May 152017
 

Today, the Ides of May, was the Mercuralia (Festival of Mercury) in ancient Rome. Before talking about Mercury let’s talk a little about the Roman calendar first, since it formed the basis of the calendar commonly in use throughout the West. The calendar purported to have been created by the legendary founder of Rome, Romulus, had 10 months of either 31 days (full months) or 30 days (hollow months). The year began in March and ended in December, with roughly 51 days added in winter before March to keep the calendar in line with the sun. Those of you who know your Latin roots know that /septe/ /octo/ /noven/ and /decem/ are seven, eight, nine, and ten respectively. What day of the month it was, was expressed by counting forward to key points in the month: kalends, nones, and ides. The kalends was the first of the month (and gives us the word “calendar”), the ides were the 15th in full months and the 13th in hollow months, and the nones were one week before the ides. The Roman week was 8 days long, but a week was counted as nine days (nones) inclusively. May was a full month so the Ides were the 15th. In case you are wondering, January, February were added in when reforms were made by Julius Caesar and Augustus who gave their names to what were formerly simply called fifth and sixth months.

Mercury was the Roman messenger god whose attributes were mainly borrowed from the Greek god Hermes, but there are some legendary tales extant regarding Mercury that are clearly distinct from Greek ones and in line with ancient Roman beliefs. He was the god in charge of (variously) trade, thieves, eloquence, messages, luck, and travel. His name, by folk etymology, was related to “merx” (merchandise), “mercari” (trade), and “merces” (wages).  The Ides of May was designated as his birthday from pre-Republican times, the Mercuralia, and on this day the merchants of Rome used laurel boughs to sprinkle their merchandise, their ships, and their heads with water from a fountain at Porta Capena known as aqua Mercurii. They also offered prayers to Mercury for forgiveness of past and future perjuries, for profit, and the continued ability to cheat customers!

Mercury was not one of the most ancient of the Roman gods but he did have a temple in Rome situated in the Circus Maximus, between the Aventine and Palatine hills. It was built in 495 BCE and dedicated on the Ides of May. That year saw conflicts in Rome between the patrician senators and the plebeians, which led to a secession of the plebs in the following year. At the completion of the temple’s construction, a dispute emerged between the consuls Appius Claudius Sabinus Regillensis and Publius Servilius Priscus Structus as to which of them should have the honor of dedicating the temple. The senate referred the decision to the popular assembly, and also decreed that whichever was chosen should also exercise additional duties, including presiding over the markets, establishing a merchants’ guild, and exercising the functions of the pontifex maximus. The people, because of the ongoing public discord, and in order to spite the senate and the consuls, instead awarded the honor of dedicating the temple to the senior military officer of one of the legions, Marcus Laetorius. The senate and the consuls, in particular the conservative Appius, were outraged at this decision, and it inflamed the ongoing situation leading to the famous secession of the plebeians the following year.

The temple was regarded as a fitting place to worship a swift god of trade and travel, since it was a major center of commerce as well as a racetrack. Because it stood between the plebeian stronghold on the Aventine and the patrician center on the Palatine, it also emphasized the role of Mercury as a mediator. Following Greek legends of Hermes, Mercury was associated with leading newly deceased souls to the afterlife. Additionally, Ovid wrote that Mercury carried Morpheus’ dreams from the valley of Somnus to sleeping humans. So, Mercury’s roles as mediator, messenger, and merchant are all intertwined.

Because of Mercury’s common roles he was easily syncretized with various indigenous gods throughout the Western Roman empire, taking on their local attributes and worship in different parts of Gaul and Britain. He also gave his name to a wandering star (planet), and hence one of the names of a weekday in Romance languages (Wednesday), which are mostly named for bodies in the solar system (as opposed to English which uses Norse gods primarily).  To this day Mercury is a symbol of speed, especially in delivering messages.

Romans offered a great many things to Mercury to procure favors especially in trade and business, including cinnamon, honey, lambs, and goats. I make braised lamb shanks quite often, sometimes with a resultant honey glaze/sauce. Cinnamon and honey are a natural pairing, so here’s my recipe for honey and cinnamon braised lamb shanks in honor of Mercury. You could use goat pieces instead if you like. This should be an Old World only recipe – no potatoes, for example. You could serve the shanks with noodles if you believe, as I do, that the Romans made pasta long before Marco Polo visited China.

©Honey and Cinnamon Braised Lamb Shanks

Ingredients

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 lamb shanks
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 onion, peeled and sliced
2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 cinnamon sticks
4 tbsp honey
1 pint beef stock
1 pint chicken stock

Instructions

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy cast-iron skillet. Add the onions and sauté until soft. Add the lamb shanks and brown thoroughly on all sides. Add the garlic towards the end, but do not let it brown.

Cover the shanks with beef and chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and add the honey and cinnamon. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cook, uncovered, on a very slow simmer for 2 to 3 hours until the meat is falling from the bones and the braising sauce is thick and syrupy. You can do this step in the oven if you like at 325˚F.  If the sauce is not reduced enough, remove the shanks, turn up the heat to high and cook quickly until it is sufficiently reduced. Roll the shanks in the sauce to cover thoroughly and serve with Old World root vegetables.

