Yom Kippur. Maurycy Minkowski, 1906. Oil on canvas. Tel Aviv Museum of Art. (Gift of the Zionist Organization Königsberg; © Tel Aviv Museum of Art)

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Religious Year

The rhythm of Jewish life in Eastern Europe was governed substantially by the Jewish calendar, although the calendar of the majority culture impinged on Jewish lives as well. Merchants’ calendars published in Hebrew in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries indicated not only the Jewish months, with their associated astrological signs and holidays, but the Christian ones as well. In one calendar, for example, Easter is designated tselem tog: Cross Day. And particular social and business customs were observed by some Jews on Christmas. Still, the Jewish year served as the timeline and background for much of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. In the twentieth century, secular Jewish movements retained much of the calendar while reinterpreting the significance of some holidays.

Żyd z etrogiem (Jew and Etrog). Maurycy Trębacz. Oil on canvas. The etrog, a variety of citron, is one of the “four species” (along with the date palm, willow branches, and myrtle leaves) that are used in ceremonies during Sukkot. (Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw)

Though Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) falls at the beginning of the month of Tishre, liturgical preparations begin a month earlier, with the advent of the month of Elul. In Elul, the shofar is sounded in each weekday’s morning service in anticipation of the Days of Judgment, and a penitential psalm (Psalm 27) is added to the prayer services of the morning and the evening. During the week before Rosh Hashanah, an entire extra service of penitential prayers, known in Yiddish as Slikhes and in Hebrew as Seliḥot, takes place in the early hours of the morning. On the day before Rosh Hashanah, this service was greatly expanded. After the morning service, the members of the community would traditionally appear before a rabbinic court (bet din) to annul any vows each may have made during the year. The days of penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were marked by additional Slikhes services as well.

In the yeshivas, the semester of study (Heb., zeman; Yid., zman) began with the coming of Elul. Among Hasidim, it was customary for the faithful to leave their homes at that time and to gather in the vicinity of their rebbe’s court. Many stayed there from the onset of Elul until after Sukkot (Sukes; Tabernacles)—a full two months. In the Lithuanian Misnagdic region, some emulated this Hasidic custom by spending the entire month of Elul in study at one of the area’s yeshivas.

During the month of Elul—or, alternatively, in the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—it was customary to visit the graves of parents and ancestors and to distribute charity at the cemetery. Pious women would surround the length of the cemetery with string and then use that string as wicks for special candles for Yom Kippur. These candles, quite thick and long enough to burn for the entire Day of Atonement, were of two sorts: candles of memory (rayne neshame likht) and candles of life (lebedige likht). As they made the candles in memory of various relatives, the women recited special prayers (tkhines), particularly for pious departed relatives who might intercede in heaven on behalf of their families. The lebedige likht were for living members of the family—and their preparation, too, was accompanied by tkhines. The memorial candles were lit in the synagogue; the candles for the living at home.

Jews performing the rite of tashlikh on Rosh Hashanah on the outskirts of Gertsa, 1928. (YIVO)

On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah (or the second day, if the first day falls on the Sabbath), Jews traditionally have gathered at a body of water to symbolically cast away their sins in a ceremony called tashlekh (Heb., tashlikh). In Hasidic communities, tashlekh often took place during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Certain foods, whose names in Hebrew, Yiddish, or the vernacular were interpreted allegorically, were customarily eaten on Rosh Hashanah. Thus, for instance, carrots (Yid., mehren) suggested a blessing to be fruitful and multiply, and were a staple East European dish on Rosh Hashanah. Merchants would make a new or relatively uncommon fruit available for the Rosh Hashanah table, so that on the second day of the holiday, the blessing marking a singular occasion—She-Heḥeyanu—could properly be recited. The blessing over the new fruit also solved the halakhic problem of reciting the blessing over the holiday day itself, since the second day of Rosh Hashanah is considered to be part of the first day (yoma’ arikhta’; a “long day”) of the holiday.

