The historical consciousness of Israel was vitalised by a unique adaptability to present conditions. This is shown in the fidelity with which a number of ancient festivals have been maintained through the ages. Some of these were taken over from pre-Israelite cults. They were nature feasts, and these are among the oldest rites of men. But, as Maimonides wisely said eight centuries ago, religious rites depend not so much on their origins as on the use men make of them. People who wish to return to the primitive usages of this or that church have no grasp of the value and significance of ceremonial. Here, at all events, we are not concerned with origins. The really interesting thing is that feasts, which originated in the fields and under the free heaven, were observed and enjoyed in the confined streets of the Ghetto. The influence of ceremonial is undying when it is bound up with a community’s life. ‘It is impossible to create festivals to order. One must use those which exist, and where necessary charge them with new meanings.’ So writes Mr. Montefiore in his _Liberal Judaism_ (p. 155).
This is precisely what has happened with the Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. These three festivals were originally, as has been said, nature feasts. But they became also pilgrim feasts. After the fall of the Temple the pilgrimages to Jerusalem, of course, ceased, and there was an end to the sacrificial rites connected with them all. The only sense in which they can still be called pilgrim feasts is that, despite the general laxity of Sabbath observance and Synagogue attendance, these three celebrations are nowadays occasions on which, in spring, summer, and autumn, a large section of the Jewish community contrives to wend its way to places of public worship.
In the Jewish Liturgy the three feasts have special designations. They are called respectively ‘The Season of our Freedom,’ ‘the Season of the Giving of our Law,’ and ‘the Season of our Joy.’ These descriptions are not biblical, nor are they found in this precise form until the fixation of the Synagogue liturgy in the early part of the Middle Ages. But they have had a powerful influence in perpetuating the hold that the three pilgrim feasts have on the heart and consciousness of Israel. Liberty, Revelation, Joy–these are a sequence of wondrous appeal. Now it is easily seen that these ideas have no indissoluble connection with specific historical traditions. True, ‘Freedom’ implies the Exodus; ‘Revelation,’ the Sinaitic theophany; ‘Joy,’ the harvest merry-makings, and perhaps some connection with the biblical narrative of Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness. But the connection, though essential for the construction of the association, is not essential for its retention. ‘The Passover,’ says Mr. Montefiore (_Liberal Judaism_, p. 155), ‘practically celebrates the formation of the Jewish people. It is also the festival of liberty. In view of these two central features, it does not matter that we no longer believe in the miraculous incidents of the Exodus story. They are mere trappings which can easily be dispensed with. A festival of liberty, the formation of a people for a religious task, a people destined to become a purely religious community whose continued existence has no meaning or value except on the ground of religion,–here we have ideas, which can fitly form the subject of a yearly celebration.’ Again, as to Pentecost and the Ten Commandments, Mr. Montefiore writes: ‘We do not believe that any divine or miraculous voice, still less that God Himself, audibly pronounced the Ten Words. But their importance lies in themselves, not in their surroundings and origin. Liberals as well as orthodox may therefore join in the festival of the Ten Commandments.
Pentecost celebrates the definite union of religion with morality, the inseparable conjunction of the “service” of God with the “service” of man. Can any religious festival have a nobler subject?’ Finally, as to tabernacles, Mr. Montefiore thus expresses himself: ‘For us, to-day, the connection with the wanderings from Egypt , which the latest [biblical] legislators attempted, has again disappeared. Tabernacles is a harvest festival; it is a nature festival. Should not a religion have a festival or holy day of this kind? Is not the conception of God as the ruler and sustainer of nature, the immanent and all-pervading spirit, one aspect of the Divine, which can fitly be thought of and celebrated year by year?
Thus each of the three great Pentateuchal festivals may reasonably and joyfully be observed by liberals and orthodox alike. We have no need or wish to make a change.’ And of the actual ceremonial rites connected
with the Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles, it is apparently only the avoidance of leaven on the first of the three that is regarded as unimportant. But even there Mr. Montefiore’s own feeling is in favour of the rite. ‘It is,’ he says, ‘a matter of comparative unimportance whether the practice of eating unleavened bread in the house for the seven days of the Passover be maintained or not. Those who appreciate the value of a pretty and ancient symbol, both for children and adults, will not easily abandon the custom.’
This is surely a remarkable development. In the Christian Church it seems that certain festivals are retaining their general hold because they are becoming public, national holidays. But in Judaism the hold is to be maintained precisely on the ground that there is to be nothing national about them, they are to be reinterpreted ideally and symbolically. It remains to be seen whether this is possible, and it is too early to predict the verdict of experience. The process is in active incubation in America as well as in Europe, but it cannot be claimed that the eggs are hatched yet. On the other hand, Zionism has so far had no effect in the opposite direction. There has been no nationalisation of Judaism as a result of the new striving after political nationality. Many who had previously been detached from the Jewish community have been brought back by Zionism, but they have not been re-attached to the religion. There has been no perceptible increase, for instance, in the number of those who fast on the Ninth of Ab, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple. Hence, from these and other considerations, of which limited space prevents the specification, it seems on the whole likely that, as in the past so in the future, the Festivals of the Synagogue will survive by changes in religious significance rather than by any deepening of national association.