Serves 4

Apr 102017
 

Passover begins at sundown today this year (2017). This post is the last concerning the three major moveable Jewish holy days, the others being Sukkot and Shavuot, which I have already covered. According to Torah prescriptions, Jews were required to celebrate these three festivals in Jerusalem, Passover being the most central to tradition. Jesus, as a faithful Jew, is reported to have traveled to Jerusalem for Passover at least once (when he fell afoul of the law and was executed). Hence Passover and Easter are inextricably linked, but since early Medieval times the Christian church has gone to great lengths to make sure that their observations do not coincide. Given that Passover can fall on any day of the week, but Easter must fall on a Sunday, it’s not all that difficult to keep them apart. The fact that they are so close together at all this year is relatively rare.

I simply cannot imagine that the entire Jewish population in antiquity downed tools and traveled to Jerusalem three times a year. It makes no sense in practical terms. Who’s going to mind the sheep or the shop whilst everyone is making a beeline for Jerusalem? I can see it happening a few times in a lifetime, but not every single year. Passover is, however, very deeply embedded in Jewish history and tradition and continues to be an important aspect of Jewish identity to this day. Observant and non-observant Jews of all stripes have a Passover seder, at the very least, every year with varying degrees of commitment to established religious practice. Not to do so would be the equivalent of a family of Christian background not celebrating Christmas. It does happen of course. Preparing a seder is a lot of work. But almost all of the Jews that I know, even the most vehemently non-religious, mark Passover in some way or another.

If I get too deeply mired in discussing the history and evolution of Passover we’ll be here all year. So I’ll try to keep it simple (dangerously teetering on the edge of the simplistic). My views on the matter are not very popular among Jews anyway — nor most Christians either. It was one of those great turning points in my life when I learned as a first year theology student at Oxford that Biblical historians and archeologists simply did not believe that the slavery in Egypt of the Israelites, the exodus under Moses, the wandering in the desert for 40 years, and the ultimate conquest of Canaan, had any basis in historical fact. Say what ????  That’s pretty fundamental to Jewish (and Christian) belief. People who’ve barely cracked the Bible know about parting the Red Sea and the like. BUT . . . extra-Biblical sources for any of this narrative are non-existent, and archeology flatly contradicts all of the details. The current explanation for the appearance of the Israelites in the Levant that has the most favor among archeologists and historians (the ones who have no religious or ethnic axes to grind, that is), is that the putative 12 tribes of Israel were at the outset a loosely confederated group of related Semitic peoples who had migrated into the land from various places and unified for a time against other indigenous cultures. The centrality of Judah and Jerusalem were a consequence of the defeat and expulsion of the northern tribes by Assyria which left only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south intact and soldiering on. Through a combination of relative isolation and shrewd political maneuvering they were able to tough it out a little longer until they were crushed and deported by the forces of Babylon.

The two periods that, for me (and a great many other Biblical historians), are crucial in understanding how Passover emerged and evolved as central to Jewish tradition and identity are the reforms of Josiah (649-609 BCE) and the Babylonian Exile which are inextricably linked.  Until Josiah was king of Judah the nation had managed to stave off attack by neighboring empires such as Egypt and Assyria by being relatively subservient and compliant – paying tribute, accepting multiple religious traditions and the like – as ways of keeping a low profile. Under Josiah that all changed. He came to the throne at the age of 8 and ruled for 31 years. During this time the neighboring empires were struggling with one another for supremacy and went through periods of waxing and waning fortunes. This situation left Judah in a relatively strong position to assert itself. It had no chance against the likes of Egypt or Babylon when they were at full strength, but when they were weak(er) powerful people in Judah could entertain visions of grandeur. Hence Judah under Josiah, swayed by politician-scholars, created a bold new identity and was (seemingly) ready to take on the world.

During Josiah’s middle years Judah underwent a nativist revolution led by a group now called the Deuteronomists (after one of the texts they wrote). Nativism involves stripping a culture of what it perceives as “foreign” elements (religion, literature, language, clothing, foodways, etc) and highlighting the “original” (or “native”) core as it is perceived. According to the Hebrew Bible, in his 18th regnal year (when he was 26), Josiah ordered tax money to be used to renovate the Temple and during the renovation a “Book of the Law” (sefer ha-torah) was “discovered.” Modern scholars now generally believe that the “discovery” was a plant by the Deuteronomists and the book they “discovered” was one they had written: either Deuteronomy itself or a portion of it. Josiah took the book seriously, was horrified discovering all the laws in it that were not being followed (and the penalties for such crimes against God), and immediately set about stripping away all practices that were foreign and opposed the law, and establishing all the laws that were enshrined in the document. Among other things, the law prescribed that Passover should be held in Jerusalem every year on a certain date, with explanations concerning why it was to be observed, and how. When the Temple renovations were complete and all the foreign cults removed (and their priests executed), Josiah held a massive celebratory Passover.

