Simchat Torah 5780 – Chag Same’ach!

Second hakafot of Simchat Torah in Petach Tikva last year

The marathon of Jewish holidays is almost over. as the last and most joyous festival of the holiday season approaches– Sukkot finishes tonight and Simchat Torah begins.

But before that, today, the last day of Sukkot, is known as Hoshana Raba, which despite the happy nature of Sukkot is a serious day, the last day on whcih we can repent before G-d seals the Book of Life for the coming year. Special selichot prayers and the Hoshanot tefila – a circling of the synagogue 7 times while holding the Lulav and Etrog – take place in the synagogues.

As every year, Arutz Sheva has a beautiful photo essay of the prayers at the Kotel:

Hoshana Raba 5780 at the Kotel

Amongst the various celebrations this Sukkot, there was a remarkable event in Jerusalem, where hundreds of Levi’im (Levites) gathered together at the Southern Kotel (the southern retaining wall of the Temple Mount, the “regular” Kotel being the Western wall), and sang together Tehillim (Psalms) ch. 126 (one of the “Shir Hamaalot”, the “Songs of the Steps”) on the ancient steps as they would have done in the days of the Bet Hamikdash. As a Bat Levi (daughter of a Levite) myself, I was profoundly moved by this:

And now on to Simchat Torah, which in Israel is combined with Shemini Atzeret.

Regarding the actual day, here is what I wrote in previous years:

Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah). It is a day that is combined with Shemini Atzeret (lit: 8th day of Assembly) in Israel, whereas outside Israel it is celebrated over 2 days, with Shemini Atzeret first, and Simchat Torah on the next day, for reasons to be found here.

The festival is almost schizophrenic in character because its two parts are so completely different.  Shemini Atzeret is festive yet serious, with the Yizkor (memorial for the dead) prayer and Tefilat Geshem, the prayer for rain, (more on that here).

Simchat Torah on the other hand is pure joy, and in Israel, with the festival being celebrated all on one day, it always feels very strange to me to make the sudden switch from all the happiness and jollity of Simchat Torah to the serious prayers of Shemini Atzeret during the Musaf prayers.

But such is the reality of Jewish life I suppose, with seriousness and joy and celebration all rolled together.

So tonight we will all be gathering in shul to start the celebrations,  and the excitement of the day is something I still remember from my own childhood. All the Torah scrolls will be removed from the Aron Hakodesh  and distributed to congregants. Then the singing and dancing commences, with the Torah scrolls being danced round the shul in 7 hakafot; between each hakafah the Torahs are handed to other members. During the dancing sweets are handed out to the children who dance with their fathers holding flags (and bags to hold the sweets!).

Tomorrow morning, after morning services, the dancing with the Torah scrolls will be repeated, followed by the reading of the last chapters of the Torah: Zot Habracha (“This is the Blessing”), the blessing given by Moshe to the Children of Israel just before his death. The portion is read over and over (and over!) until every single member of the shul has been given an aliya. At that stage all the children are called up under a Chuppah, and they recite the Hamalach Hagoel prayer together with Shema Yisrael. It is an extremely exciting yet moving experience and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

There are several other customs on Simchat Torah: one person is nominated to be Chatan Torah, another to be Chatan Bereishit.

At the end of all the Torah readings, the Chatan Bereishit starts the Torah reading right from the beginning by reading the first chapters of Bereishit, to show how happy we are to begin the cycle again.

Once all these festivities are over, the atmosphere takes a sudden turn to the serious, and we say Yizkor, followed by Tefilat Geshem.  This year the first rains began slightly early with a sudden rainstorm and huge thunderstorm, the lightning from which tragically took the life of a young boy and severely injured his sister in law and other family members.

Aside from such horrific tragedies however you will never hear anyone complaining about the rain in Israel. At the first droplets you hear children shouting in joy “Geshem!” (Rain!). It’s such an exciting experience after 6 or more dry months.  In the Torah, the rainfall in Israel is so closely connected to our behaviour and keeping the mitzvot that it is a positive relief, even to the secular amongst us, to see the rain arrive in the right time.

When Simchat Torah finishes tomorrow night, it has become an Israeli tradition to launch into second Hakafot, a second round of dancing with the Torah, but since it is no longer chag, we can use loudspeakers and have live music. It is a wonderful, uniting experience and it started as a sign of solidarity with our Diaspora brothers who celebrate Simchat Torah on the second day.

I wish you all a pitka taba, or a guten kvittel (a good note) for Hoshana Raba, and wish you all a wonderful chag same’ach for this last day of yomtov.

!חג שמח

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Sukkot 5780 – Chag Same’ach!

!חג שמח Chag Same’ach! Happy Sukkot!

