God told Moses that the Israelites were to slaughter a lamb and mark their doors with its blood. He would smite the firstborn of the Egyptians, but, seeing the blood of the lamb on the Israelites’ doors, the angel of death would pass over their houses. Furthermore, God commanded the Israelites to observe a “feast to the Lord” throughout their generations.
Thus, on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, in March or April, Jews the world over commemorate the Exodus from Egypt by celebrating Passover, so called because God passed over the houses of the Jews. (It is also called the feast of unleaven bread.)
Passover is observed at home in a first-night ceremony called the Seder. The slaughter of the paschal lamb is symbolized by the display of a shank-bone, the tears of slaves by a dish of salt water; the mortar that the Israelites used for Pharaoh’s building projects by a sweet paste of apples, nuts, and raisins, called haroset, and the flight from bondage by matzol, or unleavened bread. Throughout the Seder, the Passover Haggadah, a book of prayers and benedictions recounting the Exodus, is read aloud.
In Me’ah She’arim, the neighborhood just north of the Old City of Jerusalem, men and boys commonly wear pe’ot, or side locks, grown in accordance with the biblical prohibition: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples.” Me’ah She’arim, like some neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York, has a high concentration of Orthodox and Hasidic families. It is, in fact, a common practice among many Orthodox and Hasidic Jews all over the world to wear pe’ot – a style that instantly identifies the wearer as Jewish. Yet there is no evidence that the ancient Hebrew wore pe’ot. The wearing of side curls did not become the custom until the 16th century, when it was started by the disciples of the philosopher Isaac Luria. It later became popular in central and eastern Europe.
Star of David, Seal of Solomon
The origin of the Star of David, now widely recognized as the emblem of Judaism, is obscure. One legend is, that King David bore a hexagram-shaped shield when he fought Goliath. Originally a pagan ornament, the hexagram was later named both the Star of David, or Magen David, and the Seal of Solomon. By the Middle Ages, the symbols were used as talismans against evil, the terms Seal of Solomon and Megan David were used interchangeably in magical texts. By the 19th century, the Star of David had gained ascendancy, and appeared in Jewish ritual and on synagogues. The Seal of Solomon, often depicted as two interlacing triangles, retained its magical associations. One interpretation is that its conjoining light and dark triangles represent the unity of body and soul.
In 1897 the Star of David was adopted by the Zionist Congress. But it was not until World War II, when the Nazis forced European Jews to wear a yellow star as a badge of shame and, ultimately, death, that it took on a powerful resonance of triumph over despair. In 1948 it was chosen as the central design in the flag of the State of Israel.
During Hanukkah, Jews the world over celebrate the rededication of the Temple by the lighting of an eight-branched candelabrum, or menorah. Often there is a ninth branch, called the shames or “servant,” used as a pilot light. Why eight branches? One legend states that the Maccabees had only enough oil to light the Temple menorah for one night. Miraculously, the lights burned for eight. Hence, Hannukkah is also called the “Festival of Lights.”
The Greek word, synagogue, occurs over 50 times in the New Testament. The original Greek meaning referred to the collective assembly of Israel, but the term as we know it denotes a Jewish house of worship. Thus Jesus taught in synagogues throughout Galilee, and Paul preached in synagogues in Damascus and refers to synagogues in every city he visited in Asian Minor. It is clear both from literary sources (the New Testament, Philo, Josephus, and the Talmud) and from modern archaeological finds, that the synagogue was an ancient institution by the first century AD. Though its exact origins are unclear, most scholars agree that the development of the synagogue was organic, dating from the time of the Babylonian captivity, when tie exiled Jews, forcibly removed from the Temple, gathered in groups to read the Scriptures. Throughout the Diaspora synagogue dating from the time of Ptolemy III (246 – 221 BC) has been found outside Alexandria. It is interesting that until the fall of Herod’s Temple, the Temple and the synagogue existed side by side, in complementary roles. The Temple was the center of the ancestral cult; there sacrificial services were performed. After AD 70, the synagogue became the central institution of Judaism and prayer became the central form of worship.
The Sabbath was the day of public worship. An attendant (the hazzan or beadle) brought the Torah scrolls, kept in an enclosure known as the “holy ark,” for reading, for the instruction of the congregation in the Law. Later, a cantor was added to the synagogue personnel, and still later, the preacher or rabbi. The Orthodox services themselves have changed little in some 2,000 years. To this day, the synagogue is the central religious, social, and educational institution of Judaism.
In Jesus’ Footsteps
Since the founding of the Church, Christian pilgrims have travelled to hat is now the State of Israel to see the places where Jesus preached, healed, suffered – and died. In the early fourth century, the emperor Constantine and his mother, Heleria, made Jerusalem one of the important cities of Christianity by building churches in and around the city. Most of the shrines were destroyed in later centuries by conquerors of Jerusalem, but restorations have been made since that time. Perhaps the most famous of these sanctuaries is the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. It is believed by many to be located where Jesus was buried, in addition to being the place where according to tradition, Helena found the true Cross. It now contains a reconstruction of the tomb of Jesus. Of equally great importance is the Via Dolorosa. Along the route through the Old City, tablets indicate the 14 Stations of the Cross. Overlooking Jerusalem is the Mount of Olives.
In Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, built by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian, in the sixth century, on the foundations of an earlier chapel built by Constantine. In it is a grotto where, tradition holds, Christ was born.
It was in Nazareth that Jesus lived until his public ministry began, he also preached in the synagogue here. The town commemorates Jesus’ family life with shrines that include the Church of St. Joseph, located on the reputed site of Joseph’s carpentry shop, and the Church of the Annunciation. Nazareth was reduced to ruins by the Sultan of Egypt in the 13th century, but shrines began to be rebuilt four centuries later, under the guardianship of the Franciscans. Today the place where the annunciation is recalled is a grotto in the modern Church of the Annunciation, completed in 1966.
In the first three centuries after the crucifixion, the cross was an important symbol in private devotion, but Christians rarely used it openly. In the 4th century, the Roman emperor Constantine used the cross on his coinage. His devotion to the cross was reported to have come from a vision of Christ’s cross emblazoned in the sky. With his help, the cross became the reigning symbol of the church.
It was during Constantine’s reign, that the cross upon which Jesus was crucified was said to have been found and numerous legends sprang up about the “True Cross.”
The Latin cross of the early Christians took many forms, as they were embellished by craftsman. Saints and martyrs were assigned their own symbolic crosses. The crucifix, with Christ’s body on it, probably developed around the 5th century, but was not used on church altars until the 13th century.
The Wailing Wall
Throughout the centuries, Jews have returned to the Temple Mount to remember, to mourn, and to pray. Under some rulers, Jews were forbidden to enter the Holy City, except on the Day of Atonement. When the Old City of Jerusalem, which encompasses the Temple Mount, came under Jewish control in 1967, the age-old dream of countless Jews came true.
The Wailing Wall is the holiest site in the Jewish World. It is in fact only one section of the Western retaining wall that Herod the Great built to enlarge the Temple Mount. The debris of the centuries covers much of the lower layer of the wall, and today only the top tiers are visible. The area in front of the Wall is cleared, accommodating the large number of people who come there to worship. It is divided down the middle into two sections, one for women, and one for men. On Shabbat (the Sabbath), bar mitzvot are performed there, this ceremony, during which a boy of 13 is called to read a portion of Torah, marks his new role as a full member of the Jewish community.