Thus the story of the Israelite slavery in Egypt, the attempts by Moses to free the people from bondage, the various plagues that God sent to convince the Pharoah to release the people, and, finally, God’s commandment to an angel to kill every firstborn male in Egypt who lived in a house whose doorposts were not smeared with the blood of a sacrificed lamb, became an indelible part of the history and identity of the Jewish people – commemorated every year with the ritual slaughter and consumption of sacrificial lambs. My (not terribly well supported) conjecture is that Josiah’s great Passover was the first, and that it has been celebrated every year since following the rules laid down in Deuteronomy and other books of the Torah. The symbolism of bondage and release received a boost a generation later when the Babylonian army defeated Judah, destroyed the Temple, and deported the bulk of the population to Babylon in the period now known as the Exile or the Captivity. During this seminal period I believe that classic Jewish belief solidified. Following the return to Jerusalem, the Jews suffered multiple conquests by empires including the Greek and Roman which, again, strengthened the symbolism until in 70 CE the Romans essentially wiped out the population of Judah, destroyed the Second Temple (built after the return from the Exile) and scattered the Jews across Europe and the world with no homeland. This new Diaspora once more reinforced the Passover message of bondage, alienation, and oppression – offering an eventual release, which was partially granted by the creation of the state of Israel after 2 millennia of separation from the land.

The Passover meal, the seder, is, of course central to the celebration. Where it was once made up of (ritually slaughtered) lamb which recalled the blood of lambs saving the people in bondage, bitter herbs, recalling the bitterness of slavery, and unleavened bread, recalling the haste with which the people left Israel with no time to let the bread rise, now all but the unleavened bread are tokens. The classic seder dish, often using a special platter reserved for that one night, consists typically of a roasted lamb shank or chicken wing, a roasted boiled egg, 2 kinds of bitter herbs, a leafy herb to be dipped in salt water, and a brown sweet paste of ground fruit and nuts. Each has symbolic meaning which is explained during the meal. There are also three whole matzot, which are stacked and separated from each other by cloths or napkins. The middle matzoh will be broken and half of it put aside for the ritual of the afikoman (a game played with children to maintain their interest and help in the process of understanding the symbolism). The top and other half of the middle matzoh will be used for the hamotzi (blessing over bread), and the bottom one will be used for the korech (Hillel sandwich).

It always seems to me a shame at these meals that these elements are merely symbolic. They are all great food items. What’s not to love about lamb, roast eggs, salty greens, horseradish, and unleavened bread washed down with cups of wine? These days the principal seder dishes vary according to the underlying ethnicity of the family. I’ve only ever attended eastern Ashkenazi seders where matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish, and brisket reign supreme. There are recipes galore for these classics all over the place. Matzoh brei is a lesser known Passover treat used as a sweet interlude, and involving the central unleavened bread.

Matzoh Brei

Ingredients

2 sheets matzoh
2 large eggs
salt and pepper
vegetable oil
jam or syrup

Instructions

Break the matzoh into small places and place in a bowl.  Cover with very hot water and let steep for about 30 seconds, then drain thoroughly. Meanwhile beat the eggs in a separate bowl with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat enough vegetable oil in a skillet for very shallow frying (2 or 3 tablespoons) over medium-high heat.

Combine the eggs and matzoh and mix thoroughly. Divide into 4, shaping each into a thin, flat pancake.

Fry the pancakes one at a time until golden on both sides, about one minute per side (turning only once).

Serve slightly broken up with whatever jam or syrup you prefer.

Oct 172016
 

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Today is the first full day of Sukkot or Succot (סֻכּוֹת), commonly translated into English as the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths), a biblical Jewish holiday celebrated on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei (varies from late September to late October). During the time of the Jerusalem Temple it was one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (שלוש רגלים‎‎, shalosh regalim) on which the people of Israel were commanded to perform a pilgrimage to the Temple (the others are Passover and Shavuot). I have not covered Passover yet, but Shavuot is here: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/shavuot/ Looking at these three festivals as a secular anthropologist provides a different view of them from the way they are interpreted religiously – going all the way back to Temple times. I am very reluctant to talk about the “origins” of festivals, because in doing so we strip away all of the accumulated history associated with those festivals – which is not a reasonable thing to do. Festivals evolve over time and are continuously overlaid with new meanings on top of the old ones. So, what I have to say about the history of these festivals, especially Sukkot, is not meant to suggest that the birth of them represents the one true meaning of them. Birth is one strand in the complexly layered and continuing evolution of these festivals.

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When I look at the symbolism of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot I see embedded in them three separate land-based traditions, pastoral and agricultural. Passover is about lambs, Shavuot about wheat, and Sukkot about fruit. I’ll leave aside my thoughts about the merging of pastoral and agricultural traditions for the moment. Let’s just focus on the clear symbolism of Sukkot. The two most important elements of Sukkot are the building of a Sukkah and the daily waving of the Four Species. The Sukkah is meant, deliberately, to be a temporary shelter, made of natural products and with the roof open partially to the elements. The faithful are supposed to eat their meals in the Sukkah, to entertain there, and some people even sleep there for the week of the festival. In modern times this can be a challenge, first in finding the natural materials to build the Sukkah with, and second, finding a place to build it. The whole point is to be out in the open, which is not exactly easy if you live in an apartment in a high-rise building in the midst of a teeming city.

