Celebrating the Holidays with CTE

ongregation Torat El strives to celebrate the Jewish holidays in ways that are both traditional and innovative as we seek to bring the meaning, wisdom, and relevance of each holiday to the lives of our members. We strive to create holiday experiences that are of everyone and look for ways to make our holiday experiences accessible and enjoyable.

We believe that the celebration of Shabbat each week and the Jewish holidays throughout the year helps our community build a sense of kehillah kedosha, holy community. This enables them to discover God’s presence in their lives and in our world and helps them to grow along their Jewish Journeys.

The following descriptions will give you a sense of each holiday as well as the ways that we observe them at Congregation Torat El. For more specifics information about this year’s activities, please see our calendar. For more information about our holidays, please consult the following websites: (  www.uscj.org;   www.myjewishlearning.com)



Jewish tradition teaches that the month prior to the Yamim Noraim, High Holy Days, is to be marked by active reflection as we work to improve our relationships with God, with ourselves, and with other people in our lives. We are taught to spend one month engaged in the process of cheshbon hanefesh, personal introspection, and teshuvha, repentance, as we prepare ourselves to begin a new year. The month of Elul is marked by the sounding of the Shofar, each morning, which serves as a reminder to “wake up” and take hold of this unique opportunity for personal growth. During Elul we also add Pslam 27 in our morning and evening services as we explore the nature of God’s presence in our lives.

The end of Elul is marked by the celebration of Selichot, penitential prayers, meant to get us in the mood for the upcoming holiday.

In our community, we have a special Selichot service on the Saturday preceding Rosh Hashanah that is uniquely held late in the evening. Prior to our service, we spend some time in active study and reflection as we prepare for the New Year.

Yamim Noraim, The High Holy Days

Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, also called Yom Hadin (the Day of Judgment) and Yom Teruah (the Day of the Sounding of the Horn), marks the beginning of a New Year. It is a two day period centering upon the themes of creation and renewal, God’s sovereignty in our world, and the ways in which we can work to improve ourselves and our daily lives through self-reflection and renewal. Rosh Hashanah also begins the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, in which we are to make a serious effort to repair damaged relationships and improve on those areas in which we sinned, or more literally, “missed the mark,” during this past year.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we also celebrate Tashlikh by symbolically casting our past sins into a flowing body of water as we seek to re-create ourselves for the coming year.

Yom Kippur:

Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, is the culmination of our period of reflection and renewal. On Yom Kippur, we come before God to ask forgiveness for any sins that we have committed against God and for which no other individual can forgive us. Yom Kippur is a day in which we take time to reflect on the nature of our relationship with God and set aside our worldly pleasures and concerns. On Yom Kippur, Jewish adults above the age of bar or bat mitzvah are asked to refrain from eating or drinking for twenty-five hours and are to avoid certain luxuries such as bathing, making ourselves smell good, wearing leather shoes, and engaging in intimate relations with our partners. It is a custom to wear white on Yom Kippur as a symbol of our mortality (since Jewish burial shrouds are white), a remembrance of the white robes the High Priest wore on Yom Kippur during biblical times, and as a reminder that we are all equal before God. And on Yom Kippur we recite yizkor, the memorial prayer, and light a yahrtzeit (memorial) candle to honor our loved ones who are no longer with us.

Our Yom Kippur service begins with Kol Nidrei, a service focusing on the way in which we use our words in this world. It is one of the rare times we wear our talitot, prayer shawls, in the synagogue during the evening as a sign of the holiness of that moment. The morning service is full and rich, with numerous additional prayers and liturgical poems that go well beyond our weekly Shabbat service.

At Congregation Torat El, our High Holiday service is led by our Cantor and Rabbi with involvement from many in our community. Our teens read from the Torah throughout the holidays and chant from the book of Jonah every Yom Kippur. We also have engaging and creative High Holiday experiences for our youth and babysitting available.

On Yom Kippur, during the break between our morning and evening service, we have the custom of studying together a relevant theme to the day. Our Yom Kippur experience ends with Ne’ilah, an uplifting and inspirational service that culminates with a communal sounding of the Shofar.

