Samhain, Death, and Dying

Samhain (pronounced sow-win) is the Celtic festival celebrating the end of the harvest season. Literally translated, the word means “summer’s end”. We associate Samhain with modern Halloween, although the festival is much older. Many modern Halloween customs, however, do spring from pagan Samhain practices. 

Back in my Christian days I was extremely anti-Halloween. I remember that once I wrote an essay denouncing Halloween for being a holiday of devil worship built upon pagan roots. Nevermind that Christmas and Easter are also rooted in pagan practices. I can only say that my strong aversion to Halloween was because of Christian indoctrination and not understanding what Samhain represents. 

I find it fascinating that most cultures have similar celebrations and that those celebrations are generally clustered around the same time on the calendar. Samhain comes shortly after the Jewish festival Sukkot, and is on the same day as the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. Yes, I said they are the same day. Celtic days, like Jewish days, begin and end at sunset. If you notice on most calendars you will see a note that says “Jewish holidays begin at sunset on the evening prior to the date listed.” The same is true with Celtic holidays. Samhain begins at sunset on October 31 and runs until sunset on November 1. Our calendars list Halloween as October 31 because our days begin at midnight. 

Samhain is not an evil holiday. It is not about worshipping satan and all that stuff. The vast majority of people who celebrate Samhain do not even believe in the Chrsitian Satan or even in the concept of a similar being. Like Sukkot and Dia de los Muertos, Samhain is about remembering, honoring, and connecting with those who came before us. 

Samhain represents death, and that frightens a lot of people. Our society is afraid of death and dying. We do everything we can to postpone death for as long as possible. For some, the ability to live forever would be a welcome option. But death is a natural part of life. We all will die at some point. We shouldn’t fear death. We should aim to die well. Samhain ends the warm growing half of the year. It is the demarcation line between light and dark, life and death. Samhain is a transition to the dark half of the year. What we have not harvested returns to earth. It is a cycle. It is organic. 

If you can, make an ancestor altar. Light candles, add photographs or a list of names, and add little gifts and treats of things that your ancestors liked. If you can’t make an altar, take time to explore and deepen your knowledge of your family history. Pick one ancestor or loved one whom you would like to remember and light a candle in his or her honor. These are just a few of many ways you can celebrate Samhain if you don’t already have it as part of your traditions. And, if you do, feel free to share your favorite Samhain customs below.

 

The Ouroboros Year

The autumn Jewish holidays will end this week with the days of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. The soul searching that began during the month of Elul will culminate in the joyous abandon of Simchat Torah. 

The seven day festival of Sukkot ends today (Sunday October 20). As the sun sets this evening we mark the beginning of Shemini Atzeret. Literally, the name means stopping on the 8th day. While Shemini Atzeret has no customs of it’s own, it is, nevertheless a holy day. It is a day for dwelling with G-d. You know how when someone you love comes to visit? Sometimes when it’s time for them to leave you are having such a wonderful time and you don’t want them to go. So, you ask them to stay for another day. That’s Shemini Atzeret. We have had this month almost two month time of introspection and deepening our relationship with G-d. Now it’s time to leave. But G-d wants to spend one more day with us before sending us back to our ordinary lives. So, we spend this day with G-d. Just dwelling. In relationship. Deepening. 

Immediately as the sun begins to set on Shemini Atzeret we begin the final of the autumn holidays- Simchat Torah. This is a day of joy and rejoicing in the Torah. The Jewish scriptures, the five books of Moses, are central to our daily lives. We read the complete Torah each year- a new portion each week. We  study the weekly portion, read it aloud in synagogue services, and apply what we learn to our lives. Simchat Torah marks the end of the cycle. We read the end of Deuteronomy 34 and immediately begin again with Genesis 1. By looping from the end to the beginning we remember that the Torah is a cycle- it has no beginning or ending. The festival is also marked with dancing and parading with Torah scrolls. 