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The tradition of the Four Species comes from Leviticus 23:40 –  “And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.” This commandment is interpreted in various ways by different sects. The four elements are 1. Fruit  2. Palm branches 3. Leafy boughs 4. Willow boughs. Contemporary Jews keep a spray of the Four Species in the Sukkah and wave them ritually each day for seven days. Talmudic tradition interprets these as a citron, a date palm frond, a myrtle branch, and a willow branch.

There are two strands to Sukkot in the Torah, one in Exodus 34:22, the other in Leviticus 23:42-43. Talking about the books of the Torah is a very long discussion indeed. This is just a quick overview of my thoughts based on decades of study. Exodus is a complex document stitched together out of old sources. It is an historical narrative based on a defining moment for Jewish identity – the departure from bondage in Egypt and subsequent wandering in the desert. Its primary focus is Passover which is clearly a pastoral (animal herding) festival. But stitched into the fabric of this narrative are laws and obligations that derive from agricultural (farming) as well as pastoral traditions because the book was written for a society where there were both pastoral and agricultural regions and ethnicities that needed to be united. The book was probably started around 600 BCE when scholars and rulers were creating a national identity for the Judeans (Jews). They used history (as they knew it) to establish the meaning of laws and rituals. Leviticus is entirely about law and is a product of the Temple priests. It too was started around 600 BCE but with a different purpose. It assumes all of the history in Exodus and so is simply a tabulation of laws governing every aspect of life, including ritual, but adds an element of holiness, explaining why certain laws and traditions exist (usually more than just “God commands it”).

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Exodus gives rules for observing Sukkot which make it clear that it is a fruit harvest celebration. A Sukkah is meant to resemble the temporary lodgings that the fruit harvesters built in the fields during harvest time so that they did not have to return to their city homes at night during an intense period when every hour of daylight was precious to secure the harvest as quickly as possible. Leviticus steps in and adds a layer that seeks to bring ALL celebrations in line with the founding narrative of the exodus and desert wandering. So it says that the Sukkah is meant to be a reminder of temporary dwellings whilst wandering in the desert. On the face of it this is patently absurd. Desert pastoralists don’t live in structures – temporary or permanent – made of wood. They live in tents. People who pick fruit in orchards have spare wood, desert nomads don’t. Yet Leviticus does not care about such anomalies – it wants a united nation, so logic takes a back seat.

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If you are Jewish, you know what foods to celebrate Sukkot with. Different traditions have traditional favorites. If you have a Sukkah in your garden, all that is necessary is to cook in the kitchen and bring it out to the Sukkah to eat. Since citron is one of the Four Species it is a good ingredient to work with. Citron is one of the four original citrus fruits (the others being pomelo, mandarin, and papeda), from which all other citrus types developed through natural hybrid speciation or artificial hybridization. It is not always easy to find because it is difficult to work with. Unlike common modern citrus fruits, the pulp of the citron is not useful, but it has a thick rind that can be used for cooking – usually with sugar. Candied citron is its most common usage. It can be eaten as is, or incorporated into other recipes.

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Candied Citron

Ingredients

2 citrons
3 cups sugar (600g), plus 1 cup (100g) for tossing the finished fruit
2 cups (500ml) water

Instructions

Wash and dry the citrons. Cut them in half and remove the pulp, then cut them into 1/2-inch (2cm) cubes. Put the pieces in a large saucepan, cover with a sufficient amount of water so it won’t boil away, and blanch the citron pieces in barely simmering water for 30 to 40 minutes.

Drain the citron pieces. Put them back in the pot with 3 cups (600g) of sugar and 2 cups (500ml) of  water.

Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pot and cook the citron until the temperature reaches 230ºF. (110ºC)

Turn off the heat and let the citron pieces sit in the syrup for one hour.

The candied citron will stay preserved in the syrup in the refrigerator for at least one year. To use the citron, let the peel sit in a strainer for a couple of hours, stirring it occasionally, to let as much of the syrup drip away as possible. The syrup should be reserved for other uses.

When drained, toss the pieces of citron in sugar and let them sit on a wire rack overnight to dry out. Shake off the excess sugar, which you can reserve for other uses and store the citron in an airtight container.

Oct 112016
 

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The Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur begins at sundown today. Until that time it is the eve of Yom Kippur, known as Kol Nidre. Yom Kippur  (יוֹם כִּיפּוּר or יום הכיפורים), which can be translated as the Day of Atonement (or Atonements), is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Observant Jews of all sects traditionally observe this holy day with an approximate 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, sometimes spending most of the day in temple services. Even non-observant Jews usually treat the day with respect, avoiding public or ostensible secular work. Degrees of observation vary widely. In Hebrew Yom Kippur is pronounced with long vowels – Yowm Kippoor – not rhyming with Tom Kipper (pet peeve of mine).