Sukkot/ Hoshanah Rabbah

Sukkot, the festival of tabernacles/booths, is one of the shalosh regalim, the three central festivals of the Jewish calendar. It is celebrated for 7 days, from the 15th to 21st of the month of Tishri, and is followed by Shemini Atzeret (the eighth day of assembly), which is a separate holiday. Sukkot commemorates the forty year period when the Israelites wandered in the desert and lived in temporary dwellings.  It is also called Hag Ha’asif (the Holiday of the Ingathering) because it was during this time of the year when the Israelites conducted their final ingathering of produce before the winter came.  Yet another name for Sukkot is Zman Simchateinu (the Season of Our Happiness), named because we come together to rejoice and celebrate just five days after the conclusion of the serious season of repentance of Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur.  The prophet Zechariah wrote that at the end of days, everyone who is left of all the nations that fought against Jerusalem will come together every year to worship God and celebrate Sukkot.

On Sukkot, we build temporary huts or booths in remembrance of the sukkot that the Israelites lived in while they were wandering in the dessert (Leviticus 23:37-43). A sukkah must have at least two and a half walls with a roof made of sekhakh (leaves and branches) that covers the top but allows for the stars to be seen.  We decorate our sukkot in order to beautify this mitzvah.

Four Species/Arbah Minim

In addition to the building of a sukkah, there are four species that are an essential part of this holiday.  The Torah says that on the first day of the festival of Sukkot you should take these four species and “rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). We therefore gather these species: the etrog  (a citrus fruit native to Israel), lulav (palm branch), hadas (three myrtle branches), and the aravah (two willow branches)) together and wave them, symbolizing God’s presence everywhere. During our morning weekday services we also parade with them while chanting prayers called Hoshanot. Anyone who comes to services at Congregation Torat El will be handed a sheet with instructions on how to do this as well as some interpretations concerning the four species over which a blessing is recited. For those who are unsure of what to do, congregants will be happy to guide them.

Hoshanah Rabbah:

The seventh day of Sukkot is called Hoshanah Rabbah because of the many Hoshanah prayers that are recited, while circling around the Synagogue and holding the four species, during Shacharit on the seventh day. At the end of Hoshanah Rabbah, we beat the Aravot against the ground as a symbol that we are beating away the last of our sins during this High Holiday season.


Sukkot is one of the most joyous Jewish holidays, in which we are thankful to God for the gifts of our lives and the blessings of our material possessions. It is also a holiday when we recall that like our sukkot, life can be very fragile at times and should never be taken for granted. Finally, the universal themes of the holiday remind us that all of God’s creatures must continually work together to build a world where we may all live in harmony and peace so that we will truly be able to know God and God’s blessings in this world.

Sukkot is a wonderful opportunity for building community as we celebrate the joy of this holiday outdoors. At Congregation Torat El, we offer a number of opportunities for people to gather together (to eat, of course!) in the synagogue on Sukkot. Each year, the entire congregation is also invited to Rabbi Schonbrun’s home for a Sukkot open house to greet old friends and meet new ones as we celebrate with our Torat El family. And whether one is handy, or not, all are invited to join our Men’s Club before the holiday to help us put up the Congregation Torat El sukkah.

Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah

The theme of joy and celebration that accompanies Sukkot is continued during the festivals of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.  The holiday of Shemini Atzeret, literally “the eighth day of assembly,” is celebrated because God told the children of Israel to hold a “solemn gathering” (atzeret) on the eighth day of Sukkot.  The rabbis interpreted this to mean that God asked the children of Israel to tarry (atzeret) with God for an additional day.  Celebrating Shemini Atzeret reminds us that just as we long to be connected to God, God yearns to be connected to us.