Special challahs were also baked for this season. In some communities, they were round; in others, a ladder or key design was imposed on the top of the challah. The bread at the table on Rosh Hashanah—and often during the entire season of holidays, extending to Hosha‘na’ Rabah at the end of Sukkot—was dipped in honey to symbolize the wish for a sweet year. This practice, in Polish lands, was sometimes called czterdzieści mojces, meaning 40 blessings over bread. A modern custom, begun at the end of the nineteenth century, is the sending of New Year’s greetings in the form of cards.

Sukkot in a courtyard in Kraków, 1930s. (YIVO)

The custom of kapures (kaparot)—the slaughter of a chicken as a type of sin offering in place of the life of the person—was widespread throughout Eastern Europe, taking place on the morning of Erev Yom Kippur. For some, especially in Lithuania, the prevailing custom was to give money to charity instead of slaughtering a chicken. Some rabbinic authorities, perhaps following Yosef Karo’s opinion in the Shulḥan ‘arukh, frowned on the custom of kaparot, on the grounds that it smacked of vestiges of paganism. The masses of East European Jewry practiced kapures, however—perhaps following Mosheh Isserles’ prescriptions in the Shulḥan ‘arukh—and in Hasidic society the custom was considered to be sacrosanct. Sometimes communal regulations prescribed a hierarchical order with respect to the distribution of chickens to be used in this observance. Another penitential practice, restricted to adult males, was to receive the 39 lashes prescribed in the Torah for various sins. The shamash (beadle) would administer them in the doorway of the synagogue, and it was customary to pay him a fee for this service.

East European Jews traditionally ate kreplach—a dough product containing meat or chicken—on the day before Yom Kippur as a symbol that one’s fate for the coming year was still hidden and would be decided on Yom Kippur. Following the evening service on Yom Kippur, it was customary for pious men to remain in the synagogue to recite the Book of Psalms. Some would even remain awake the whole night to engage in Torah study, in emulation of the high priest and his acolytes during the period of the Temple. By contrast, in the late 1930s, Polish Bundists carried out “press actions,” printing their newspaper and selling it in the streets on Yom Kippur. The newspaper vendors were accompanied by a cadre of young Bundists to protect them. The Bund even held its annual banquet in Vilna on the night of Kol Nidre.

You shall live in booths seven days." Woodblock print by Ilya Schor. The quote is from Leviticus 23: 42. (© Mira Schor. Courtesy Moldovan Family Collection)

For Sukkot, the importing of esrogim (etrogim; citrons) and lulavim (palm fronds)—neither of which were indigenous to Eastern Europe, which made them both expensive—was a constant matter of concern. Most people would share a communal lulav and esrog; the wealthy would have their own. At least in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the importation of esrogim was supervised by the Councils of Poland and Lithuania. There were a number of families who specialized in importing these species; hence the family names Esrog and Citron among East European Jews.

The Water-Drawing Festival (Simḥat Bet ha-Sho’evah), which falls during the intermediate days of Sukkot, was a particularly joyous time and was observed with great enthusiasm, particularly in the yeshivas and among Hasidim. It was a popular folk custom for people to go outside on the night of Hosha‘na’ Rabah to see if any of their body parts failed to cast a shadow in the moonlight. If one’s shadow was headless, it was a sign that one would die within the year. Arms or legs not casting a shadow indicated that one’s children would have problems or that one would have financial difficulties, depending on the source of the tradition.

“Rejoice on Simḥat Torah.” Simḥat Torah flag, Eastern Europe, nineteenth or early twentieth century. Woodcut. (Moldovan Family Collection)

The holiday at the end of Sukkot—Simḥat Torah (Simkhes Toyre)—vied with Purim as the most festive day on the Jewish calendar. Torchlight parades of children carrying flags were the order of the day, along with dancing and singing. In Hasidic circles, dancing with the rebbe was considered a holy privilege. Both men and women in the synagogue kissed the Torah scrolls as the processions took place. In Lithuania, it was common for the women to descend to the men’s section of the synagogue to touch and kiss the Torah scrolls. This was not the practice among Hasidim, however. The traditional East European food delicacy on Simkhes Toyre was cabbage leaves stuffed with ground meat or chicken. The consumption of liquor in copious quantities was permitted and encouraged.