Yom Kippur is the tenth day of the seventh month (Tishrei) in the Hebrew calendar. Rosh Hashanah is the first day of that month http://www.bookofdaystales.com/rosh-hashanah/ . Yom Kippur completes the annual period known in Judaism as the High Holy Days or Yamim Nora’im (“Days of Awe”) that commences with Rosh Hashanah. According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Days of Awe, Jews are commended to amend their behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings. The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt.

The Yom Kippur prayer service includes several unique aspects. One is the actual number of prayer services. Unlike a regular day, which has three prayer services (Ma’ariv, the evening prayer; Shacharit, the morning prayer; and Mincha, the afternoon prayer), or a Shabbat or Yom Tov, which have four prayer services (Ma’ariv; Shacharit; Mussaf, the additional prayer; and Mincha), Yom Kippur has five prayer services (Ma’ariv; Shacharit; Musaf; Mincha; and Ne’ilah, the closing prayer). The prayer services also include private and public confessions of sins and a unique prayer dedicated to the special Yom Kippur avodah (service) of the Kohen Gadol (high priest) in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

As one of the most culturally significant Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is observed by many secular Jews who may not observe other holidays. Many secular Jews attend temple on Yom Kippur, much as (primarily) secular Christians attend Easter Sunday services. In both cases attendance soars because observance is as much about cultural identity as religious faith.

Erev Yom Kippur (“eve of the day of atonement”), the day preceding Yom Kippur, corresponding to the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, is commemorated with additional morning prayers, asking others for forgiveness, giving charity, performing the kapparot ritual, an extended afternoon prayer service, and two festive meals.

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Leviticus 23:26-28 decrees that Yom Kippur is a strict day of rest:

26 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 27 “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. 28 “You shall not do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God”

Five additional prohibitions are traditionally observed, as detailed in the Jewish oral tradition (Mishnah tractate Yoma 8:1). The number five is a set number of special holiness according to tradition.

    No eating and drinking

    No wearing of leather shoes

    No bathing or washing

    No anointing oneself with perfumes or lotions

    No marital relations

A parallel has been drawn between these activities and the human condition according to the Biblical account of the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Refraining from these symbolically represents a return to a pristine state, which is the theme of the day. By refraining from these activities, the body is uncomfortable but can still survive. The soul is considered to be the life force in a body. Therefore, by making one’s body uncomfortable, one’s soul is uncomfortable. By feeling pain one can feel how others feel when they are in pain.

Total abstention from food and drink as well as keeping the other traditions begins at sundown, and ends after nightfall the following day. One should add a few minutes to the beginning and end of the day, called tosefet Yom Kippur, lit. “addition to Yom Kippur.” This is sometimes known in English as “putting a hedge around the law” – that is, doing all that is required by the law, and then just a little extra to make sure.

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Virtually all Jewish holidays involve meals, but since Yom Kippur involves fasting, Jewish law requires one to eat a large and festive meal on the afternoon before Yom Kippur, after the Mincha (afternoon) prayer. Before sunset on Kol Nidre worshipers gather in the temple and the Ark is opened and two people take from it two Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls). Then they take their places, one on each side of the Hazzan (cantor), and the three recite (in Hebrew):

In the tribunal of Heaven and the tribunal of earth, we hold it lawful to pray with transgressors.

The cantor then chants the Kol Nidre prayer. This prayer is recited in Aramaic. Its name “Kol Nidre” is taken from the opening words, and translates “All vows”:

All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.

The leader and the congregation then say together three times,

May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault.

The Torah scrolls are then placed back into the Ark, and the Yom Kippur evening service begins.

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The Kol Nidre meal before Yom Kippur services is very important and can be the subject of much debate. It should be a nourishing meal because the following 24 hours (or so) are meant to be free from food or drink, and it should be a festive meal. But . . . it cannot be a lengthy meal, and preparations cannot be extensive on the day because people are in a hurry to get to temple before sundown (and typically get there on foot). The obvious solution is to prepare a good meal ahead of time, and this gives me the opportunity to talk about the importance of making soups and stews the day before they are to be served.

I’ve frequently talked about the importance of cooking soups and stews ahead of time, and I suspect that most people know that these dishes generally taste better on the second day. The question is – why? The answer is complex, and I’ll begin by admitting that culinary science does not have all parts of the answer – yet. Here’s what we know. Simply continuously cooking soups and stews for lengthy periods of time is not enough to reap the rewards that resting and refrigerating do. That’s good news for the cook (and a nice metaphor for the idea that rest is as important as work for achieving desired outcomes).

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First, there is the issue of “marrying” flavors. I like the metaphor of marriage here. One’s partner can become more attractive to you over time, not because in some “objective” sense they have become more physically attractive, but because you have grown emotionally closer (if you have !!!). Herbs, spices, and other aromas also have an analogous way of blending over time. This process is achieved partly through cooking and partly through resting. The flavors “like” each other more. Second, there are measurable changes in sweetness as complex carbohydrates (such as fructose from vegetables or lactose from dairy) and starches break down into sweeter-tasting simple sugars. This process also causes the mellowing of strong flavors from vegetables such as garlic and onions that tend to stand out on the first day. They are still there on the second day but their new-found sweetness allows them to blend more, as do the fats and collagens from the meats, especially lamb and beef, (pork too, but we’re talking kosher here), which absorb flavors and retain them well for the blending process.