The holiday of Simchat Torah falls the day after Shemini Atzeret.  Technically, it is the second day in Diaspora of Shemini Atzeret. By the middle ages, it began to have its own meaning in the Diaspora and came to be known as a separate holiday to celebrate the completion of the reading of a one-year cycle of the Torah and begin the cycle anew.  On Simchat Torah, we celebrate the gift of Torah and Jewish tradition that inspires and guides our daily lives. This holiday is full of celebration, with dancing and singing through the night and the following day. Traditionally we dance and sing in circles around the Torah (hakafot) seven times at night and during the Torah services in the morning.  During the morning Torah reading we read five aliyot from the end of the Torah and invite every member of the community to be honored at the Torah with an aliyah.  The person honored with the final aliyah of the Torah is called the “Hattan/Kallat Torah” (the Groom/Bride of Torah) and the one honored with the first aliyah back in the beginning of the Torah is called “Hattan/Kallat Bereshit” (the Groom/Bride of Genesis).

At Congregation Torat El, we are enthusiastic about rejoicing. On Erev Simhat Torah (the night before), we sing and dance with the Torah scrolls during seven hakkafot (processions) around the sanctuary. Then everyone who wishes to participate gets an Aliyah (honor of being called to the Torah). On Simhat Torah morning, after seven more hakkafot and more singing and dancing, we stretch tables from one end of the fully opened sanctuary and social hall and unroll an entire scroll. We even put out markers so people can find key parts of the Torah. It is a very impressive and moving experience. Then we complete the reading of the Book of Deuteronomy, and immediately begin again with the first chapter of Genesis. As we begin the cycle again, we remind ourselves that Jewish learning and living is a continuous process that never ends and commit ourselves to being life-long Jewish learners.


Hanukkah means “dedication” and  is celebrated for eight nights and days beginning on the 25th of Kislev.  Unlike most Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is never mentioned in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).  There are two strands within the Jewish tradition regarding Hanukkah and its meaning, one preserved in the Apocrypha, in First and Second Maccabees, and the other in the Talmud. In the apocryphal books, the story of the people of Israel during the Hellenistic period places special stress on the battles and victories of the Hasmonean (Maccabee) family. The war fought by the Hasmoneans is given a religious meaning; it was a struggle against the suppression of Judaism, culminating in the purification and rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem. The rededication was a celebration of Sukkot, lasting eight days; hence the eight days of Hanukkah.

The Talmudic tradition, on the other hand, stresses the miracle of the cruise of oil and mentions the Hasmonean struggle only cursorily. The famous story of the miracle of the oil comes from this section of the Talmud (Shabbat 21b).  With the rise of Jewish nationalism, and the establishment of the State of Israel, Hanukkah assumed a new importance. In Israel today, Hanukkah is also somewhat of a patriotic celebration.

Lighting of the Hanukkiah:

Another name for Hanukkah is “Chag Ha-urim,” the “Festival of Lights.”  This is because on Hanukkah we light the 8 branch candelabra known as the “hanukkiah” to commemorate the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days and eight nights.  This lighting should take place after sundown.

There was a famous rabbinic debate between Hillel and Shammai about the way the hanukkiah should be lit.  Shammai taught that all eight candles should be lit on the first night, and one should be taken away every night.  Hillel taught that we should start with one candle on the first night, and add one candle each subsequent night.  Hillel’s rationale was the principle that “acts should increase in holiness, and not decrease.”  Today we follow Hillel’s teaching.

The candles should be placed in the hanukkiah from right to left, and lit from left to right.  Each night we begin by taking the shamash, the helper candle, and lighting the newest candle first, followed sequentially by the candles from the previous nights.

When Hanukkah falls on Shabbat, the hanukkiah should be lit with the Hanukkah brachot before lighting the Shabbat candles.


It has become customary to play a game with a spinning top called a dreidel (Yiddish) or a sivivon (Hebrew) during Hanukkah.  The dreidel is four sided and has one Hebrew letter on each side. In the Diaspora, the letters, nun, gimel, hey, and shin can be found on a dreidel.  These letters represent the saying: Nes Gadol Haya Sham:  “A great miracle happened there.”  In Israel, however, where the miracle took place, the letter pei takes the place of the shin and the saying goes: Nes Gadol Haya Poh:  “A great miracle happened here.”

Each person starts the game with an allotted amount of raisins, nuts, or small coins. There is also a pile in the middle. Each player takes a turn spinning the dreidel.