The proper name of the Hebrew month following Tishre is Marḥeshvan, though it is often referred to simply as Ḥeshvan. The word mar means bitter, and there were popular etymologies explaining what seemed to be a prefix in the name. The month was called bitter for women who gave birth then, perhaps because the weather was often inclement at that time of year; or it was generally bitter because leases traditionally came to an end then and the poor would have to move; and it was bitter for teachers, because Ḥeshvan has no holidays.

Hanukkah lamp. Eastern Europe, ca. 1900. Copper alloy: cast and engraved. The Rose and Benjamin Mintz Collection, M 446. Photograph by Richard Goodbody, Inc. The Jewish Museum, New York (© The Jewish Museum / Art Resource, NY)

On Hanukkah (Heb., more properly Ḥanukah; Yid., Khanike), lights were lit inside the house. It was customary to eat foods cooked in oil, as oil was a central aspect of the miracle associated with the holiday. In Poland, the favored food was jelly donuts (pontshkes, in Yiddish and Polish), while in Lithuania by the nineteenth century, potato latkes (pancakes) were preferred. Goose was considered a Hanukkah delicacy, perhaps because geese were in demand around Christmas among Christian neighbors. (Goose fat was also rendered and prepared for Passover; the cracklings [gribenes] were a seasonal favorite.) Since it was not permitted to work while the Hanukkah candles burned, the playing of games, particularly games of chance, was popular; adults played cards and gambled with dice. Khanike gelt—small coins of money—was distributed to the children, especially on the fifth night of the eight-day holiday. Children also spent their time playing dreidel—a game of chance played with a spinning top containing the acronym of the Hebrew words for “A great miracle occurred there.”

Tu be-Shevat—the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat, called the New Year of the Trees—became an annual day of remembrance of the Land of Israel. Fruits that grew in the Land of Israel were eaten, and the memory of the Land of Israel kept alive. The most well known of the fruits eaten in Eastern Europe was bokser—St. John’s Bread, the fruit of the carob tree. Since the bokser usually arrived months after being harvested, it was almost always hard and practically tasteless. Thus, in Yiddish, the word bokser came to be applied to any inedible food. It was also customary in some regions to make preserves out of the etrogim from Sukkot and eat them on Tu be-Shevat.

Purim painting, untitled. Safed, Israel, 19th century. Hasidic Jews celebrating Purim with a Sephardic Jew (left). The inscription is part of a passage from the Talmud urging Jews to imbibe enough alcohol so that they will not know the difference between the phrases “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.” Collection of Isaac Einhorn, Tel Aviv. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource NY)

The seventh day of the month of Adar is traditionally considered the anniversary of the death (and the birth) of Moses. Since legend had it that God himself had buried Moses, that day became a day of convocation for burial societies, who observed it with a banquet, preceded by a sermon delivered by the communal rabbi.

The holiday of Purim (Feast of Esther) is celebrated a week later, on the 14th of Adar. Special customs arose around the observance of this holiday in Eastern Europe, as well as local Purims commemorating events that had happened to particular communities. One month later, the festival of Passover (Heb., Pesaḥ; Yid., Peysakh) required much advance preparation; in the case of this holiday, too, there were numerous traditions particular to Eastern Europe associated with its observance. 

'Omer calendar, Bohemia, 1824. It was not uncommon for Jews to have 'omer calendars with movable numbers on them to help them fulfill the commandment to count the 49 days from Passover until Shavu'ot. (Jewish Museum in Prague)

Immediately after Passover, the sefirah (“counting,” of the 49 days between Passover and Shavu‘ot [Shevues; Feast of Weeks]) period began. This period was observed as a time of mourning for the disciples of Rabbi Akiva, who were martyred during the Bar Kokhba rebellion against Rome of 133–135 CE. No weddings were solemnized during this period, which was observed as one of semi-mourning. However, the thirty-third day of sefirah—Lag b’Omer (more properly, Lag ba-‘Omer)—was an exception, a day for weddings, haircuts, music, and children’s outings to the forests and fields, where they played with bows and arrows, wooden swords, and, sometimes, colored eggs. Special calendars to count the days in this period are called ‘omer calendars (see image at right).

