London's East End Synagogues, cemeteries and more......

My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London

        A Torah Scroll in its coverJudaism - some information


The Jewish year begins with:

ROSH HASHANAH (1 Tishrei); The Jewish New Year.  This date marks the beginning of a period known as Aseret Yimai Teshuva - the Ten days of Repentance lasting from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.   Traditionally it is said that during this time God sits in judgement on the entire World. On Rosh Hashanah it is customary to eat sweet foods such as apples dipped in honey and honey cake.  This symbolises our hope for a 'sweet' new year.

YOM KIPPUR (10 Tishrei): Yom Kippur is the culmination of the 10 days of penitence beginning on Rosh Hashanah.  The day means many things. Literally the words mean 'Day of Atonement'.  It is the holiest day of the year.  It is the Sabbath of Sabbaths.  It is the day God saved the Jewish people from destruction in the Sea of Reeds during their escape from Egypt.  It is the day God forgave the Jewish people for their sin of worshipping the golden calf.  It is a day devoted to prayer.  It is a day devoted to consideration of how we can personally make the World a better place.  It is a day devoted to reaffirming that we shall use every day of our lives to help make the World a better place - in accordance with God's wishes. This task is taken so seriously that those who are able to are commanded to fast for 24 hours in order to detach themselves more fully from the material World in order to better tune into God.  Through prayer, repentance and acts of charity we can redeem ourselves and help to fulfil the age old commandment of Tikkun Olam -making the World a better place.  It can be the longest day of the year but also the most rewarding.

SUCCOTH (14 - 20 Tishrei): Succoth is a Hebrew word meaning 'booths'.  It is an Autumn harvest festival.  It also remembers the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert after the exodus from Egypt.  The festival begins 5 days after Yom Kippur on the 14th day of the month of Tishrei.  It's origins lie in the book of Leviticus (23.24) which states, "On the fifteenth day of the seventh month there shall be a Feast of Tabernacles to the Lord for seven days."  Succoth is one of the 3 pilgrim festivals - the others being Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot.  In biblical times the Jewish people would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Succoth by offering a portion of their Autumn harvest to the Temple.  They would dwell in temporary booths or huts while they were there.  Today the holiday is celebrated by the building of a Succah in the synagogue, and often in our homes.  The Succah is made of greenery and harvest produce laid over a frame through which the sky is visible.  It represents harvest fruits and the frail huts the Israelites lived in during their 40 years of wandering in the desert.  Kiddish is made in the Succah, and some Jews with Succahs in their homes will eat and even sleep in them for the duration of the festival.  Two more symbols are associated with Succoth.  They are the Lulav and the etrog.  Lulav is a Hebrew word meaning 'palm branch', and specifically refers to a three sectioned structure composed of a single palm branch in the centre, two willow branches on the left and three myrtle branches on the right. It is about a metre in length.   Etrog is Hebrew for 'citron', and it refers to the special lemon like fruit that is used in conjunction with the lulav on the festival of Succoth.  The lulav and the etrog are collectively known as the four species. Waving of the lulav and etrog in all directions symbolises the fact that God is everywhere.  The four species of which they are composed have also been interpreted as representing four different parts of the body joined together in serving God.  The willow is the mouth - uttering a prayer; the etrog the heart - the centre of wisdom and understanding; the palm branch is the spine - symbolising an upright character; the myrtle the eyes - our window on the World.  Many other interpretations have also been made - have a browse through some other web pages to find your favourites!

SIMCHAT TORAH (21 Tishrei): The words 'Simcath Torah' mean 'rejoicing in the law'. This is the annual celebration when we read the last part of Deuteronomy  (5th book of the Torah) and the first part of Genesis (1st book of the Torah).  Our Torah reading cycle has been completed and re-begun.  Simchat Torah is a very joyful occasion.  The scrolls are taken from the Ark and paraded round the synagogue 7 times - often accompanied by flag waving, dancing and even a L'chayim (drink) or two.  In some communities the end of the scroll is read by the Chatan Torah (bridegroom of the Torah) and the beginning is read by the Chatan Bereshit (bridegroom of Genesis).  It is customary for the children of the community to come on to the bimah during the Simchat Torah service to have a tallit spread above their heads and receive a special blessing. 

CHANNUKAH (25 Kislev - 3 Tevet): In 168bce the Syrian Greek tyrant Antiochus Epipiphanes outlawed Judaism within his empire.  He sent his troops into the Temple in Jerusalem to wreck it.  Judah Maccabee and his guerrilla army rose up against the Syrian Greeks and eventually defeated them.  When the Jewish forces re-entered the temple legend has it that there was insufficient oil found to permit the Temple Menorah (7 branched candlestick) to remain alight for more than one day.  Nevertheless the oil burnt for 8 days.  This was deemed so miraculous that an 8 branched menorah (Channukiah) is lit on Channukah to celebrate these events.  It is also a time when Jews exchange gifts and generally celebrate the on going miracle of Jewish survival. 