One caveat: soups and stews thickened with egg or starches such as flour or cornflour, will generally not hold their texture overnight. Thickeners should be added on the second day when reheating to ensure proper texture when serving.

All of this means that the best plan is to do the heavy cooking the day before Kol Nidre, and then all you have to do is reheat and finish off the dish the next day before going to Yom Kippur services at sundown. I often work on a three-day plan. Day 1, brown the meats and then simmer them in broth with aromatics. Browning is important because the Maillard reaction generates flavorful sugars. Refrigerate. Day 2, skim the fat that has solidified overnight, reheat and add the vegetables. Adjust seasonings as necessary, simmer until the vegetables are barely cooked (even slightly undercooked), then refrigerate overnight again. Day 3, reheat the dish, thicken as necessary, and serve.

Aug 142016
 

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Today is Tisha B’Av  (lit. “the ninth of Av”) (תשעה באב‎‎ or ט׳ באב) according to the Jewish lunar calendar. As with all Jewish holy days it actually began yesterday at sundown and continues today until sundown. It is an annual fast day in Jewish religious and secular tradition which commemorates the anniversary of a number of disasters in Jewish history, primarily the destruction of both the First Temple by the Babylonians and the Second Temple by the Romans. Tisha B’Av is regarded as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar and is held to be a day which is destined for tragedy.

The observance of the day includes five prohibitions, most notable of which is a 25-hour fast. The Book of Lamentations, which mourns the destruction of Jerusalem is read in the synagogue, followed by the recitation of kinnot, liturgical dirges that lament the loss of the Temples and Jerusalem. As the day has become associated with remembrance of other major calamities which have befallen the Jewish people, some kinnot also recall events such as the murder of the Ten Martyrs by the Romans, massacres in numerous medieval Jewish communities during the Crusades and The Holocaust.

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According to Rabbinic tradition (Mishnah Taanit 4:6), the sin of the Ten Spies inaugurated the annual fast day of Tisha B’Av. When the Israelites, wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt, accepted the false report from the spies that the land of Canaan would be impossible to conquer, the people wept over the false belief that God was setting them up for defeat. The night that the people cried was the ninth of Av, which became a day of weeping and misfortune for all time. The fast subsequently commemorated the destruction of the First Temple and the Second Temple, both of which supposedly occurred on the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, about 655 years apart.

Taanit 4:6 notes five specific events occurred on the ninth of Av that warrant fasting:

The Twelve Spies sent by Moses to observe the land of Canaan returned from their mission. Only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, brought a positive report, while the others spoke disparagingly about the land. The majority report caused the Children of Israel to cry, panic and despair of ever entering the “Promised Land”. For this, they were punished by God that their generation would not enter the land. Because of the Israelites’ lack of faith, God decreed that for all generations this date would become a day of crying and misfortune for their descendants. (See Numbers 13; Numbers 14).

The First Temple built by King Solomon and the Kingdom of Judah destroyed by the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC (Anno Mundi [AM] 3175) after a two-year siege and the Judeans were sent into the Babylonian exile. According to the Talmud in tractate Ta’anit, the actual destruction of the First Temple began on the Ninth of Av and the Temple continued to burn throughout the Tenth of Av.

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The Second Temple built by Ezra and Nehemiah was destroyed by the Romans in August 70 AD (AM 3830), scattering the people of Judea and commencing the Jewish exile from the Holy Land that continues to this day.

The Romans subsequently crushed Bar Kokhba’s revolt and destroyed the city of Betar, killing over 500,000 Jewish civilians (approximately 580,000) on July 8, 132 CE (Av 9, AM 3892).

Following the Bar Kokhba revolt, Roman commander Turnus Rufus ploughed the site of the Temple in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, in 135 CE.

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Over time, Tisha B’Av has come to be a general day of mourning, not only for these events, but also for later tragedies. Regardless of the exact dates of these events, for many Jews, Tisha B’Av is the designated day of mourning for them, and these themes are reflected in liturgy composed for this day.

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Other calamities associated with Tisha B’Av:

The episode of the Golden calf (17th of Tammuz) in which the Hebrews, after their exodus from Egypt, reintroduced idolatry as a form of spirituality.

The First Crusade officially commenced on August 15, 1096 (Av 24, AM 4856), killing 10,000 Jews in its first month and destroying Jewish communities in France and the Rhineland.

The Jews were expelled from England on July 18, 1290 (Av 9, AM 5050).

The Jews were expelled from France on July 22, 1306 (Av 10, AM 5066).

The Jews were expelled from Spain on July 31, 1492 (Av 7, AM 5252).[7]

Germany entered World War I on August 1–2, 1914 (Av 9-10, AM 5674), which caused massive upheaval in European Jewry and whose aftermath led to the Holocaust.

On August 2, 1941 (Av 9, AM 5701), SS commander Heinrich Himmler formally received approval from the Nazi Party for “The Final Solution.” As a result, the Holocaust began during which almost one third of the world’s Jewish population perished.

On July 23, 1942 (Av 9, AM 5702) the mass deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto began, en route to Treblinka.