From the 1st of Elul until the sun sets on Simchat Torah, we have spent 52 days with G-d. For the past 52 days we have looked inside ourselves, questioned our motives, renewed our relationships, and embarked on a new year of Torah study. May the new year of 5780 be a reflection of the work from the past 52 days.

 

Sukkot and Ancestor Veneration

Now that we have passed the High Holidays and the Days of Awe, we are embarking upon another 7 day Jewish festival- the harvest festival Sukkot. Sukkot begins on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei- at the time of the full moon. Sukkot is a time to build huts and decorate them with fruits. It’s the time we dwell in these huts to remind ourselves of our agrarian roots and the temporary nature of the dwellings we lived in in the desert after the Exodus. 

Sukkot is so much more than this, however. It is also the time to venerate our ancestors. Just like the Celtic Samhain and the Mexican Day of the Dead, Sukkot is a time to honor and remember our ancestors. Building a sukkah and engaging in everyday activities within it is not enough. We also welcome ushpizin or guests, into our sukkah. Those guests are friends and relatives, but also, our ancestors.

Traditionally speaking we invite one of the seven patriarchs and matriarchs to dine with us each night of the festival. It is often common to also welcome our own ancestors to dwell with us as well. In order to welcome the ancestors it is customary to decorate the walls of the sukkah with photographs and other objects. We also place empty chairs for the spiritual ushpizin to sit in. Special prayers and blessings are recited for welcoming the souls of our departed ushpizin. When we decorate the sukkah and welcome our spiritual guests, we are basically building an ancestor altar (although modern Judaism would not even be aware of this). 

The custom of welcoming guests into our sukkah goes all the way back to our patriarch Abraham. It is well known that he would sit in his tent and welcome guests. His tent is said to have been open on all sides so that he could see travelers from whatever direction they came. When Abraham saw a traveler, that person would become his guest for a welcoming meal and respite from the road. 

Let us be like Abraham and make this Sukkot a lovely time of welcoming our ancestors as guests. They have been travelling a long and hard road after their passing. Let us welcome them into the cool shade of our sukkah for rest and a meal.  

Yom Kippur- A Day of Perfect Balance

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. It is the holiest day of the year in the Jewish calendar. It is the crown jewel of the High Holy Days. Yom Kippur is a day of personal and communal reflection. This year (2019), Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Tuesday October 8 and ends at sundown on Wednesday October 9. 

Like Rosh HaShanah 10 days earlier, the central themes of Yom Kippur are teshuva (turning from wrong) and repentance. Both holy days along with the time in between is a magical time of restoring order and balance to our lives. It is no wonder that Yom Kippur falls during the month ruled by Libra. Traditionally speaking, this is the day when G-d weighs our souls in the balance and determines our fate for the year. It is a solemn time, yes, but it is also a joyous time. If we properly prepare ourselves and observe the day,we will merit favor for another year. 

If done correctly, Yom Kippur is the conclusion of 40 days of soulful reflection. The month of Elul (the month preceding Tishrei when the High Holy Days occur) is a month of introspection and reflection. This is intensified on Rosh HaShanah when we come together as a community and publicly for prayer and introspection. Ten days later on Yom Kippur we come together once more for a final day of admitting our wrongdoings and seeking forgiveness. On this day, after 40 days of reflection, we again find balance in our lives. Our wrongs from the previous year break us, but on Yom Kippur we are able to be merged together again in wholeness. 

 

The Symbolism of Rosh Hashanah

Tonight marks the beginning of Rosh HaShanah. Known as the Jewish new year, the words literally translate to “head of the year.” Tonight we will flip our Hebrew calendars from 5779 to 5780. As we celebrate this holiday we undertake a number of symbolic rituals, prayers, and foods. 

Head of the Year

New moon. New month. New year. Rosh HaShanah is all this and more. The significance of the name “head of the year” is not without meaning. Like the head of our body, the head of the year directs everything else. Our year is determined by Rosh HaShanah. If we have a healthy and symbolic head of the year, the remainder of the year will fall into place. If, on the other hand, we don’t then we risk the remainder of the year not being up to where we want it to be. 

