and law, compiled in the 3rd century C.E.) supported Deuteronomy’s prescription, we understand that Jews were continuing to read the Torah publicly; and we also know that there were Torah readings for festivals, special Shabbatot (plural of Shabbat), and fast days.

But it was not until the Talmudic era, about the 6th century C.E., that the Jews in the Land of Israel began to read the entire Torah in public and do so until all the Five Books of Moses were completed. At that time, the cycle took three years in a pattern called the Palestinian triennial, beginning the first year with the first book, Genesis, and finishing, at the end of the third year, with the fifth book, Deuteronomy.

Erev (Night Of) Yom Kippur

When is Yom Kippur 2015? Click here to find out!

Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year (Jewish Publication Society).

The first night of Yom Kippur includes two unusual features that are an important part of the transition into the harsh self-assessment of Yom Kippur. The first is the daily afternoon prayer service, Mincha, which, on this day, includes a special confessional, Vidui. During the Vidui we beat ourselves on the chest for each transgression listed. This action serves as a symbolic punishment for our hearts, which are ultimately responsible for leading us to sins of greed, lust, and anger.

The Meal Before

The tradition emphasizes, however, that one must say the confessional prior to eating the meal that precedes the Yom Kippur fast, a meal known as seudah ha-mafseket (literally, “the meal that interrupts”). After all, as the Talmud says, one may not feel up to confessing after eating a large meal. Or, God forbid, if a person dies at the meal, they will have died without having made the confession and their divine judgment may be less favorable.

That being said, the meal after the Vidui should be large and festive, creating a painful distinction between the satisfaction of a full belly and the longing for food experienced during the fast, while, at the same time, helping us to complete the entire fast.


Before leaving for the synagogue and the Yom Kippur evening services, people partake in other customs that underscore an important Jewish principle: what is sacred extends from the core of the individual, to family and loved ones. Some people make a point of immersing themselves in the mikvah (ritual bath), a longstanding purifying ritual for not only women, but also men. Going to the mikvah is associated with spiritual transformation (for example, it is used before marriage and before conversion to Judaism) and therefore is a fitting custom to follow as we enter the holiest of holy days.

Blessing Children

In another custom, parents say a special blessing over their children. To the words of the prayer that is recited on the eve of every Shabbat, they add wishes for their children’s welfare in the year to come. It is customary to express hope that they and their children may live upstanding lives, dedicated to acts of lovingkindness, charity, and study.

What is Shemini Atzeret?

Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year (Jewish Publication Society).

Although Hoshanah Rabbah may technically be the “last day” of Sukkot, the Rabbis decided to treat Shemini Atzeret (and Simchat Torah) as a part of Sukkot, because its significance is unequivocally informed by Sukkot itself.simchat Torah quiz

Two cryptic references in the Torah cause the confusion about the status of Shemini Atzeret. In both Leviticus and Numbers, God commands that the eighth (shemini) day –referring to Sukkot–is to be a “sacred occasion” and an atzeret, generally translated as “solemn gathering.”

What is Atzeret?

The inherent problem is that no one really knows exactly what atzeret means. Possibly it comes from the word atzar, meaning “stop,” and thus implies that we are to refrain from work. On the other hand, atzeret may also be defined by its textual context, which implies that it is some sort of deliberate extension of the prior seven days. This lack of verbal clarity is likely the reason why the rabbinic sages seemed to struggle with the precise meaning of the holiday.

The earliest rabbinic reference to Shemini Atzeret calls it yom tov aharon shel ha-hag, the last day of the festival. The Talmud (Taanit 20b-31a), however, declares, “The eighth day is a festival in its own right.” At the same time, the Talmud (Taanit 28b) attempts to distinguish it from Sukkot, as there are 70 temple sacrifices given throughout Sukkot, compared to only one given on Shemini Atzeret. (This distinction was only theoretical as the Temple had been destroyed five centuries prior to the redaction of the Talmud.)

Cutting through this puzzle, the most appealing depiction of the holiday may be that of Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century Orthodox rabbi who lived in Germany. He infers the meaning of the holiday from the word atzeret, which he renders as “to gather” or “to store up.” Accordingly, on this eighth day of Sukkot, the final day of celebration, we must store up the sentiments of gratitude and devotion acquired throughout the entire fall holiday season; nearly two months will pass until we celebrate another holiday, that of Hanukkah.