The Fall Holidays in the Promised Land

One of the most amazing things in history is to read the Bible and see the practices of the Jewish people in the land of Israel beginning 3300-3500 years ago and compare them to today. Following a 1300-1500 year history in the land, described in both Testaments, Jews were then barred from the land for almost 2000 years. They spread to all the inhabited continents, carrying with them their traditions. Along the way, they added new traditions, often influenced by their environment. Finally, they began to return to the land around 150 years ago and built the modern state of Israel. Nothing reflects the Jewishness of the state more than the various holidays. That, of course, includes the Fall holidays of Rosh HaShana (new year), Yom Kippur (day of atonement) and Sukkot (feast of tabernacles).

The meaning and the practices of these holidays changed over the millennia. Yet, all of them maintain traditions and certainly connections to the Biblical period. However, the practices of these holidays and their associated traditions significantly differ from the experience of Jews in the Diaspora (especially the US) and in Israel.

I grew up in a typical American Jewish home. We belonged to a synagogue. I went to Hebrew school to prepare for my Bar Mitzvah. I became a Bar Mitzvah at age 13. Afterwards, like most American Jews, we rarely attended synagogue except for the High Holidays – Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. Honestly, I was never fond of those days. To me they were associated with long, boring services, capped off by the pleasant experience of fasting. After becoming a follower of Yeshua the Messiah and leading a Messianic Jewish congregation where we still practiced Jewish tradition, I tried to spice up the holiday experience with various innovations in our services. Still, the days were centered around the synagogue. In Israel, however, the experiences are quite different.

For Rosh HaShana the emphasis is on a big family meal on the first night. Except for the religious community (20-25%) of the population, most do not attend a synagogue. As I mentioned previously, Jews earlier had spread to all the continents and picked up unique traditions. For Rosh HaShana Sephardic Jews (Jews with Spanish origin) developed a seder meal, similar to but much shorter than Passover. We were introduced to it by some friends a few years ago. Like Passover, we use a small booklet to guide the service. Several types of food are utilized that represent certain things, e.g., dates represent peace, pomegranates – keeping the commandments and doing good deeds. For each element a prayer was constructed. For our family, I found a related New Testament passage for each element’s meaning, and we read that after each prayer. Most of our family was together for the holiday and on the second day, like many Israelis, we traveled to a local park – this one, Gan HaShloshah – a natural spring that spills into numerous pools. Some even say it’s the site of the original Garden of Eden. It’s a great and relaxing setting. Strangely, the small fish in the pools like to trim dead skin off of legs and feet. 

Yom Kippur in Israel is quite challenging. No one drives. There’s no law prohibiting driving, but it’s such a cultural no-no, that hardly anyone ventures out. For Yom Kippur, attendance at local synagogues is quite high. For Messianic congregations, Yom Kippur is an issue because few congregants live near enough to congregations to enable them to walk. Consequently, several Jerusalem congregations gather at Yad HaShmonah, a Messianic Jewish moshav and hotel, to hold services. We were privileged to attend a few years ago, but there’s limited space and priority goes to the congregational members. Our youngest daughter, Rebecca, and her family attend one of the congregations and reserved space at Yad HaShmonah. She then offered her place to us, and we could then walk to and attend the Yom Kippur service at the local Reform Jewish congregation, where our oldest daughter occasionally goes. Most congregations in Israel are Orthodox, and the services are grueling. We were then invited to our friends, the Katz’s, for the break the fast dinner. They also attend the Reform congregation, and David is one of the cantors. As it turned out, Rebecca’s daughter, Lily, was sick, and so we all stayed together in their small apartment. Later, we drove to the synagogue before sundown, where we would leave our car until the next evening. Following the service, we walked back to Rebecca’s home – probably about 2 miles. What we saw was amazing. The streets were filled with kids on bikes, scooters, strollers, anything. It was basically a long continuous block party. Because no one drives, the tradition is to fill the streets, play and ride bikes – honestly, a far cry from grieving over one’s sins in the synagogue services.

On Yom Kippur day, while most of us fasted, we decided to not attend service until the closing one (apparently, a popular tradition in Israel). Instead, we went for a short trek. We ended up on Route 1, the major highway connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Because no one drives, many were walking on the road. Imagine Rt. 95 in the US completely shut down for a full day. It would probably lead to an economic depression. As the sun began to set, only Ephraim (Amy’s husband) and I walked back to the synagogue for the closing service. Yom Kippur services always end with the final blowing of the shofar – pretty cool. We then jumped into our car again (yay – no more walking) and headed to the Katz’s for the break the fast meal. And there we ate on their balcony, overlooking Jerusalem and the Judean hills, pretty amazing really.

The next night, Sunday night, began Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. In the Biblical period, this was the most popular and celebrated holiday. During the 2nd Temple period it was called “The Feast.” One of the commandments is for everyone is to build a sukkah (booth) outside of their homes and to reside in it for seven days.  Only a small minority of Jews in the US actually even build one, much less reside in one. We never had one growing up. However, in Israel, it’s quite popular to build one, even with most people living in apartments. Many apartment dwellers, who have balconies, build one there. Last night we traveled to our friends, the Hillels, who hosted us in their balcony sukkah for a great meal. Apparently, earlier strong winds blew some of their decorations away. I’m guessing others found the decorations and added them to their sukkot.

Before our first Sukkot here in Israel, we had purchased the structure for our sukkah, and Stacy made the coverings out of sheets – I think we still sleep on some of them during the rest of the year. We’re planning on having some folks over during the week long holiday. Kids are off from school the whole week, and believe it or not, much of the government is closed during this period.  I must say the experiences here for the holidays are very different than what I was used to in the US. For the most part, I think I prefer the ones here.