Crowning G-d King

During the Rosh HaShanah liturgy we hear about and pray for the coming messianic age. It doesn’t matter whether you view this as a time of a literal messiah or an age of perfection. We all yearn for the time when creation and humanity will be in harmony. We view Rosh HaShanah as a time to crown G-d as king. It is a time when our hope in the goodness of humanity is restored. 

Creation of Adam & Eve

Rosh HaShanah has been said to be the birthday of the world- the day of creation. In reality, the earth was created six days ago, and humans were created on this day. Why the distinction? The creation of earth is wonderful and nice, but it doesn’t mean much if there are no people here to enjoy it. The Divine- in all glory- created man and woman in it’s image. With the creation of humanity we find meaning in the creation of the earth. 

Apples & Honey

One of the traditions related to Rosh HaShanah is to eat apples dipped in honey. The reason behind this is to set the intention for a good sweet new year. This is also the reason our challah is raisin studded for the holiday. Lots of sweet fruits are eaten to bring in a sweet new year. 

Tashlich

On the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah tashlich is observed. This ritual is performed by going to a body of water and throwing our “sins” away as we toss bread crumbs into the water. This is a symbolic ritual only. We are not literally throwing our sins away, and atonement does not come from the ritual. The symbolic act takes place through reading passages from Psalms and the prophet Micah (remembering that G-d will cast our sins into the depths of the sea) and tossing the bread as a symbol of our sins. This is one of my favorite Rosh HaShanah rituals. You can read more about it here

Shofar

The central commandment of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the Shofar blowing. If you can’t make it to services or don’t want to participate in any other rituals, this is the one to do. Hearing the blast of the ram’s horn is rather haunting. It is a shout of jubilation, a cry out to G-d, and a war cry. Despite all it’s usages, the sound is haunting. It stirs something deep within the soul. You feel it in your kishkes. The reasoning behind the command for a shofar is unclear (you can read about it here), but to be sure, this is the one thing you don’t want to miss. Want to hear it yourself? Take a listen below. 

 

Easy Mabon Feast

The wheel is turning again. Mabon has arrived. The days are getting shorter and the weather is cooler. It’s the perfect time for a harvest feast. Here are a few of my favorite easy Mabon recipes. Enjoy!

Butternut Squash Soup

  • 1 large squash, cubed
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 7 cups water
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • Fresh thyme (optional) for garnish

Combine all ingredients except cream in large soup pot. Bring to boil. Cover and simmer for 35 minutes. Using an immersion blender, puree the soup until silky smooth. Add the heavy cream and bring to a simmer. Ladle into soup bowls and garnish with thyme if desired. 

Harvest Pot Roast

  • 6 slices beef bacon
  • 3 pounds cubed root vegetables of choice
  • Salt and pepper
  • Dried rosemary to taste
  • 3 pound venison roast
  • 1 ½ cups beef broth
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste

Place bacon slices in bottom of slow cooker. Mix root vegetables over bacon. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and rosemary. Place venison on top of vegetables. Add remaining rosemary. Combine beef broth and tomato paste and pour over roast. Cover and cook on low for 9 hours. 

Apple Crisp

  • 10 cups apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 tablespoon and 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 cup quick-cook oats
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ cup butter, melted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the apples in a 9×13 baking dish. Mix the sugar, 1 tablespoon flour, and cinnamon. Sprinkle over apples. Pour water over apples. Combine remaining ingredients. Crumble evenly over apple mixture. Bake for 45 minutes. 

 

Remembering Destruction

One thing I have learned in life is that is is crucial that we take time to remember and honor the destruction in our lives. Remembering the traumas in our past allows us to grieve in a healthy manner and ensures that we never forget the things that have made us what we are. We can never get away from our shadow, and we shouldn’t want to. We need not dwell on the darkness. It is unhealthy to do so. However, it is equally unhealthy to pretend that we have no shadow. Integration is key. Integration is balance. There is dark to every aspect of life. 

