THE GREAT CYCLE OF THE HEBREW CALENDAR
The Holy Days
The admonition to remember and observe the Sabbath day is initially directed to the weekly Sabbath that in Judaism begins sundown Friday night and ends sundown Saturday night. But the idea of Sabbath also loosely refers to days that are referred to as yomim tovim (good days, or holy days), as the Jewish law applying to each of these days approximates, for the most part, similar restrictions as the Sabbath day itself. Thus all holy days have the feel of a Sabbath, with only minor differences. This means that in addition to the fifty-two official Sabbath days every year, there are quite a few other times that require special attention. In addition to these are many minor holidays that have fewer restrictions, but still are treated with special awareness. Here are the best known of the major and minor holy days in the calendar, with brief descriptions of the special energy that can be the contemplative focus of each respective day.
Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year. It falls in September or early October. Its main theme is "remembrance" and "return" to the source of creation. This is the time of the blowing of the shofar, calling to God, and it is required for all Jews to hear a shofar on this day. The esoteric teaching is that the shofar confuses the "accusor," the negative energy left behind by our unskillful behavior. So this is a time of reprieve, when we may be able to modify in some way the consequences of our actions. This is a marvelous idea and has deep connotations. In a retreat on this day, we would want to spend time reflecting on the past, noticing any actions, words, or thoughts that were regrettable, and committing ourselves to more skillful behavior in the future.
Yom Kippur comes on the tenth day after Rosh Hashana. The intervening days are called the Days of Awe, a time of deep introspection. Yom Kippur is known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths, recognized as the most awesome day of the year. On this day we observe a complete fast, including drinking water, from sundown to sundown. It is a perfect time for retreat. The Kabbalah describes this day as a time when we have God's ear, so to speak, and can change destiny. It is the most awe filled day of the year. Out of time and space, one dwells completely in intimacy with the Divine. It is the day the High Priest within each of us enters the Holy of Holies, also within each of us, and speaks a special name of God only spoken on this particular day. If the mind goes astray in this moment, we die, metaphorically.
The practice throughout the day of Yom Kippur is to imagine that the heavenly court is in the process of determining what one's coming year has in store, based on previous actions, speech, and thoughts. This contemplation is the focus of many hours of reflection about oneself, one's family, associates, friends, and the world in general.
Sukkot comes four days after Yom Kippur. It is a sevenday holiday; the first and seventh days are special. The main mitzvah (commandment) of this period is to eat and sleep in a sukkah, a temporary dwelling with nothing overhead but a canopy of vegetation through which we can see the sky. On the esoteric level, the covering of the sukkah is equated with the skin of the Leviathan, the mythical monstrous beast upon which the righteous will feed at the time of messianic consciousness. The exposed sukkah carries a luminous reflection of the Ohr Ein Sof, the infinite light of awareness, and it draws visitors from other realms, particularly the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Moses, Tzipporah, Aaron, Joseph, and David. Each day different guests are welcomed to the sukkah.
On retreat we would try to spend most of the day outdoors, and even sleep out at night if feasible. Each day, we not only would commune with nature, but esoterically would connect with the primordial energies of the biblical characters, each of whom represents an energetic within us. This is a great opportunity to work on our personal character. Obviously, it is a wonderful experience to construct and live in one's own . Any Jewish bookstore can provide information for those who may be interested. This is a time of great joy and thanksgiving for the bounty of our sustenance and all the gifts of life.
Hanukkah is a festival of light that comes in December. It is an eightday holiday well known for its symbolic menorah and the daily lighting of candles. On the first day one candle is lit, and a new candle is added each day until we light eight candles on the eighth day. From a mystical perspective, Hanukkah has kabbalistic significance in that it comes at the darkest time of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere), and our lighting of candles at this time has cosmic implications of creation and renewal. Thus our contemplative practice would be focused on creativity and optimism, what it takes to bring the light of wisdom into the darkness of ignorance. Notice that only one candle will illuminate a completely dark room. This is the metaphor of Hanukkah, the light that continues to grow from day to day.
Tu b'Shevat comes in January or February. It is best known as the festival of trees and is a time when people plant trees in Israel. Mystically, it is a time when the will to live first finds expression, when the sap begins to flow that will produce blossoms in springtime. On retreat we spend extra time becoming very quiet so that we can explore the subtle quickening of our vital life force. Kabbalists celebrate this day by partaking in a special seder that includes a wide variety of fruits. Each fruit is classified in one of three categories, representing three of the four worlds of Kabbalah.
The lowest world of assiyah is represented by fruit that is protected in hard, inedible shells, like nuts. The next world of yetzirah is represented by fruits with hard, inedible inner pits, like peaches or plums. Next, the world of beriah is represented by fruit that can be eaten whole, like grapes. Finally the highest world of atzilut is too high for regular fruits. I usually represent it by maple syrup, which is the sap that the day is all about.