The festival of Sukkot, the most joyous festival in the Jewish calendar, begins tonight, lasting for 7 days (8 outside of Israel), running straight into the Simchat Torah festival on the 8th day (9th day outside Israel).

Sukkot is the last of the Shalosh R’galim (three pilgrimage festivals). Like Passover and Shavu’ot, Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural. Historically, Sukkot commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Agriculturally, Sukkot is a harvest festival and is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif Chag Ha-Asif (in Hebrew), the Festival of Ingathering.

Our own Sukkah in the very unglamorous setting of our car park

On this festival Jewish households build a sukkah (pl. sukkot), a booth-like structure, where all meals are eaten, and people (usually the menfolk but not solely) even sleep there. The flimsy roof consists of leaves or branches, widely enough spaced so that one can see the stars at night, but close enough to provide shade during the day. It is considered “hidur mitzvah” – glorifying the mitzvah – if the sukkah is beautifully decorated, so of course this provides much entertainment, not to mention arts-and-crafts time, for the children to beautify their sukkah.

The sukkah is a commemoration of the flimsy huts that the Children of Israel dwelt in during their 40 years of wandering in the desert, with only the ענן הכבוד, the Cloud of Glory, to protect them by day and the עמוד האש, the Pillar of Fire, by night.

By leaving our safe and warm (or cool) houses just when autumn and the rainy season starts and going to live in a fragile hut for a whole week, it is also meant to remind us how fragile is our existence on this earth, and it is only by the grace and protection of G-d that we survive.

Arba Minim – the Four Species

On Sukkot we also bundle together the Arba Minim – “The Four Species” consisting of a Lulav (branch of palm), branches of Hadass (myrtle), Aravot (weeping willow) and an Etrog (a citron, related to the citrus family) and during Shacharit (morning prayers) wave them together in all 6 directions to show G-d’s presence everywhere. Between Yom Kippur and Sukkot the streets of Israel are packed with markets and stalls selling the Arba Minim and sukka decorations. Many people take extra care when buying their lulav and etrog, examining them minutely as if they were buying a precious diamond.

The weekdays of Sukkot, as on Pesach, are called Chol Hamo’ed (lit. the weekdays of the festival) which are a semi-holiday in Israel. Schools are closed, and many places of work are either closed or work half day, giving families the chance to go on trips, hiking or visiting. On the intermediate Shabbat (Shabbat chol hamo’ed) of Sukkot, Megillat Kohelet (the book of Ecclesiastes) is read in shul. We will have the pleasure of hearing our son reading the megillah in his shul this year, as in previous years.

If you are puzzled about the Halachot (the religious laws) of building a Sukkah, here is a Dr. Seuss-type poem explaining it all 😀

How to build a Sukkah by (not) Dr. Seuss

If you want something a little bit more thought-provoking, then you could do no better than read Rabbi Jonathan Sack who calls Sukkot “the Festival of Insecurity“:

What is truly remarkable is that it is called, by tradition, zeman simchatenu, “our time of joy.” That to me is the wonder at the heart of the Jewish experience: that Jews throughout the ages were able to experience risk and uncertainty at every level of their existence and yet – while they sat betzila de-mehemnuta, “under the shadow of faith” (Zohar, Emor, 103a) – they were able to rejoice. That is spiritual courage of a high order. I have often argued that faith is not certainty: faith is the courage to live with uncertainty. That is what Sukkot represents if what we celebrate is sukkot mammash, not the clouds of glory but the vulnerability of actual huts, open to the wind, the rain and the cold.

I find that faith today in the people and the State of Israel. It is astonishing to me how Israelis have been able to live with an almost constant threat of war and terror since the State was born, and not give way to fear. I sense even in the most secular Israelis a profound faith, not perhaps “religious” in the conventional sense, but faith nonetheless: in life, and the future, and hope. Israelis seem to me perfectly to exemplify what tradition says was God’s reply to Moses when he doubted the people’s capacity to believe: “They are believers, the children of believers” (Shabbat 97a). Today’s Israel is a living embodiment of what it is to exist in a state of insecurity and still rejoice.

And that is Sukkot’s message to the world. Sukkot is the only festival about which Tanach says that it will one day be celebrated by the whole world (Zechariah 14: 16-19).

Read it all, it has many excellent insights into this wonderful chag.

May this Sukkot be a festival of pure joy, and may we merit to celebrate it in the rebuilt Temple speedily in our days.

I wish all those celebrating a chag Sukkot same’ach!

!חג סוכות שמח


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Yom Kippur 5780 – Gmar Hatima Tova!

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is upon us once again. It begins in a few hours time here in Israel, when we will be entering a 25-hour fast with day-long prayer services, composed of beautiful, spiritual and emotional prayers and songs, being held in shuls and community centers throughout the Jewish world. It is a day when we must ask forgiveness from our fellow man if we have wronged them, forgive those who have wronged us if they ask to be forgiven, and pray that Hashem will seal us in the Book of Life.

