Friday, September 14, 2012

Święta Żydów Polskich – Polish Jewish Holidays

How People Lived in Old Poland
by Staś Kmieć
September issue of The Polish American Journal
   Poland, throughout most of the country’s thousand-year history has remained a vague concept geographically and ethnographically.  The history of the Jews in Poland dates back over a millennium. For centuries, Poland was home to the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world.  It was the center of Jewish culture thanks to a long period of statutory religious tolerance and social autonomy.
   From the founding of the Kingdom of Poland in 1025 through to the early years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth created in 1569, Poland was the most tolerant country in Europe.   As a shelter for persecuted and expelled European Jewish communities and the home to the world's largest Jewish community of the time, it was known as paradisus Iudaeorum (Latin for "Paradise for the Jews").   According to some sources, about three-quarters of all Jews lived in Poland by the middle of the 16th century.
   The first Jews arrived in the territory in the 10th century by travelling along the trade routes leading eastwards to Kiev.  Jewish merchants (Radhanites) crossed the areas of the Śląsk region (Silesia). Jewish exiles arrived in the eleventh-century from Spain and Prague.  For centuries they converged on Poland from all over Europe, fleeing political or economic persecution in their home countries.  Many came, not as a result of external threats, but were drawn by the opportunities in the most tolerant country of the continent. 
   As transliterated into Hebrew, names for Poland were interpreted as "good omens: “Polin” (etymologically “po” meaning “here” and “in” meaning “peace” or “rest”); “Polania” (“po” = “here,” “lan” = "dwells,” “ya” = "God”).
   This feeling of security was derived from the strict laws of the country and the protection policies of the Polish rulers.  Polish masters needed Jewish traders and craftsmen and their knowledge of commerce.  With these privileges, they were able to develop their arts of engraving stamps and coins, and trade

Acts of Hebrews (Dzieje Hebrajczyków)
   The Acts of Hebrews were divided into epochs associated with history. Initially, the year commemorated important historical events of the nation of Israel (from leaving Egypt to Babylonian captivity).  Later it was established that the beginnings of history would start with the most important date – the creation of the world. According to the Hebrew priests this occurred in 3761, before our era. Thus the year 2012-2013 on the Jewish calendar year is 5773.
   The week ended with a day of rest the Sabbath (Sabat, Szabas, or Szabat), which begins at Friday's sunset, and lasts into Saturday evening. Biblical law forbade all work, travel, and kindling of fire. It also required the kosher standard (ritual purity) of all products, dishes, tableware and cutleryShabbat meals were prepared the day before.
   The observance began with prayer in the synagogue – house of prayer.  On Friday – just before dusk, men in prayer shawls (tallis) returned hometheir families assembled before the Sabbath table.  Two Sabbath candles were lit in the home by the head mother figure "to light up the house" (“by dom rozświetlić”). The welcoming song, “Shalom Aleichemwas sung.  Over a chalice of wine, the prayer blessing - Kiddush was recited by the oldest man in the household; a gala supper followed.
   With the Havdalah (“separation” from Hebrew) ceremony, the Sabbath ended. Fragrant roots were burned in richly decorated silver containers. 
   Note: Polish synagogues were built of wood, in a style that was more harmony with the surrounding architecture than in Hebrew tradition.
Rosh Hashanah (Rosz Haszana)
   Most important in the holiday calendar was the cycle of high holidays Rosh Hashanah, the New Year.  Yom Kippur, and the seven-day feast of Sukkot, were once celebrated after the harvest of crops.
   Rosh Hashanah (literally: “the head of the year”) is a holiday that has a deep sense of Jewish affairs beyond and outside Judaism – whose meaning is universal, as it concerns all of humanity. 
   Holidays, such as Pesach (Passover, Exodus), or Shavuot (receiving the Torah) refer to the most important events in Jewish history, and only Jews. Rosh Hashanah does not relate directly and specifically with the Jews. It is a festival celebrating the completion of divine creation, and specifically the sixth day on which man was created – a man who was not Jewish, but the “father” of all people.
   It is not a commemoration of the creation of the world in a physical sense - galaxies, stars, planets, oceans, animals, but the emergence of a human being. Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the month of Tishri (Tiszrej), begins the next year in the history of the world – the New Year. 
   Blowing of the shofar (ram's horn, much less from an antelope or gazelle) is the commandment of the Torah; the customary fulfillment of obligation.     
   Typical, traditional cuisine for the first evening meal on Rosh Hashanah is dishes which symbolize the hope for a successful, prosperous new year:
      ·  apples in honey – "Thy will be done to give us a good, successful year"
      ·  the head of a fish – "Thy will be done, we went to the head, and not the back"
      ·  pomegranate – "Thy will be done to ensure that our merits be as numerous as the pomegranate seeds"
   In addition:
       ·  challah bread plaited in a round shape (chałki) symbolized a balanced, harmonious life in the new year
       ·  challah formed in the shape of birds – symbolized prayer which flies like the birds in the sky to God
       ·  challah traditionally dipped in honey
       ·  honey cake (lekach)
   In Poland, the ritual of tashlikh is performed on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Prayers are recited near natural flowing water, and one's sins are symbolically cast into the water.  The custom to throw bread or pebbles into the water, to symbolize the "casting off" of sins is also practiced. The service is recited individually and includes the prayer "Who is like unto you, O God... and You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea", and Biblical passages including Isaiah 11:9 – "They will not injure nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” as well as personal prayers. Though once considered a solemn individual tradition, it has become an increasingly social ceremony practiced in groups.
   “Shana Tova” is the traditional greeting on Rosh Hashanah, which in Hebrew means "A Good Year."