TU B'SHEVAT (15 Shevat): Tu B'Shevat is the Jewish New Year for trees (rather an odd thought!).  It is a day used to plant trees and other greenery, and remind ourselves of our duty to care for the planet during our time on it.

PURIM (14 Adar): The Purim story is told in the biblical book of Esther. The Jews of Shushan in Persia were singled out for destruction by the wicked Haman.  The timely intervention of the Jewish Queen Esther saw Haman's evil plan thwarted.  Today Purim has evolved into a fun holiday for children and adults. Purim parties and carnivals are held and a good time is had by all (except for Mr Haman of course!!).

PESACH (15-22 Nisan): Pesach (Passover) was originally a Spring festival celebrating the return of growth and new life to the fields and farms after Winter. Jews have given it a spiritual dimension and it is now a festival that principally celebrates the exodus from Egypt and our freedom from Egyptian bondage.  It is called Passover (Pesach) because the angel of death 'passed over' Jewish households sparing Jewish children from the destruction meted out to the stubborn Egyptians.  It is traditional to eat matzos (unleavened bread) on Pesach.  This is because when Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Jews leave Egypt they were given insufficient time to prepare food for the journey resulting in the production of bread that had not had time to rise.  In each generation, God commands Jews to see themselves as if they have just left Egypt and to use this experience to understand and ease the plight of all oppressed peoples.

YOM HA'SHOAH (27 Nisan): On this day we remember the dead of the Holocaust.

YOM HA'ATZMAUT (5 Iyar):  Israel Independence Day. Celebrates the establishment of the State of Israel.

LAG B'OMER (18 Iyar): Lag b'Omer counts the days of the 7 weeks between the end of Pesach and the beginning of Shavuot.

SHAVUOT (6-7 Sivan): Shavuot is a Hebrew word meaning 'weeks' and celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.  Shavuot is also a pilgrim festival.  In biblical times Jews would travel to Jerusalem to bring crop offerings to the temple.  Many Jewish festivals have been adapted from their agricultural origins to be imbued with a spiritual meaning.  This is true of Pesach (originally a Spring festival celebrating new life) Shavuot, and Succot (the Autumn harvest festival).  The word 'weeks' records the seven weeks it took - according to tradition - to travel from Egypt to the foot of Mount Sinai where - traditionally - Jews received the Torah (Jewish law).  As with many Jewish festivals special foods are eaten on Shavuot.  On Shavuot we eat (and enjoy!!!) dairy foods such as cheese cake and blintzes (cheese filled pancakes).

TISHA B'AV (9 Av): On this day the destruction of the first temple (585 bce) and second Temple (70 ce) are remembered.  It is traditional to fast on this day.

The Jewish Calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and consists of twelve 28 day months with an additional month inserted every two or three years to bring the calendar back in line with the agricultural year.  The festivals above are largely of agricultural origin.  For example Pesach is a Spring festival marking new life (think Easter eggs) and Sukkot is an Autumn harvest festival.  All these festivals have of course been given additional spiritual meanings.  The most important day in the Jewish Calendar is Shabbat (Sabbath), which is on the seventh day of the week (not Sunday, which is the first day of the week).  The Jewish day goes from Sunset to Sunset and so will start an end at different times according to season and location.  Bearing this last point in mind the Sabbath starts at sunset on Friday evening and goes to sunset on Saturday evening. Sabbath services take place on Friday evening and Saturday.  On Saturday we read from the Torah (the five books of Moses) The most important Sabbath of the year is the Sabbath of Sabbaths - Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).  Ten days prior to Yom Kippur is Rosh Hashanah (New Year's day) and the the ten days linking the two are known as the High Holydays.  The High Holydays take place in September/October.  Many of our festivals and Holydays are mirroed in the Christian calendar.  For example, Easter comes more or less at the time of Pesach (Passover) for the simple reason that the Christian story of the Last Supper was also the celebration of Pesach and the telling of the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage (Seder night).  There are also dietary laws and other matters to consider, but that's enough from me for now.

Judaism is a way of life, the purpose of which is to make the World a better place (Tikkun Olam). It is not burdensome and is spiritually up lifting.  If you have questions I guess you will ask me...and if I have made mistakes a guess you will tell me! 


Phil (Shalom Chaverim)


website copyright of Philip Walker