This seder uses four cups of wine, just like the Passover seder. But the difference is that red and white wine are mixed to represent the four worlds: full bodied red at the bottom level of assiyah, mostly red on the second level of yetzirah, mostly white on the third level of beriah, and full bodied white on the top level of atzilut. Thus the seder celebrates different levels of creation manifesting, and our focus during the day is on developing our creative energies of rebirthing ourselves. (For more details on the four worlds, see descriptions in the upcoming sections called: Yihudim Chanting Meditation.)
Purim comes in February or March. Traditionally, it is treated somewhat like carnival: people dress in outlandish costumes and imbibe intoxicating drinks. The book of Esther is read at this time, describing when the Jewish nation was miraculously saved from total destruction. It is often noted that the book of Esther at no time mentions any name of God in it. Yet, it represents one of the great miracles of the Jewish people. Thus, the mystery of the hidden God is a primary theme working on this day.
We are often grasping for the unknown and unknowable. When our minds take over, we can easily fall into despair. The secret of Purim is to come to grips with the possibilities of this hidden aspect of the Divine, which often is represented as holy sparks within hardened shells of mundane existence. We meditate on how to liberate these sparks in what seems to be the face of overwhelming odds.
Many people equate the arch-enemy Haman in the time of Esther with the modern arch-enemy Hitler. Retreatants at Purim usually focus on the paradox of life; they contemplate the presence of evil in the world and the miracle of divine grace.
Passover comes one month after Purim, in March or April. It is a sevenday holiday best known for the seder, which takes place on the first night and, for many, on the second night as well. Observant Jews have uncompromising dietary restrictions during the entire seven days. Next to Shabbat, Passover has the most complex body of Jewish law associated with it. The objective is to cleanse our lives of all hametz (leavening), which mystically is associated with pride and ego. The story of the Exodus is retold at Passover to remind us of the relationship between enslavement and freedom. On retreat, we concentrate on understanding the areas in which we are enslaved-what has captured our minds, our beliefs, our sense of selfworth, our values-and how we might be able to attain new freedom. This is a perfect time to take the week and really explore the theme of freedom deeply.
Passover has a wide spectrum of themes for personal reflection. It is not only a one or two day experience, but includes the thirty days leading up to it, and the forty-nine days of the Counting of the Omer that follow the first night of seder. Passover is an entire week of reflection, marked by the matzoh we eat for seven (or eight) days. On the final night of the week, the esoteric celebration is focused on the crossing of the Red Sea, which symbolizes faith. Passover is the story of an escape when not really merited, of getting out of an impossible situation without deserving it.
Shavuot comes fifty days after Passover, usually in May. It celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Traditionally people study and learn the entire night of Shavuot, which is an excellent form of retreat. The mystical preparation for Shavuot occurs during the seven weeks between it and Passover. This is called the Counting of the Omer, and each of the fortynine days is publicly enumerated during the first prayer of every day during the seven weeks. The Kabbalists added the idea that each of the fortynine days represents an aspect of our being, our personality, and our deepest essence that needs to be fixed and uplifted so that when we receive the teachings of the Torah, we will be as pure and open as possible. Thus, cleansing and purification are the retreat practices of Counting the Omer, while the possibility of new levels of awareness is the retreat experience of Shavuot.
Tisha b'Av occurs in the heat of summer, in late July or August. This is a fast day almost as strict as Yom Kippur. It is a day of observance that traditionally marks the destruction of the two temples of ancient Judaism. The temples represent the vehicle through which we can communicate with God. Thus, Tisha b'Av is a day of mourning that this communication is now much more difficult-almost impossible. On retreat, this is a time to reflect on the gap between our spiritual essence and our mundane lives, with the hope that we can close this gap and attain an expanded level of consciousness, sometimes called messianic consciousness.
Rosh Hodesh is the day each month of the New Moon. It is treated as a special day by Kabbalists, for the moon esoterically is viewed as the gathering place of souls. It is also point when the quality of gevurah, constriction, gives way to chesed, expansion. The Kabbalists look at midnight each day in the same way, as the end of the darkening process and the beginning of the enlightening cycle. Women also celebrate Rosh Hodesh in the context of moon cycles as a time of renewal and fertility, with great hope for possibilities unfolding anew.
The meditative experiences of Sabbaths and holy days, the daily cycles of ordinary Jewish life, in quiet appreciation of the divine presence, in prayer, in study, in giving extraordinary care and concern about mundane activities, in careful management of food, in acts of chesed (loving kindness), in tzeddakah (right minded charity), in expressions of gratitude, and in on going awareness of social consciousness, gives us an overview of the world of Judaism that reveals an extraordinarily rich selection of opportunities for expanding consciousness. When seen through meditative eyes, the possibilities are almost beyond comprehension, for all the major and most of the minor holidays in Judaism can be dramatically enhanced through meditation and silent retreats.
The power of the cycles of the Jewish calendar cannot be overemphasized. The constant reminder to look into life more deeply keeps one in a high state of alertness. There is a connection on the outside with the phase of the moon, the seasons, the times of sunrise and sunset, and the rains. On the inside, we are constantly asked to reflect on our motives, intentions, the nature of our actions, our communications, our relationships, our attention to detail, and our integrity. On the mystical plane, we are continuously being reminded of hidden meanings, the messages in events, the mysteries of unplanned contacts with individuals, the realization that there are no accidents, the amazing little miracles that fill our days, and the remarkable nature of a cosmic wisdom that seems to lead the way. One's life becomes very full when the calendar is taken seriously.