In Israel, traffic comes to a complete halt throughout the country, even in the most secular towns, and a serene and holy calmness pervades throughout the land. Even the international airport and public transport close down for the day, starting from a few hours before the fast until an hour or so after the fast ends.

You can read more about Yom Kippur at who have a great Yom Kippur info-graphic.

In the spirit of the day, I would like to ask forgiveness from anyone whom I might have offended or hurt.

To those who are fasting I wish an easy and meaningful fast.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish my family, friends and readers Gmar Hatima Tova – May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

גמר חתימה טובה

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Shabbat Shalom

Once again no time to write. Wishing everyone a Shabbat Shalom, on this Shabbat Shuva, the special Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

May the coming week bring good news for all of us, Amen.

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Shana Tova Umetuka – 5780

Shana Tova! May the curses of the old year be gone, may the New Year with its blessings begin

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins tonight, and lasts for 2 days, until sundown on Tuesday night.  The Jewish year follows the lunar calendar, and the number counts the number of years since Creation. This year we will mark the beginning of 5780.

To quote from previous Rosh Hashana posts, Rosh Hashana is not marked by great parties and merry-making for the Jewish New Year is also known as the Day of Judgement, the day when all humans are held accountable before Heaven for their good deeds and bad, and their fate for the coming year is decided. A good part of the two days of the festival is spent in emotional and uplifting prayers in the synagogue where we acclaim G-d as the King of Israel and as King of the whole universe, and where we ask Him to write us in the Book of Life, which remains open until Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in 10 days time, giving us time to repent and atone for our sins.

The holiday is marked with the blowing of the Shofar (the ram’s horn), which is meant to literally sound an alarm to wake us up from our bad ways and return us to the righteous path.

Here’s a short clip to give you an idea of what the Shofar sounds like. In the synagogue it will be sounded altogether 100 times in two sets of 30 and 4 sets of 10.

We also eat sweet foods to symbolise our wish for a sweet New Year. A classic staple at the Rosh Hashana table is the apple, which is round, symbolising the cycle of the year, dipped in honey for a sweet new year.

Even our Challahs are baked in a round shape to symbolise the circle of life and the circle of the year. They are often extra-sweet and have raisins inside for added sweetness. Here are my very own challot freshly baked out of the oven


On the second night of Rosh Hashana it is traditional to eat a fruit from the new season. The most popular fruit is the pomegranate, because of the beauty of its shape, because it is one of the 7 species of produce native to the Land of Israel, and because it is traditionally believed that it has 613 seeds, the same as the number of mitzvot (commandments) that a Jew is commanded to keep.

This year we are going to celebrate this beautiful tradition by eating pomegranates from the tree growing in our son’s garden in the hills of Samaria. Here is one of his prize fruit still hanging on the tree 🙂

The first pomegranate crop from our son’s garden

Every Rosh Hashana, the Israeli Bureau of Statistics issues the latest population figures, and this year, as in every previous year, we are delighted to learn that our population has grown, now hitting 9.1 million:

Israel’s population stands at 9,092,000 and is expected to reach 10 million by Rosh Hashanah 2024, the Central Bureau of Statistics said on Thursday.

In figures published ahead of the Jewish new year which begins Sunday evening, the CBS said the country’s 6.744 million Jews make up 74.2 percent of the total population, and its 1.907 million Arabs represent 21%.

Other minority groups comprise 4.8 percent of the population with 441,000 residents.

Since Rosh Hashanah 2018, the population rose by 184,000, marking a 2.1% increase, a similar change to previous years. Israelis gave birth to 196,000 children in the past year, while 50,000 citizens died. Some 38,000 people moved to the country, of whom 35,000 were Jewish immigrants who received citizenship.

At its current pace, the Jewish State will have 15 million residents by its hundredth birthday in 2048 and 20 million by 2065, the report said.

Worldwide, there are now 14.8 million Jews, a slight increase from the 14.7 million tallied the year before, the Jewish Agency reported on Thursday.

There are 8.1 million Jews living outside Israel, with the largest population in the United States, which has 5.7 million Jews.

These numbers are staggering! Although the Jewish nation as a whole has not yet recovered its numbers from before the Shoah, the number of Jews living in Israel is probably more than at any time in our history!

With the turmoil all round us in the Middle East we have to give thanks to Hashem for all the miracles and blessings that He has bestowed upon us. However we still  have to pray with special fervour to Hashem that He grant us a year of tranquillity and peace, and that He grant our leaders and the leaders of the free world the wisdom and the courage to act wisely and for the good of all of us.