Shavu‘ot commemorates the acceptance of the Torah by the people of Israel at Sinai. It was marked by dairy meals, all-night learning sessions, and special prayers inserted into the holiday services. The reading of the Book of Ruth was the accepted custom in Lithuania and parts of Poland, but was not universally observed in Eastern Europe. On the eve of the holiday, children were given paper and scissors to prepare cutoutsshevues tsatskes—which were glued to the windows of the house. The second day of Shavu‘ot was by tradition the anniversary of the death of King David. A large memorial candle was lit in the synagogue, and there was sometimes a public recitation of the Book of Psalms.

For the same reason, the second day of Shavu‘ot was the traditional feast day of the Ḥevrah Tehilim (Yid., Khevre Tehilim; the Psalms fraternity). Jews would gather for a festive meal—amid, if they could afford it, 150 candles representing the number of biblical psalms. All of the khevres, including artisans’ guilds, had particular Sabbaths or holidays with which they were associated and on which they would hold an annual feast.

The twentieth day of Sivan was observed in Eastern Europe as a fast day, mainly in memory of the victims of gzeyres takh vetat—the pogroms of the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising in 1648–1649. Special penitential and memorial prayers were added to the regular prayer services on that day, and memorial lights and candles were lit in homes and synagogues.

Women praying on Tishah b’Av, a day of fasting in commemoration of the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, Kraków, 1926. (Archiwum Dokumentacji Mechanicznej, courtesy Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw)

The seventeenth day of Tamuz was a fast day marking the entry of the Roman legions into Jerusalem in 70 CE. It marked the beginning of the “Three Weeks,” a period of mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. No weddings were solemnized during this period, no new clothes were purchased or worn, and a somber mood took hold. Beginning with the first day of Av, the period of the “Nine Days” began. No meat was eaten nor wine consumed during this period of time. Tishah b’Av (more properly, Tish‘ah be-Av)—the ninth day of Av—was the saddest day on the Jewish calendar and was observed as a 24-hour fast. The meal preceding the fast ended with an egg dipped in ashes or a round bagel, both of which items were traditionally served to mourners upon returning from the cemetery. Over the centuries, Tishah b’Av became the day of mourning for other catastrophes of Jewish history, including the massacres of the Crusades, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and gzeyres takh vetat. These events were commemorated through the recitation of kines (Heb., kinot), poems of lamentation. Kines have also been written and added to some editions of the Tishah b’Av service to commemorate the Holocaust. In Poland and Russia, it was customary for schoolboys to collect seed burrs and thistles on this day and throw them at each other and their elders. All social intercourse was forbidden, and Jews visited the local cemetery. It also was the day when Jewish Eastern Europe renewed its bond with the Land of Israel. Appeals for funds to support Jews living in the Land of Israel were a regular feature of Tishah b’Av in Eastern Europe.

Suggested Reading

Lucy Dawidowicz, From That Place and Time: A Memoir (1938–1947) (New York, 1989); Jehuda Elset (Yehudah Elzet [J. L. Slotnick]), “Mi-Minhage Yisra’el,” Reshumot 1 (1918): 335–377; Baruch ha-Levi Epstein, Mekor Barukh (New York, 1953/54); Yosef Friedenson, Articles on the holidays, Dos yidishe vort [New York] (September 2005, March, 2006, May 2006); Eliyahu Ki Tov, The Book of Our Heritage, 3 vols., adapt. and exp. ed., trans. Nachman Bulman (New York, 1997); Yom-Tov Lewinsky, Sefer ha-mo‘adim: Parashat mo‘ade Yisra’el, 8 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1964/65–1967/68); Daniel Sperber, Minhage Yisra’el, 7 vols. (Jerusalem, 1990–2003).