And this is just the beginning.
The calendar adds yet other dimensions to the contemplative life style. Each week of the year is associated with different possibilities for immersion in studies. The Talmud can be learned on a daily basis in which a particular page is studied each day by every talmudic student in the world. This is called daf yomi, literally meaning the page of the day. Everyone doing this practice is connected on an esoteric plane with like-minded students studying the same material everywhere. Those partaking in daf yomi study complete one cycle of the Talmud every seven years.
Other students break up basic source books in Judaism, like the oral tradition known as the Mishna, and memorize parts according to a schedule. Some memorize Psalms. Some study particular books. One of the best known of these is the Tanya, by Shneur Zalman of Lyady, the founder of Habad Hassidism, which is outlined for daily study according to the calendar. In this way, one assures cycling through the text on a regular basis year after year.
The most far reaching study in the Jewish world is the weekly selection of the Torah, the five books of Moses, which is divided into an annual cycle that begins each year on Simcha Torah (The Joy of Torah), at the end of Sukkot. The weekly portion is the same for Jewish students around the world, every week of the year. This study of the Torah portion of the week links up the world wide Jewish community on a number of levels and carries with it a special power of connectedness, for no matter where one is studying, even in a cabin deep in the woods, there is a knowing on a subtle level that the same words are being repeated and learned in various parts of the world.
Sabbaths are identified by the Torah portion being read that day. The energy of the readings permeate the day and affect the teachings and in many ways the mood of the day. In addition, many Sabbaths are identified by upcoming events, which also significantly impact on the experience of the day. Here is a list of special Sabbaths:
Shabbat Mevarkhin (Blessing Sabbath), the dozen Sabbaths each year immediately preceding the new moon, whose date is announced publically to the congregation during the prayer services. A time of "out with the old, in with the new."
Shabbat Rosh Hodesh (New Moon Sabbath). When a Shabbat coincidentally falls on a new moon day, requiring special prayers. Connecting with the moon cycles.
Shabbat Shuvah (Returning Sabbath). The Sabbath day that falls during the Ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Requires a change in some prayers. A time of repentance.
Shabbat Hol haMo'ed (Festival Day Sabbath), falls during weeks of Passover and Sukkot. Requires special prayers. In addition, Song of Songs is read during Passover and Ecclesiastics is read during Sukkot. A special time related the Passover (freedom) or Sukkot (gratitude).
Shabbat Hanukkah occurs one or twice during Hanukkah. Additional prayer readings are read at this time. This may coincide with Rosh Hodesh. Special awareness of the infinite light (Ohr Ein Sof).
Shabbat Shirah (Song Sabbath). The Sabbath coinciding with the Torah reading of the song at the crossing of the red sea in Exodus 15. A time of appreciation for miracles, big and small.
Shabbat Shakalim (Shekel Sabbath), occurs during on the Shabbat immediately preceding the Hebrew month of Adar, which contains Purim. Special Torah readings required related to the giving by each adult a half a shekel. A time of giving special tzeddakah (contributions).
Shabbat Zakhor (Remembrance Sabbath). The Sabbath preceding Purim. Special readings are offered regarding potential destruction. A time to reflect on fate.
Shabbat Parah (Red Heifer Sabbath). Two Sabbaths preceding the first of the Hebrew month of Nisan, or one Sabbath preceding the first of Nisan if it itself is a Sabbath. Special readings on the ritual purification of the ashes of the red heifer, an esoteric rite of purification (Num 19:122). Reflection on the meaning of spiritual defilement.
Shabbat haHodesh (Sabbath of The Beginning). The Sabbath preceding the first of Nisan, or the first of Nisan itself if it falls on a Sabbath. Although Rosh Hashana is viewed as the New Year, occuring on the first of Tishrey, this is actually considered as the 7th Hebrew month. The first month is officially Nisan, which includes Passover. Special reading the details and ritual laws of Passover. A time to reflect on being trapped and what it takes to achieve freedom. On an esoteric level, it is also a time to reflect on beginnings and endings of cycles.
Shabbat Ha-Gadol (Great Sabbath). The Sabbath preceding Passover. A time of psychological preparation and study of the elements of the upcoming seder.
Shabbat Hazon (Sabbath of Vision). The Sabbath preceding Tisha b'Av (the ninth of Av). Special readings of punishment. Lamentations is read. A time of deep reflection of reward and punishment. Occurs during the first nine days of Av, a mourning period with restrictions on cutting hair, shaving, washing clothes, and dressing.
Shabbat Nahamu (Sabbath of Comforting). The Sabbath immediately following Tisha b'Av, with special readings from Isa 40:1. As Tisha b'Av is a strict fast and day of mourning, this is a time of relief and letting go. A time to experience be held in the arms of the Divine.