Counting the Omer

Lab B'Omer

Contributed by Board Chair, Rabbi Cantor Anne Heath

HISTORY

The “Counting of the Omer,” which is a mourning period of sorts between Passover and Shavuot, originated as an agricultural tradition but became associated with tragic memories in Jewish history. Jews suspend the mourning period for one day during the Omer. This day, the thirty-third day of the Omer, is the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer. “Lag” is how to pronounce the abbreviation for the Hebrew word for “thirty-third.” In 2016, observance of Lag B’Omer will begin at sundown on May 25.

In the course of the long centuries of exile, the days between Passover and Shavuot have on many occasions been periods of distress and misfortune for the Jewish people. For example, in the Middle Ages, the Crusader massacre of the Jews of Jerusalem took place at this time. In Roman times, according to tradition, a great plague raged among the students of Rabbi Akiba during this period, coming to an end on the eighteenth of Iyar, which is Lag B’Omer. Another tradition concerns Shimon Bar Yochai, a distinguished disciple of Rabbi Akiba. Sentenced to death by the Romans for his participation in a revolt against them, he hid in a cave and did not come out until Lag B’Omer, when he learned that the enemy had been defeated. Because of the connection to Rabbi Akiba and his students, Lag B’Omer is known as the Scholar’s Festival, and Jewish children throughout the world hold special celebrations to mark the occasion.

PRACTICES

Many synagogues hold picnics and outings on Lag B’Omer, with food, music, dance, sporting events (often in the form of the competitive Maccabiah), and other festivals. It is often the last social get-together before the summer vacation. Jewish weddings are often held on Lag B’Omer as well. Some synagogues hold a bonfire and cookout on Lag B’Omer which often includes Israeli singing and dancing.

In Israel, Lag B’Omer is a day for bonfire celebrations. The most famous is held at the village of Meron, near the northern city of Safed. Shimon Bar Yochai is said to be buried there, and huge crowds gather at his tomb for this very happy celebration. It is said that while Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was hiding in his cave he wrote a famous holy book of mysticism called the Zohar. On Lag B’Omer, many of the Hasidim study portions of the Zohar during the special celebrations at Meron.

Finally, some synagogue schools have turned Lag B’Omer into a day for honoring their religious school teachers. Special assemblies and parties are held, and awards are often given to the teachers.

The custom of children playing with a bow and arrow on Lag B’Omer is traced to the legend that rainbows did not appear during the lifetime of Shimon Bar Yochai because of his saintliness. A rainbow (“Keshet” in Hebrew) is a sign that the world would not be destroyed. Since Bar Yochai was so good, there was no need for the affirmation of the rainbow. The word for “bow” in Hebrew is the same as the word for “rainbow,” therefore children play with bows and arrows to remember Bar Yochai. Other people associate the custom with the traditions that the students of Rabbi Akiba deceived the Romans by carrying bows and arrows to pretend that they were hunting, when in fact they were studying Torah, which the Romans had forbidden.

Since the days preceding Lag B’Omer were traditionally considered days of mourning, and therefore haircutting and shaving were not permitted, Lag B’Omer became a time for youngsters to get their first haircut. Often their parents plied them with wine and sweets to celebrate this happy occasion. Since Lag B’Omer is a break from the mourning, people also choose to have weddings then, which are prohibited during the period from Pesach to Shavuot.

Some families use Lag B’Omer as the occasion for a family outing or picnic.

 

Source: Sacred Celebrations: A Jewish Holiday Handbook by Ronald H. Isaacs and Kerry M. Olitzky. Ktav Publishing House: Hoboken, New Jersey, 1994. From www.bigtentjudaism.org

Beltane and Spring

bonfire

Contributed by board member, The Rev. Tanya April-Trzeciak

The Merry Month of May.  Here in New England May is a month for joy.  March and the Vernal Equinox offer us hope but the strong winds and rain, even snow, often don’t hold much promise.  Then April comes along with more rain and warmth but there is still the threat of cold winds and snow.  May is the time when that promise of hope is finally fulfilled.  The trees are more than just tiny buds, there is more color than just the Forsythia yellow and the birds are feeding their young and singing the praises of the beautiful weather.  We find the earth warming so we can get our tomatoes in and many have been harvesting the peas for a few weeks now.

For Pagans May is full of joy and celebration where wehonor the fertility of the earth and all living things.  Flowers that bring us the luscious fruit are pollinized by the insects, peas and radishes are being picked and we begin to think of all the happiness we pushed aside during the cold dark days of winter.  May truly is spring.  May shows us that the cycle really does continue.  There are no more false hopes and the promised warm days that we had in March and April are truly here.  No, we have honest to goodness days of warmth and sunshine and nights that are not freezing cold.

We may not celebrate May as some of the ancients did with the Great Rite (Divine Marriage), but we do celebrate with singing and dancing and playing games.  The light of the bonfires cleanses away all the negativity still holding on.  Celebrate May and be joyous.  Blessed Be.

Jewish Spiritual Practice

Sonsino6JewishPaths

From board member Rabbi/Cantor Anne Heath

In Rabbi Rifat Sonsino’s book, 6 Jewish Paths: A Rationalist Looks at Spirituality (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2000), his guiding text comes from the Babylonian Talmud tractate, Berakhot (Blessings), page 63a:

Bar Kapparah expounded: Which is the brief biblical passage upon which all the basic principles of the Torah depend? “In all your ways, know the divine” – Proverbs 3:6

The book’s first chapter “Spirituality – What Is It?” ends with a brief story:

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk once asked his students, “Where does God dwell?” Thinking the answer obvious, one of them said, “God dwells everywhere!” “No,” said the Rabbi, “God dwells wherever we let God in.” Each person must do this according to his or her own personal needs and disposition.