Most religious communities use Tisha B’Av to mourn the approximately 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, including special kinnot composed for this purpose (see the main kinnot article) (in addition to, or instead of, the secular Holocaust Memorial Days.)

AMIA bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 and injuring 300 on 18 July 1994; 10 Av, AM 5754.

Tisha B’Av falls in July or August in the Western calendar. When Tisha B’Av falls on the Shabbat (Friday/Saturday) it is known as a nidche (“delayed”) in Hebrew and the observance of Tisha B’Av then takes place on the following day that is Saturday/Sunday. No outward signs of mourning intrude upon the normal Sabbath, although normal Sabbath eating and drinking end at sunset Saturday evening, rather than nightfall. The fast lasts about 25 hours, beginning at sunset on the preceding evening lasting until nightfall the next day. In addition to fasting, other pleasurable activities are also forbidden.

Tisha B’Av bears a similar stringent nature to that of Yom Kippur. In addition to the length of the fast which lasts about 25 hours, beginning at sunset on the eve of Tisha B’Av and ends at nightfall the following day, Tisha B’Av also shares the following five prohibitions:

No eating or drinking;

No washing or bathing;

No application of creams or oils;

No wearing of leather shoes;

No sexual relations.

Torah study is forbidden on Tisha B’Av (as it is considered a spiritually enjoyable activity), except for the study of distressing texts such as the Book of Lamentations, the Book of Job, portions of Jeremiah and chapters of the Talmud that discuss the laws of mourning.

According to the Rema it is customary to sit on low stools or on the floor, as is done during shiva, from the meal immediately before the fast, the seudah hamafseket, until midday (chatztot hayom). It is customary to eat a hard boiled egg, and a piece of bread dipped into ashes during this meal. The Beit Yosef rules that the custom to sit low to the ground extends until one prays Mincha (the afternoon prayer).

Although the fast ends at nightfall, according to tradition, the First Temple continued burning throughout the night and for most of the following day, the tenth of Av. It is therefore customary to refrain from eating meat, drinking wine, bathing, cutting hair, doing laundry, listening to music, making a shehechiyanu blessing until midday (chatzos) of the following day.

When Tisha B’Av begins on Saturday night (as this year – 2016), the Havdalah ritual at the end of Shabbat is truncated (using a candle but no spices), without a blessing over wine. After Tisha B’Av ends on Sunday evening, another Havdalah ceremony is performed with wine (without candle or spices).

Matzo balls are common in the Ashkenazi tradition and are suitable for meals before and after fasts. They are usually cooked and eaten in chicken broth, but you can observe the prohibition against meat by having them in vegetable broth (although I’m not fully sure whether the prohibition against meat applies to the broth of animal meat). You can buy matzo balls, of course, but they are much better if home made. It’s best to buy the matzo meal, but you can also make it by crushing matzo with a rolling pin or (better) using a food processor.

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Matzo Balls

Ingredients

2 eggs
2 tbsp vegetable oil
½ cup matzo meal
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp club soda (or plain water)

Instructions

Whisk the eggs well with the oil and salt in a mixing bowl.

Add the matzo meal and water, then mix thoroughly. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or longer.

Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil. Shape the matzo mixture into small balls, and place them into the boiling water. Boil uncovered for 20 minutes.

Lift the matzo balls out of the water with a slotted spoon. If you want, at this point you can freeze the. They keep well and are generally lighter after being frozen.

Heat the matzo balls through in simmering broth when ready to serve. Do not boil them vigorously or they will break up.

Feb 232016
 

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Today was once celebrated in ancient Rome as the Terminalia, a festival in honor of the god Terminus, who presided over boundaries. His “statue” was typically a stone or post stuck in the ground to mark property boundaries. His worship is reputed to have been instituted by Numa Pompilius (753–673 BCE), legendary successor to Romulus, who was credited with having instituted a number of important Roman civil and religious institutions.

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According to legend, Numa ordered that every landowner should mark the boundaries of his property by stones to be consecrated to Jupiter Terminalis, and at which, every year, sacrifices were to be offered at the festival of the Terminalia. On the festival the two owners of adjacent property crowned the “statue” with garlands and raised a crude altar, on which they offered up some corn, honeycombs, and wine, and sacrificed a lamb or a suckling pig. They concluded with singing the praises of the god. The public festival in honor of this god was celebrated at the sixth milestone on the road towards Laurentum, presumably because this was originally the extent of Roman territory in that direction.

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One of Numa’s first acts was the construction of a temple to Janus (also god of boundaries) as a symbol of peace and war. The temple was constructed at the foot of the Argiletum, a major road in the city. After securing peace with Rome’s neighbors, the doors of the temples were shut and remained so for all the duration of Numa’s reign, a unique case in Roman history. Closing the temple doors as a sign of peace remained important throughout the Roman Republic and Empire.