Yom Kippur (Jom Kipur or Sadny Dzień)
   The Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur is the holiest and most solemn day of the year for the Jews.  Crowds collected in synagogues to pray for the dead, and in the confessional prayer called Aszamnu, would loudly profess their faults.  Its central themes are atonement and repentance. Jews traditionally observe this holy day with a 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, often spending most of the day in synagogue services.
   Kapparot (expiations) is a ritual custom that was practiced by some Jews on the eve of Yom Kippur. In this practice, a live chicken (rooster for men, hen for women), literally becomes a religious and sacred vessel in place of man.  The chicken was swung over one's head three times, symbolically transferring one's sins to the chicken. The chicken was then slaughtered and donated to the poor for consumption, while the guts were thrown to the birds.  It alludes to the ancient rituals of sacrifice, and was based on the reconciliation of Isaiah 1:18 in the Hebrew Bible.
   This ritual appealed to Kabbalists, who recommended the selection of a white rooster as a reference to Isaiah 1:18 and who found other mystic allusions in the prescribed formulas. Consequently, the practice became generally accepted among the Jews of Eastern Europe.
   In the Middle Ages some rabbis criticized and strongly opposed this practice as a pagan custom. They considered it a non-Jewish ritual that conflicted with the spirit of Judaism, which knows of no vicarious sacrifice outside of the Temple in Jerusalem.  The chicken was replaced with a bundle of coins, which was then given as an offertory donation to charity or it was simply passed over the head of an individual.
   Erica Silverman wrote a children's book, “When the Chickens Went on Strike,” which is adapted from the short story – "Kapores" by Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem. The story takes place in a 19th century Russian village, where the residents are preparing to celebrate the Jewish holidays.

Sukkot (Kuczkami)
   Four plants were connected to the joyful holiday of Sukkot – the Feast of Tabernacles, Feast of Booths: a palm branch (lulaw), lemons (etrog), three branches of myrtle and willow twigs, which once had a symbolic meaning in prayers concerning rain for the harvest.  It is a Biblical holiday which lasts seven days (eight in the diaspora) and is celebrated on the 15th day of the month.
   Huts (sukki) were built as reminiscence of the type of fragile dwellings in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of travel in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt.  Throughout this time the holiday meals are eaten inside these huts, and many sleep there as well.  Each day, a blessing is recited over the lulav and etrog.  The Feast of Tabernacles ends with the holy joy of the Torah.
   In Leviticus, God told Moses to command the people: "On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook" (Lev. 23:40), and "You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt" (Lev. 23:42-43).

Simchat Torah
   Marking the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings, and the beginning of a new cycle, Simchat Torah (also Simkhes Toreh; "rejoicing with/of the Torah,” in Hebrew) is one of the happiest days in the Jewish calendar.  Over time became an independent ceremony.  It shows the dream reading the Torah (the Pentateuch of Moses) and respect of the rights of the Bible.  After a festival parade of the Torah scrolls amidst singing and dancing, the last section of Deuteronomy and the first section of Genesis are read in succession.
   In Poland on the 23rd of Tishri, it was the custom to sell the privilege of executing various functions during the services on Shabbat and Jewish festivals to the members of the congregation.  The synagogue used this occasion as a fund-raiser. People who made these donations were called up to the Torah and given a congregational blessing.
   The Jewish calendar date begins at sundown of the night beforehand. Thus all observances begin at sundown on the first secular date listed, and conclude the following day at nightfall.
·        Rosh Hashanah begins in the evening of Sunday, September 16, 2012, and ends in the evening of Tuesday, September 18, 2012.
·        Yom Kippur begins in the evening of Tuesday, September 25, and ends in the evening of Wednesday, September 26.
·       Sukkot begins in the evening of Sunday, September 30, and ends in the evening of Sunday, October 7.
·       Simchat Torah begins in the evening of Monday, October 8, and ends in the evening of Tuesday, October 9.