 

In Judaism, there is a day for remembering destruction. Tish B’Av, the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, is a day of destruction in Jewish history. Many terrible acts destruction have happened on this day, including the destruction of both temples. The 9th of Av is a day of mourning and fasting to mark and remember the terrible things in our past. If you want to read about the history of destruction on this day, you can do so here.

 

Because the Jewish calendar is lunar, the date varies on the Gregorian calendar each year. In 2019, the day fell on Saturday August 10. However, because the day fell on the Sabbath, it is observed on Sunday August 11. The Sabbath is a day of supreme joy and beauty, and we do not fast on the Sabbath. Traditionally, the day is observed through fasting, prayer, reading Lamentations, and general sadness. 

 

I, personally, do not fast on Tish B’Av. I do tend to spend the day in solemness and reading of Lamentations. I take time to remember the destruction that has happened on this day and I try to find parallels in my own life and not just dwell on the world as a whole. I find it quite interesting, but not coincidental, that the day always falls around the time of Lughnassadh. It is the beginning of the shadow season. It’s still summer, but we are reaching the time of harvest and drawing closer to the time of death. What better time to take a day to observe and remember our past traumas?  

 

Lammas Traditions

This past week on August 1, we celebrated Lammas or Lughnasadh (luna-sa), the first of several harvest festivals. Although I am Jewish, I come from Scottish heritage, so I do observe Gaelic/Celtic holidays such as this one. There are many ways to celebrate Lughnasadh, as well as many myths and legends that surround it. Like everything else, I pick and choose what I do in my celebrations surrounding the wheel of the year. 

 

As Lughnasadh is a harvest festival, my celebration mainly surrounds the foods that I eat. My Lammas meal is pretty simple. I make sure to eat from the Native American Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash) as well as a loaf of bread- namely Challah. This Jewish braided bread traditionally was just bread and the word challah referred to the pinch of dough that was offered to the Queen of Heaven in the fire. You would literally pinch off a piece of dough and burn it in the fire as an offering to Asherah. However, the term challah has come to mean the loaf itself. I generally don’t make my own challah (although on occasion I do), so at Lughnasadh I make sure to take a pinch of the already baked bread and save it to burn on my altar for the Queen of Heaven. Then, I eat the remainder of the Challah with the Three Sisters.

My Lammas meal is the majority of my observance of this holiday. I also like to have a corn dolly on my altar from now until Mabon. That’s about it, though. I’m rather simple in my observances and that works for me. What are your favorite ways to observe Lughnasadh? 

~Chaya Levana

 

The Gift of Mercury Retrograde

Mercury is in retrograde from July 7 – July 31, 2019. What does this mean? In simple terms, it means that Mercury is travelling backwards from it’s normal path. In reality, this isn’t possible. So why do we say Mercury is in retrograde? Because Mercury is closer to the sun than Earth it has a shorter orbit time (88 days compared to Earth’s 365). In other words, Mercury wizzes by Earth several times in our year, But, like the story of the tortoise and the hare, at some point, Earth, in her steady circle, will catch up to and then pass Mercury. When Earth passes Mercury it appears that Mercury is moving backwards. This is Mercury retrograde and it happens three times each year. 

In astrology, Mercury rules communication, coordination, travel, commerce, and finances. So, when Mercury is in retrograde we tend to experience communication snafus and things just tend to not go well in these areas. Oftentimes, we tend to expect awful things to start happening as soon as Mercury goes retrograde or when we start experiencing these things we wonder if Mercury has gone retrograde. 