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Numa reportedly sought to instill in Romans respect of lawful property and non-violent relationships with neighbors. The cult of Terminus involved rejection of violence and murder. The god was a testament to justice and a keeper of peace. In a somehow comparable, more moral rather than legal fashion, Numa sought to associate himself with one of the roles of Vegoia, from the religious system of the neighboring Etruscans by deciding to set the official boundaries of the territory of Rome, which Romulus had never wanted, presumably with the same concern of preserving peace. This act is reminiscent of the proverb, “good fences make good neighbors.”

The festival of the Terminalia was celebrated in the Roman calendar as a. d. VII. Kal. Mart., that is, the 23d of February, or, the day before the Regifugium (“king’s flight”) whose precise nature is obscure. During a short period, Terminalia was the last day of the year in Rome, and Regifugium was the first of the new year. Thus, Terminalia signified both spatial and temporal boundaries.

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The central Terminus of Rome (the place to which all roads led) was the god’s ancient shrine on the Capitoline Hill. The temple of Jupiter, king of the gods, had to be built around it (with a hole in the ceiling since Terminus demanded open-air sacrifices) by the city’s last king, Tarquinius Superbus, who had closed down other shrines on the site to make room for his prestigious project. But the augurs had read into the flight patterns of birds that the god Terminus refused to be moved, which was taken as a sign of stability for the city.

Terminalia may have descendants in later customs, such as beating the bounds. In times past in Britain, especially because for centuries precise maps were unusual, it was common to make a formal perambulation of the parish boundaries on Ascension Day or during Rogation week. Knowledge of the limits of each parish needed to be handed down so that such matters as liability to contribute to the repair of the church, and the right to be buried within the churchyard were not disputed. The priest of the parish with the churchwardens and the parochial officials headed a crowd of boys who, armed with green boughs, usually birch or willow, beat the parish boundary markers with them. Sometimes the boys were themselves whipped or even violently bumped on the boundary-stones to make them remember. The object of taking boys along was supposedly to ensure that witnesses to the boundaries should survive as long as possible. Priests would pray for the parish’s protection in the forthcoming year and often Psalms 103 and 104 were recited, and the priest would say such sentences as “Cursed is he who transgresseth the bounds or doles of his neighbour.”

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The ceremony had an important practical purpose. Checking the boundaries was a way of preventing encroachment by neighbors; sometimes boundary markers would be moved, or lines obscured, and a folk memory of the true extent of the parish was necessary to maintain integrity of borders by embedding knowledge in oral traditions.

In England the custom dates from Anglo-Saxon times, as it is mentioned in laws of Alfred the Great and Æthelstan. In England a parish-ale, or feast, was always held after the perambulation, which assured its popularity, and in Henry VIII’s reign the occasion had become an excuse for so much revelry that it attracted the condemnation of a preacher who declared “these solemne and accustomable processions and supplications be nowe growen into a right foule and detestable abuse.”

Beating the bounds had a religious side in the practice which originated the term Rogation, the accompanying clergy being supposed to beseech (rogare) the divine blessing upon the parish lands for the ensuing harvest. This feature originated in the 5th century, when Mamertus, Archbishop of Vienne, instituted special prayers and fasting and processions on these days. This clerical side of the parish bounds-beating was one of the religious functions prohibited by the Royal Injunctions of Elizabeth I in 1559; but it was then ordered that the perambulation should continue to be performed as a quasi-secular function, so that evidence of the boundaries of parishes, etc., might be preserved.

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Some locations have maintained traditions of beating the bounds, although now they are merely a quaint holdover with vague religious overtones.

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For me as an anthropologist this is a highly significant holiday. It emphasizes physical boundaries (city limits, property lines etc.) and temporal boundaries (year’s end and beginning). Anthropologist Victor Turner used the term “liminal” for such boundaries – from the Latin, “limen,” a threshold. These are places and times of immense power and danger in all cultures, because on the cusp of them you are capable of mixing things up, and, thereby destroying the order of the world. Are dawn and dusk, day or night? They are both and neither. Which side are you on when you are “sitting on the fence”? Why is a bride in the West traditionally carried over the threshold? Boundaries are of immense importance to ALL cultures – although what counts as a boundary varies enormously.

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Chief offerings on Terminalia were bread, honey, wine, and lamb or suckling pig. This gives you abundant choice for a contemporary recipe. Apicius in De Re Coquinaria gives us this:

Porcellum assum tractomelinum: porcellum curatum a gutture extenteras, siccas. teres piperis unciam, mel, vinum, impones ut ferveat, tractam siccatam confringes et partibus caccabo permisces. agitabis surculo lauri viridis, tam diu coques, donec lenis fiat et impinguet. hac impensa porcellum imples, surculas, obduras charta, in furnum mittes, exornas et inferes.

The title, porcellum assum tractomelinum, means suckling pig “treated with honey” but there’s wine and bread involved as well. Loosely the text says:

Clean the pig through the neck and dry it. Crush pepper with honey and wine, and put it on the heat. Break up some toast and mix it with the sauce. Add bay leaves and mix until the paste is smooth and cooked. Fill the pig with this dressing and put it in the oven. Garnish and serve.

You’ll have to make of this what you will. There’s no indication of proportions of ingredients. For my tastes I’d use a lot of toast and just moisten it with wine and honey, mixed, seasoned with pepper and bay laurel.