Except that the Synagogues are decked with flowers, while the Decalogue is solemnly intoned from the Scroll of the Pentateuch, the Feast of Pentecost has no ceremonial trappings even with the orthodox. Passover and Tabernacles stand on a different footing. The abstention from leavened bread on the former feast has led to a closely organised system of cleansing the houses, an interminable array of rules as to food; while the prescriptions of the Law as to the bearing of palm-branches and other emblems, and the ordinance as to dwelling in booths, have surrounded the Feast of Tabernacles with a considerable, if less extensive, ceremonial. But there is this difference. The Passover is primarily a festival of the Home, Tabernacles of the Synagogue. In Europe the habit of actually dwelling in booths has been long unusual, owing to climatic considerations. But of late years it has become customary for every Synagogue to raise its communal booth, to which many Jews pay visits of ceremony. On the other hand, the Passover is _par excellence_ a home rite. On the first two evenings (or at all events on the first evening) there takes place the _Seder_, (literally ‘service’), a service of prayer, which is at the same time a family meal. Gathered round the table, on which are spread unleavened cakes, bitter herbs, and other emblems of joy and sorrow, the family recounts in prose and song the narrative of the Exodus. The service is in two parts, between which comes the evening meal. The hallowing of the home here attains its highest point.
Unless, indeed, this distinction be allotted to the Sabbath. The rigidity of the laws regarding Sabbath observance is undeniable. Movement was restricted, many acts were forbidden which were not in themselves laborious. The Sabbath was hedged in by a formidable array of enactments.
To an outside critic it is not wonderful that the Jewish Sabbath has a repellent look. But to the insider things wear another aspect.
The Sabbath was and is a day of delight. On it the Jew had a foretaste of the happiness of the world to come. The reader who wishes to have a spirited, and absolutely true, picture of the Jewish Sabbath cannot do better than turn to Dr. Schechter’s excellent _Studies in Judaism_ (pp. 296 _seq._). As Dr. Schechter pithily puts it: ‘Somebody, either the learned professors, or the millions of the Jewish people, must be under a delusion.’ Right through the Middle Ages the Sabbath grew deeper into the affections of the Jews. It was not till after the French Revolution and the era of emancipation, that a change occurred. Mixing with the world, and sharing the world’s pursuits, the Jews began to find it hard to observe the Saturday Sabbath as of old. In still more recent times the difficulty has increased. Added to this, the growing laxity in observances has affected the Sabbath. This is one of the most pressing problems that face the Jewish community to-day. Here and there an attempt has been made by small sections of Jews to substitute a Sunday Sabbath for the Saturday Sabbath. But the plan has not prospered.
One of the most notable rites of the Service of the Passover eve is the sanctification with wine, a ceremony common to the ordinary Sabbath eve.
This rite has perhaps had much to do with the characteristic sobriety of Israel. Wine forms part of almost every Jewish rite, including the marriage ceremony. Wine thus becomes associated with religion, and undue indulgence is a sin as well as a vice. ‘No joy without wine,’ runs an old Rabbinic prescription. Joy is the hallmark of Judaism; ‘Joyous Service’ its summary of man’s relation to the Law. So far is Judaism from being a gloomy religion, that it is almost too light-hearted, just as was the religion of ancient Greece. But the Talmud tells us of a class who in the early part of the first century were known as ‘lovers of sorrow.’ These men were in love with misfortune; for to every trial of Israel corresponded an intervention of the divine salvation. This is the secret of the Jewish gaiety. The resilience under tribulation was the result of a firm confidence in the saving fidelity of God. And the gaiety was tempered
by solemnity, as the observances, to which we now turn, will amply show.
Far more remarkable than anything yet discussed is the change effected in two other holy days since Bible times. The genius of Judaism is nowhere more conspicuous than in the fuller meanings which have been infused into the New Year’s Day and the Day of Atonement. The New Year is the first day of the seventh month (Tishri), when the ecclesiastical year began. In the Bible the festival is only known as a ‘day of blowing the shofar’ (ram’s horn). In the Synagogue this rite was retained after the destruction of the Temple, and it still is universally observed.
But the day was transformed into a Day of Judgment, the opening of a ten days’ period of Penitence which closed with the Day of Atonement.
Here, too, the change effected in a biblical rite transformed its character. ‘It needed a long upward development before a day, originally instituted on priestly ideas of national sin and collective atonement, could be transformed into the purely spiritual festival which we celebrate to-day’ (Montefiore, _op. cit._, p. 160). But the day is none the less associated with a strict rite, the fast. It is one of the few ascetic ceremonies in the Jewish Calendar as known to most Jews.