Instead, we should look at this period as a gift. In modern society we tend to go full steam ahead with plans and projects. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but sometimes we forget to sit back and take stock of what we have going on and what we need to accomplish. Mercury retrograde is the perfect time for this. We can’t really stop everything for several weeks three times per year, but we can take these weeks to slow down and think about what we are doing. When we do so we are being mindful in all that we do. Instead of expecting bad things to happen and accepting that you will have a bad attitude about it, plan to use this time to look inward and take stock of what’s going on with you and how you interact with the universe. Make plans, but don’t make final decisions until Mercury is direct again. If you plan to travel, double, and even triple check, your travel plans prior to heading out. Be sure to have a back up plan. When things go wrong (because let’s face it, it happens during Mercury retrograde) take a deep breath and ask what you need to learn from the experience. 

Like everything else in life, Mercury retrograde is what you make of it. If you expect all bad things and a bad attitude, that’s exactly what you will get. Instead, expect to learn some lessons about yourself and you most certainly will.  

~Chaya Levana

Passover and the Omer

Passover, one of the major festivals of Judaism, is a Spring holiday that commemorates the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egypt. The festival is a seven or eight day holiday that begins with a ritualized meal known as the Seder (order) and is marked by not eating any foods containing leavening agents.

The Seder is the star of the Passover celebration. This ritual includes the retelling of the exodus story along with ritual foods and items used to help in the retelling. A meal is shared, wine is drank, and everyone comes together to remember. But, while the remembering is of the exodus from Egyptian slavery, we also take the time to remember other forms of slavery and oppression that our people, and others, have experienced throughout history, or are experiencing today. Modern Seders often include newer ritual items, including Miriam’s cup to honor the contributions of women, oranges (for LGBTQ issues), potatoes (immigration), and many others You can read about several modern additions to the Seder plate here

Once the Seder is over, Passover has just begun. We continue to substitute matzah for bread to remember that our ancestors had to flee Egypt in such a hurry that they didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise. Metaphysically speaking, leavening represents aras in our life that we need to work on. Some people refer to this as our sinful nature, but I think it is best to see it as our Shadow side- not something that must be eradicated, but darker aspects of our personality that need to be incorporated. We don’t abstain from bread and leavened food indefinitely (complete eradication), but for a time in order to better see what our life can and should be. We then incorporate these foods (our shadow) back into our full selves for a better, and more complete picture of who we truly are.

So, the Seder is the time of remembering and celebrating our liberation from slavery. But, after being enslaved we are living with a slave mentality. That way of thinking colors every aspect of ourselves and doesn’t go away overnight simply by being liberated. Like the Hebrews in the exodus story, we need a period of retraining our brains and embracing a new way of thinking. Enter the Counting of the Omer. Traditionally this was a time to count the forty nine days between the barley and wheat offerings in the Tabernacle/Temple. The omer measure of barley was offered on the second day of Passover and the omer measure of wheat was offered fifty days later on Shavuot (thus the counting of 49 days or seven weeks).

This seven week period offered a time for the Hebrews to prepare themselves for becoming a nation. G-d gave the law to the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot. This is when they became a unified nation. The seven week period in between their liberation (Passover) and becoming nation (Shavuot) was the time that they changed spiritually. They had to see themselves not as slaves, but as a free people in order to become a nation. If they had remained in a slave mentality they would have remained an enslaved people- albeit no longer physically enslaved

Like the Hebrews, we need a time of inner transformation after our liberation. The seven weeks of the Omer offers us a time to examine seven different aspects of our lives. According to Kabbalah there are ten emanations in which the Divine reveals itself. The counting of the Omer takes seven of these emanations and assigns one to each of the seven weeks of the count. During that week we thoroughly examine every meaning of that aspect of Divinity and how to incorporate it into our lives.

By celebrating Passover and Counting the Omer we are able to commemorate our liberation from a literal slavery as well as a spiritual slavery. We then are able to take the time needed for inner transformation and shadow work to prepare in order to be truly free. Passover and the Omer are my favorite time of the year because I am able to remember that I am free from the enslavement of the expectations of others. I am free and able to live my life according to my own spiritual understanding. I am free to to embrace my Jewitchy self. And, I have a time each year in order to incorporate the memories from my past into my current and future self. As a result, I am a more complete and awake spiritual being. May the day come when I am truly a being of light.