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The life of a Jew has a very specific rhythm, marked by the holidays in the Jewish calendar. Each holiday brings us back in contact with our God, our community and our family.
The Jewish holidays have a particular feature which we really appreciate: each of them has a strong connection with some specific foods, which enrich the celebration not only with nourishment, but also with symbolical meaning. Shabbat, made sacred every Friday by the care we put into preparing our dinner; Shavuot, with typical milk-based dishes; Channukkah, characterized by the fried foods we eat in memory of the miracle of the oil that lasted 8 days… it is easy to see how food constitutes a fundamental element of Jewish culture.
The main Jewish holidays are divided into three groups:
– Yamim noraim (solemn days), which include the days of Rosh Hashanah and Kippur and the 10 days of intercurrent repentance;
– Shalosh regalim (three pilgrimages), which include the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, Succot;
– Rabbinic holidays, which are not expressly mentioned in the Bible, but were developed later during the rabbinic period of Jewish history; these include Channukkah, Tu Bi’Shvat, Purim, Lag Ba Omer.
There are also other minor Jewish holidays, fasts and secular festivals that are celebrated especially in Israel but also in the diaspora (Yom Ha Shoah, Yom Azikaron…); however, we do not deal with them a lot on Labna because they do not have a specific connection with food.
Let’s now go a little in detail and see together what we celebrate on each occasion; you can read the history of each of the main Jewish holidays below, and if you click on the specific holidays names (in orange) you will be linked to some special archive pages where we collected all the traditional recipes for each celebration.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and is, with Yom Kippur, the most solemn holiday for our people. It is a holiday that concerns the individual and his/her relationship with God: each of us in fact, on this day, meditates on his/her own actions and asks God for forgiveness, promising to do better in the New Year.
With Rosh Hashanah begins the period of the ten days of repentance, which ends with Kippur: we have 10 days to repent of our sins and bad actions, in order to present ourselves purified before God to receive his judgment on Yom Kippur.
During the meal of Rosh Hashanah, various symbolic foods are consumed: it is customary to eat a slice of apple dipped in honey, so that the new year may be sweet; some pomegranate seeds, with the wish that the people of Israel be as numerous as the seeds of this fruit; and some other particular products that differ depending from the country of origin of each Jewish family.
Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, is the most sacred of the ten days of repentance that begin after Rosh Hashanah. On this day we ask God to forgive us for all our sins, to judge us with mercy, and to record our names in the Book of Life; this is indeed the day on which the Lord “seals” His decree on our fate, based on our past behavior.
During Kippur, every job is absolutely forbidden, and one must abstain from all food and drink for 25 hours. On Yom Kippur, we must ask forgiveness for our mistakes and bad deeds, not only to God, but also to all the people we have offended during the year.
Pesach or Passover
Pesach or Passover is the great holiday of freedom. It commemorates the emancipation of the Jews from the long slavery in Egypt, and the exodus from that land. During Passover, eating any leavened food, and food consisting of wheat, barley, rye, oats, or spelt, is prohibited; we cannot even keep such foods at home, thus all our homes must undergo a thorough cleaning. During the Passover ceremony, called Seder, we consume some foods with a strong symbolic value: matzoth, meaning unleavened breads, in memory of the Jew’s hasty escape from Egypt; a roasted leg of lamb, reminiscent of the Easter sacrifice; a hard-boiled egg, symbol of the eternity of life; some bitter herbs, which remind us of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt; the charoset, a kind of fruit jam, which reminds us of the mortar with which our ancestors prepared bricks for the pharaoh’s construction work.
Shavuot is also called the feast of the weeks. It commemorates the revelation of God on Mount Sinai and the gift of the Torah, the law. During Shavuot, many dairy products are eaten. It is said in fact that the study of the Torah tastes of milk and honey, but also that the people of the newly created Israel needed the Torah as a baby needs to be nourished with milk.
On Sukkot we remember the huts where our forefathers lived, for forty years, in the desert, after fleeing from Egypt. The hut is a symbol of the precariousness of life but, above all, of the protection of God given to the people of Israel.
The most important requirement of this holiday is to spend time in the sukkah, a replica of the huts the Jews lived in during their years in the desert: people gather to eat meals and, where possible, even sleep in the sukkah.
Sukkot is also a celebration of the harvest. It markes the end of the agricultural season, when the farmer, after a year of work struggling against the elements of nature, finally has his granaries, warehouses and cellars filled with the harvest.
Hanukkah, the eight-day festival of lights, usually falls during the period when Christmas is celebrated by non-Jews.
At Hanukkah we remember a miracle that occurred in very ancient times, in 165 BC, in Israel. Jerusalem was at that time under the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria, a very cruel and tyrannical ruler; Judas Maccabeus became the head of a rebellion against Antiochus and reconquered the Temple, previously taken and profaned by the army of the king.
Entering the Temple to rededicate it, the Jews had to light the candles that permanently lit the sanctuary, but only found a small ampoule of pure oil, enough for just one day. However, a great miracle occurred, and the oil burned for eight days.
For this reason at Hanukkah, in memory of the miracle of the oil, we light candles in our homes for 8 evenings and eat many foods fried in oil.
Tu Bi’Shvat is the New Year of the trees; in fact, in the ancient Jewish state, this day was celebrated because it marked the boundary between two agricultural years. During this period the trees in Israel begin to bloom.
Today, on Tu BiShvat we plant new trees and eat the seven types of fruit for which Israel was historically renowned: wheat, barley, olives, dates, grapes, figs, and pomegranate.
The story of Purim, which happened about 2500 years ago, is told in the book of Esther.
This books tells the story of Esther (a very virtuous Jewish woman who married Ahasuerus, king of Persia), her uncle Mordechai (a very pious Jew) and their antagonist Haman (the prime minister of the kingdom).
When Mordecai refuses to bow in front of Haman, the evil minister decides to take revenge for the offence caused by Mordechai on the entire Jewish people, and asks the King to kill all the Jews of his great kingdom. However, Queen Esther convinces King Ahasuerus to stop Haman’s evil plan, and convict the evil minister for his cruelty: the Jewish people is saved.
At Purim we rejoice for the escaped danger and celebrate by sharing edible gifts (called mishloach manot) with friends and family.
Lag Ba Omer
Lag BaOmer is a Jewish religious holiday that falls between Pesach and Shavuot, and it’s very difficult to explain.
There are 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot and in this period, in ancient times, the ceremony of the offer of the omer took place: an amount of barley was brought by Jews as a sacrifice to the Temple of Jerusalem.
The holiday of Lag BaOmer originates around the time of Rabbi Akiva, between the first and second century AD. The first 33 days of the counting of the omer are considered days of mourning because during this period 24.000 students of Rabbi Akiva died due to unidentified causes: some claim that the students died because of a plague epidemic sent by God to punish them, while others believe that the death of the students is related to one of the bloodiest Jewish riots against the Roman Empire, that of Bar Kochba, which occurred between 132 and 135 AD.
Whatever the cause of this massive death, we know that on the 33rd day between Pesach and Shavuot the massacre ended; for this reason, a time of celebration was established. On this holiday, particularly in Israel, but also in the rest of the world, there are barbecues and picnics, with spectacular bonfires around which both adults and children gather to sing and dance.