Besides being Halloween, this Monday night is also the beginning of the new Jewish month of Cheshvan, known as Mar Cheshvan (“bitter Cheshvan”) because of its lack of holidays. What an ironic juxtaposition of holidays – one is associated with sweet candy, the other is associated with bitterness. I for one will be honoring both by handing trick-or-treaters fresh cuts of bitter herb.
For many of us, our Jewish identity centers on the holidays. So before we hibernate from being Jewish like little Jew bears (Jew Bear-ymore… possible Halloween costume?), emerging two months later for the next Jewish holiday of Channukah, I’d like to challenge this holiday-based connection that many of us have.
To be clear, I love Jewish holidays. They help us mark the passage of time in our own lives, they push us to reflect on certain ideas and values, and they bind us to our people’s history. Even for those who don’t believe in the history or connect to the message, Jewish holidays are still great opportunities to gather with friends and family.
But that can be hard to do when all of these holidays are not in sync with the American calendar. (The Jewish calendar is both lunar and solar, which is why Jewish holidays fall on different dates in the Gregorian calendar each year.) If you’re from outside the DMV area, it’s much easier to travel to family on American holidays like July 4th, Thanksgiving and Christmas than it is to take off a random day or two in the middle of the week for Rosh Hashana or Passover. And without a group of friends who live nearby and are also interested in celebrating, the holidays could be isolating and lonely.
The issue with connecting to our Judaism only on holidays goes beyond the practical challenges. It also limits Judaism to certain days during the year, allowing us to compartmentalize it in our life – to put it in a box like our menorah and seder plate, to be taken out only a few times a year. Holidays alone are not enough to build community, maintain a spiritual connection or sustain personal growth; they are infrequent and meant as a supplement to Jewish life. Tapping into Judaism only around the holidays also limits Judaism to certain historical/agricultural events and the particular values and ideas associated with them. There is no Jewish holiday for charity, sex, or gratitude… yet our tradition is far from silent on these topics.
In Judaism we welcome each major holiday with a blessing over wine (except, of course, on Yom Kippur). There’s an interesting debate in the Talmud about what to sanctify first – the wine itself, or the special day. Hillel the Elder says we bless the wine first because it is more common. To me, this answer reveals something deep about being Jewish. Yes, holidays are great, but they are by nature a break from our routine. Judaism is, at its core, meant to be lived in the day-to-day, guiding us through and occasionally elevating the mundane. Perhaps Mar Cheshvan, with no holidays in sight, is the perfect opportunity to think about what that could look like. What Jewish value, idea or practice informs, or could inform, your daily life?
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