Rabbi Sonsino then devotes a chapter to each of the six paths: (1) acts of transcendence, (2) study, (3) prayer, (4) meditation, (5) ritual and (6) relationship and good deeds. These paths encompass a variety of spiritual practices – some solitary and many communal.

Sonsino’s summary chapter “Finding Your Spiritual Path” reflects the Exodus 24:7 verse where the people Israel stand at the foot of Mount Sinai, affirming their acceptance of the Covenant, saying together, “na’aseh v’nishmah” – “we will do and we will hear.”

Our rabbis and sages throughout the generations have taught from this Torah verse that doing comes before understanding, before “hearing.”

This is the way of spiritual practices.  It is called “practice” because that’s what you’re doing, you’re practicing. And, you’re practicing in order to be able to practice more deeply and fully, not because there is some end point or some point of perfection.  Each practice is a unit in and of itself.  It may inform future moments, give you greater understanding, allow you to do more, but it is what it was in its own time. Each practice provides an opening to “know the divine” in all your ways and to do and then hear and do and hear, throughout all the days of your life.

Chazak, chazak v’nitchazeik – May you go from strength to strength, and may we all be strengthened.

More information here:

Talmud: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/talmud-101/ )

A more traditional translation is “in all your ways acknowledge Him”

Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/mendel.html

Torah http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-torah/

Holy Week Pilgrimage to Jerusalem

In the late 4th century CE, a Spanish nun by the name of Egeria made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and described what she saw to her sister nuns. The pilgrimage industry had grown substantially in the previous 50 years or so since Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine had arrived in the Holy Land, determined to find the sites where the stories about Jesus had occurred. Once found, Helena worked to erect churches on those sites, and those Christians who had sufficient resources, both in time and money, could experience what it must have been like to walk with Jesus during his earthly ministry.

It is not surprising that during the week before Easter, there were rituals at the various sites associated with the Jesus’ last days on earth. The week began on the Saturday of the weekend before Easter, with the remembrance in Bethany of the day that Jesus rested with his friends. On the Sunday before Easter Sunday, there was a re-enactment of Jesus triumphant procession into Jerusalem, greeted by people bearing palm branches. On Thursday, the congregation gathered in the cave where Jesus met with his friends and kept vigil all night. On Friday, the congregation gathered to kiss the wood of the true cross (which Helena also discovered), and from the sixth to the ninth hours, lessons were read, hymns sung, and the congregation mourned. On Saturday, a paschal (Easter) vigil was held.

While those who were able to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Easter got the benefit of walking through the events of Jesus’ last days, most Christians would never be able to make the trip. So, many of the rituals that were originally celebrated in Jerusalem at the holy sites were taken back to local parish churches. In that way, all Christians were able to make this sacred pilgrimage. These services became basis for Holy Week observances, and are still observed, much the same way, 2000 years later.

Celebrating Ostara

from our board member, The Rev. Tanya April-Trzeciak

Ostara is the Latin name for the Saxon spring goddess, Eostre. Her counterpart in ancient Greece was Eros, also called Aurora. The vernal equinox is a time of balance when day and night are equal. It is a day to celebrate both the earth and the sun. Our ancestors included the symbolic union of the god and goddess in their rituals and honored the balance of all things; male and female, spiritual and physical. In Celtic Cornwall and Wales, Ostara was called Lady Day and celebrated the return of the goddess after her winter hibernation.

In the maiden-mother-crone cycle of the goddess and the season, the maiden phase is now unfolding as the earth renews herself. Signs of renewing life can be seen everywhere as snowdrops and crocuses emerge and trees come into leaf. The season brings freshness into our lives and new perspectives as we shed heavy winter clothes and feel the warmth of the sun on our bodies.

This is the time of spring’s return. The seed time, the joyful time, the time when life bursts from the womb of the earth breaking the shackles of winter. The time of balance when night and day, light and dark, are equal. Now is the time when the Prince of Light, born of the winter solstice, meets the Dark Maiden, who returns from the underworld. As they dance, flowers appear and warm sunlight makes the earth green.

Cranberry Circle CUUPS celebrates Ostara by performing a seed blessing and an indoor planting ritual. We decorate eggs after our ritual and consecrate them to the Goddess of Spring and the ever-returning God of the Sun. “New life lies within this egg as new life enters the soil. Let those who seek life find it.” Our altar is decorated with all the symbols of spring fertility…eggs, rabbits, flowers and seeds.

Cranberry Circle Covenant of Unitarian Universalists (CUUPS) will be celebrating Ostara on March 21 in the church hall at 7:00 P.M. of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro, MA 25 S. Main St. Middleboro. ALL ARE WELCOME.

Setting Our Faces Towards Jerusalem: A Lenten Quiet Evening

CGCSP Soughers Setting Our Faces Towards Jerusalem

Come and join us for an evening of quiet and reflection. From early Christian times, Holy Week has been a major time of pilgrimage. As Christians prepare for the holiest week of the year, come and prepare yourself to journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem.

We will begin at 6:00 with a soup supper and end by 9:30. Come for all of it or any part. Meditations will be offered, and feel free to bring any quiet activity that will assist you in your own preparation.