GimelGet:  the player gets everything in the pot

Hey- Half:  the player gets half of what is in the pot

Nun- None:  the player gets nothing

Shin- Share: each player must put item in the pot


It is customary to eat potato pancakes (latkes) and donuts (sufganiyot) during Hanukkah to remember the miracle of the oil recounted in the Talmud.  Latkes are an Ashkenazi tradition and sufganiyot are a Sefardi tradition.


On Hanukkah, gifts are often exchanged.  The custom of giving children gelt (money) is an old one.  Recently, as Hanukkah has had to compete with Christmas, the giving of gifts has played an increasing role in Hanukkah.  (In Israel, elaborate gift giving is not widely practiced.)  In addition to exchanging physical gifts, we should take time on Hanukkah to remember, and show appreciation for, the gifts and miracles that fill our lives with light throughout the year.

At Congregation Torat El, we have a multi-generational celebration of Hanukkah as we join together for a congregational Hanukkah party that, of course, includes delicious latkes! As with many of our holidays, there are also opportunities for adults to learn more about Hanukkah and how it is really much more than a “kid’s” holiday.

Tu B’Shevat

Literally, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, Tu B’Shevat was originally connected to the agricultural laws of tithing in the Land of Israel. Tu B’Shevat was considered to be the date when biblical farmers offered the first fruits of their harvest at the Temple and it marked the beginning of the fruit crop in Israel. Throughout the years, however, Tu B’Shevat has evolved. In the middle ages, the Jewish mystics of Tzevat developed the Tu B’Shevat Seder as a way to honor God’s creation of the world. With the beginnings of Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel, Tu B’Shevat was re-established as a holiday which connects the Jewish people with the land of Israel. Most recently, Tu B’Shevat has been set aside as a day on which Jews take a moment to celebrate the earth and our environment.

At Congregation Torat El, the religious school celebrates Tu B’Shevat with our students and we often have some type of communal program marking this important day as well.


Celebrated on the 14th of Adar, Purim commemorates the victory of Esther and Mordechai over Haman, the wicked vizier of King Ahashverosh who plotted to wipe out the Jews of Shushan, Persia. Purim is a time of extreme joy and laughter, when we take time to laugh at the absurdity of a life that can sometimes seem random and unfair. According to the rabbis, as the month of Adar begins and leads up to the holiday of Purim, we are supposed to increase our joy and laughter: Mi Shenichnas Adar, Marbim be’simcha (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 29a).  We celebrate Purim with satire and laughter because laughter is a sign of life. Laughter is an acknowledgement that we are living and we intend to live on, constantly striving to improve the world despite life’s obstacles. Laughter gives us comfort and hope.

There are four mitzvot associated with the holiday of Purim.

  • Hearing the Megillah– the scroll of Esther, which tells the story of Purim
  • Hosting a Seudat Purim– a festive Purim meal
  • Mishloach Manot- Giving gifts of food to friends and family
  • Matanot La-evyonim– Giving gifts to the poor and remembering that no celebration is complete unless we take time to help those in need.

At Congregation Torat El, Purim is a blast! We join together ahead of the holiday to bake hamantaschen and distribute mishloach manot to our fellow congregants. On Erev Purim, we have a family friendly Megillah reading that is somewhat abbreviated, along with costume contests, gragger contests, and a Purim play put on by our High School students. On Purim morning, we have a traditional Megillah reading in our daily minyan. This is immediately followed by an amazing Purim carnival complete with games, prizes, and delicious food, with kids of all ages celebrating the joy of the holiday.


Passover celebrates the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage. In many ways, the Passover story is our master narrative, reminding us of the importance of freedom and our unending obligation to continually work to help others who are in need. On Passover, we take time to thank God for the many blessings of our freedom as we retell the story of our ancestors’ freedom from slavery. The central mitzvah of Passover is the “telling” of our story, which is exemplified by a Passover Seder, a meal during which we are to see ourselves as personally having left Egypt and working to bring freedom to those who are less fortunate in the world.

Prior to Passover, we invite people to sell their leavened products though the office to follow the mitzvah of not owning any “chametz” on Passover. Each year we host a special siyyum bechorim, fast of the first born ceremony, in which we invite first born men and women to join us for a special service and study session to remember that God saved the first born Israelites in Egypt. Those first born children who attend the service and participate in the study do not have to fast, and are invited to a special breakfast! Before the holiday begins, we also offer opportunities for our congregants to give maot chitin, gifts to the poor, as we collect money to fight hunger in our world.