There is a strain of asceticism in some forms of Judaism, and on this a few words will be said later. But, on the whole, there is in modern Judaism a tendency to underrate somewhat the value of asceticism in religion. Hence the fast has a distinct importance in and for itself, and it is regrettable that the laudable desire to spiritualise the day is leading to a depreciation of the fast as such. But the real change is due to the cessation of sacrifices. In the Levitical Code, sacrifice had a primary importance in the scheme of atonement. But with the loss of the Temple, the idea of sacrifice entirely vanished, and atonement became a matter for the personal conscience. It was henceforth an inward sense of sin translating itself into the better life. ‘To purify desire, to ennoble the will–this is the essential condition of atonement. Nay, it is atonement’ (Joseph, _Judaism as Creed and Life_, p. 267; cf. _supra_, p. 45). This, in the opinion of Christian theologians, is a shallow view of atonement. But it is at all events an attempt to apply theology to life. And its justification lies in its success.
Of the other festivals a word is due concerning two of them, which differ much in significance and in development. Purim and Chanuka are their names.
Purim was probably the ancient Babylonian Saturnalia, and it is still observed as a kind of Carnival by many Jews, though their number is decreasing. For Purim is emphatically a Ghetto feast. And this description applies in more ways than one. In the first place, the Book of Esther, with which the Jewish Purim is associated, is not a book that commends itself to the modern Jewish consciousness. The historicity of the story is doubted, and its narrow outlook is not that of prophetic Judaism. Observed as mediaeval Jews observed it, Purim was a thoroughly innocent festivity. The unpleasant taste left by the closing scenes of the book was washed off by the geniality of temper which saw the humours of Haman’s fall and never for a moment rested in a feeling of vindictiveness.
But the whole book breathes so nationalistic a spirit, so uncompromising a belief that the enemy of Israel must be the enemy of God, that it has become difficult for modern Judaism to retain any affection for it. It makes its appeal to the persecuted, no doubt: it conveys a stirring lesson in the providential care with which God watches over His people: it bids the sufferer hope. Esther’s splendid surrender of self, her immortal declaration, ‘If I perish, I perish,’ still may legitimately thrill all hearts. But the Carnival has no place in the life of a Western city, still less the sectional Carnival. The hobby-horse had its opportunity and the maskers their rights in the Ghetto, but only there. Purim thus is now chiefly retained as a children’s feast, and still better as a feast of charity, of the interchange of gifts between friends, and the bestowal of alms on the needy. This is a worthy survival.
Chanuka, on the other hand, grows every year into greater popularity. This festival of light, when lamps are kindled in honour of the Maccabean heroes, has of late been rediscovered by the liberals. For the first four centuries of the Christian Era, the festival of Chanuka (‘Dedication’) was observed by the Church as well as by the Synagogue. But for some centuries afterwards the significance of the anniversary was obscured. It is now realised as a momentous event in the world’s history. It was not merely a local triumph of Hebraism over Hellenism, but it represents the re-entry of the East into the civilisation of the West. Alexander the Great had occidentalised the Orient. But with the success of the Judaeans against the Seleucids and of the Parthians against the Romans, the East reasserted itself. And the newly recovered influence has never again been surrendered. Hence this feast is a feast of ideals. Year by year this is becoming more clearly seen. And the symbol of the feast, light, is itself an inspiration.
The Jew is really a very sentimental being. He loves symbols. A good deal of his fondness for ritual is due to this fact. The outward marks of an inner state have always appealed to him. Ancient taboos became not only consecrated but symbolical. Whether it be the rite of circumcision, or the use of phylacteries and fringed praying garments, or the adfixture of little scrolls in metal cases on the door-posts, or the glad submission to the dietary laws, in all these matters sentiment played a considerable part. And the word sentiment is used in its best sense. Abstract morality is well enough for the philosopher, but men of flesh and blood want their morality expressed in terms of feeling. Love of God is a fine thing, but the Jew wished to do loving acts of service. Obedience to the Will of God, the suppression of the human desires before that Will, is a great ideal. But the Jew wished to realise that he was obeying, that he was making the self-suppression. He was not satisfied with a general law of holiness: he felt impelled to holiness in detail, to a life in which the laws of bodily hygiene were obeyed as part of the same law of holiness that imposed ritual and moral purity. Much of the intricate system, of observance briefly summarised in this paragraph, a system which filled the Jew’s life, is passing away.
This is largely because Jews are surrendering their own original theory of life and religion. Modern Judaism seems to have no use for the ritual system. The older Judaism might retort that, if that be so, it has no use for the modern Judaism. It is, however, clear that modern Judaism now realises the mistake made by the Reformers of the mid-nineteenth century. Hence we are hearing, and shall no doubt hear more and more, of the modification of observances in Judaism rather than of their abolition.
By: Israel Abrahams- Judaism