Here is our favourite diplomat, Ambassador David Friedman, wishing us all a Shana Tova in his typically whimsical fashion:

If I have offended anyone during this past year I ask forgiveness of them and sincerely apologize.

May I wish all my family, friends, and readers worldwide שנה טובה ומתוקה – Shana Tova Umetuka. A Happy and Sweet New Year. May we all be blessed with a year of good health, joy, prosperity and peace. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.

תכלה שנה וקללותיה, תחל שנה וברכותיה

Let the current year and its curses be over, let the new year and its blessings begin.

לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו

May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a happy new year.

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Good News Friday

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. My family is still in crisis mode and I have not been in the mood to write anything, not to mention even having the time to follow the news (not even the Israeli elections which look like it’s going to be the same old same old).

However, as this is the last Shabbat of the year, and Rosh Hashana begins on Sunday night, I felt I ought to write even a short Good News Friday post, for my own sanity if not for your edification. Here are two lovely items which are eminently suitable for the time of year (many thanks to Reality).

The first item is about a new program, Echad L’Echad (one to one), to sweeten Rosh Hashana for Torah scholars:

The Echad l’Echad Foundation, founded and headed by Rav Yitzchak Neriya, supports those dedicated to Torah learning in national religious institutions throughout Israel, and assists needy families within the religious Zionist community. The foundation started its operations in 2009 and is one of the projects of the “Torah beTzion” institution.

Echad l’Echad’s basic principle is that producing Torah leaders who recognize their mission, as well as Zionism and connecting to the community are a national mission.

Currently, Echad l’Echad runs two main projects – the “Outstanding Avreichim” project as well as support for needy avreichim and their families before the holidays. Avrechim are married Yeshiva students who combine family life and dedicated Torah study.

The “Outstanding Avreichim” Project pinpoints the next generation of religious Zionist Torah leaders and grants them respectable scholarships. The goal of this is to allow these “top” avreichim to persevere in their studies with the aim of building the future generation of religious Zionist leaders.

The avreichim [Torah students -Ed.] are chosen from all of the religious Zionist yeshivot throughout Israel. They are handpicked by their Roshei Yeshivot, in which each Rosh Yeshiva is given a quota of avreichim to choose according to the number of students in his particular yeshiva.

Echad l’Echad’s second project, supporting needy avreichim and their families, was Echad l’Echad’s first project, beginning back in 2009. Echad l’Echad supports needy families as well as families of avreichim throughout the spectrum of the religious Zionist yeshivot in Israel. This support is provided to thousands of avreichim twice a year, before Rosh Hashana and before Pesach, and is not only financial help, rather it is a warm hug from the community at large to those dedicated to Torah learning, for their toil is for the sake of all of us.

Watch this promotional video about the program:

Kol hakavod to all those involved in this excellent program which will enable religious Zionist Torah scholars to flourish, we wish them every success.

On the same subject of Torah scholarship, the Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning is celebrating its 30th anniversary:

The Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Studies was founded 30 years ago, revolutionizing women’s Torah studies.

Matan Educator Rabbanit Nechama Goldman Barash told Arutz Sheva about the impetus to open Matan: “In the world of Torah there were not many options, and instead of going to study law and medicine, there were very intellectual women who were capable of pursuing scholarship in Talmud, in Tanach, in Halacha, and then taking that back into their communities and into schools.”

“Torah is for everyone,” said Rabbanit Malke Bina, the founder of Matan. “It’s a lifelong, exhilarating, wonderful experience of gaining knowledge, gaining insights, gaining closeness to G-d, in a real way.”

For three decades Matan has been developing and expanding its activities, adding classes and opening new branches: “We have another ten branches throughout Israel. And with G-d’s help, in the next thirty years, we’ll have another twenty branches,” says Bina.

Matan Bellows Eshkolot Educators Institute Fellow Zahava Moscowitz explains “I think it’s very important for women to take an active role in their learning, and to be able to step into the classroom and be educated as well.

“When I came to Matan, so many of my co-teachers who are in their 40’s and 50’s looked at me with envy to say, ‘Wow, I wish I was able to have a program like that in my day’.”

Rabbanit Nechama Goldman Barash: “There’s a Bat Mitzvah program here – 12-year-olds; there are 18-year-olds here on their gap year, both from America and from Europe who come to study, there are 70- and 80- and even 90-year-old women who come.”

Watch the video about Matan:

Kol Hakavod to these extraordinary pioneering women who paved the way for women’s Torah learning, something that was almost unheard of just a few decades ago, and which today has become a completely accepted path for Orthodox women.

I wish Matan and all the other women’s Torah institutes continued success, may they all grow and go מחיל אל חיל – from strength to strength.

On these uplifting notes, I wish you all Shabbat Shalom. May the coming week and the coming year be filled with good health and blessings for all of us.

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