In anticipation of the Passover Seders, we often have family education programming and adult education opportunities around this holiday as we seek to encourage our members to bring the creativity and meaning of this holiday into their homes. As with all of our holidays, there are services throughout Passover, with the exception of the first and second evenings, as people are having their Sedarim. We also match up people in our community who do not have a Seder to attend with those who are happy to host them.

Yom Hashoah:

On the days following Passover, we have a number of modern holidays that have quickly become a part of the Jewish life cycle in the 21st century. Yom Hashoah commemorates the tragedy of the Holocaust and is a time when we dedicate ourselves to “never forget” the atrocities of the Nazis and fight all hatred, intolerance, and bigotry that exist in the world today. There is often a communal Yom Hashoah commemoration that takes place in order to mark this important day in the Jewish calendar.

Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut:

Yom Hazikaron is Israel’s memorial day. The modern state of Israel was established, and continues to be defended by brave young men and women who are willing to risk their lives for the existence of a Jewish state. On Yom Hazikaron, we take a day to recall the sacrifice of all who have lost their lives in Israel’s wars as we hope for a day when peace will finally come to the Middle East and when Israel, along with all of her neighbors, will live side by side in peace.

On Yom Ha’atzmaut, we celebrate the miracle that is the existence of the state of Israel. The success of our small homeland is simply incredible. Yom Ha’atzmaut reminds us to celebrate the existence of a Jewish state even as we do not live in Israel. And while Israel can be a complicated topic these days for both Jews and non-Jews, Yom Ha’atzmaut is a reminder of our responsibility to engage in conversations about Israel and explore the way that Israel intersects with our daily lives as Jews living in 21st century America.

At Congregation Torat El we celebrate these holidays with our youth and often have educational programming for our adults that centers around the themes of these modern holidays. We encourage our members to get involved in communal programming surrounding these holidays as well.


Like the other pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot and Passover, Shavuot has agricultural roots. The Torah tells us that beginning on Passover we are to count “seven weeks” (Shavuot) from the beginning of the grain crop until the end of that harvest.  In Israel, the spring harvest begins during the Passover season. In the biblical period, people would bring an offering of thanksgiving, as well as their new crop, to Jerusalem during this time of year to be eaten as a sign of appreciation and thanksgiving for God’s beneficence.  The agricultural aspects of this holiday are commemorated today by the counting of the Omer, a biblical measurement of grain that was to represent a portion of the crop brought daily during the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot. But the truth is that by the rabbinic period, with the Temple no longer standing, Shavuot became associated with the giving of the Torah—an event that traditionally occurred during this time of year as well. It was from that point on that the giving and receiving of Torah became the primary focus of Shavuot. That is why Shavuot is also called Z’man Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah. On Shavuot we celebrate the gift of Torah and remind ourselves of the profound impact that the Torah can have in our daily lives.

At Congregation Torat El, we celebrate Shavuot with a late night study, a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, in celebration of the gift of Torah in our daily lives. We also honor the long standing tradition of eating dairy on Shavuot by partaking in some delicious cheesecake during our study! There are a number of explanations for eating dairy on Shavuot. One is that once they had received the Torah, the Israelites realized that they now had to keep kosher, which took some preparation. While they were getting organized, they ate dairy! Another explanation is that Torah is compared to milk and honey in the Song of Songs. We also take time to read from the book of Ruth on Shavuot, recognizing the important place that converts have in the Jewish tradition.


Tisha B’av

The Ninth of Av commemorates the destruction of both Temples, the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and many other tragedies of Jewish history that fell on or around this day. It is a day of fasting and mourning. The signature observance is the reading of the Book of Eichah (Lamentations) to a distinctive mournful chant.

At Congregation Torat El, we add English readings from different eras of Jewish history as we read the book of Lamentations to gain perspective on the historical tragedies that have happened to our people. Our readings on Erev Tisha B’av are informal and participatory as we seek to include everyone.