Jewish holidays & the land
INDIGENEITY & LAND
Jews are an ethnoreligious group, a tribe, and a nation originating in the Land of Israel, descended from the ancient Hebrews and Israelites. This is verifiably true per 3000 years’ worth of archeology, a plethora of genetic studies, and thousands of years of historical record. Much like other Indigenous tribes worldwide, Jewish peoplehood, tribal identity, and religion/spirituality (Judaism) are inextricable from each other.
The Indigenous-led United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues defines Indigenous Peoples using a number of criteria, including “strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources” and “resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.”
To reiterate: Indigenous Peoples have a strong cultural link to their territories and surrounding resources. It’s worth noting that the term “Jews” and “Judaism” do not come from a faith but rather, from a place: specifically, the Kingdom of Judah (930 BCE-587 BCE). The term Judaism — “Yahadut” in Hebrew — could be translated as “Jew-hood,” as in “the state of being Jewish.”
The idea that our land was a gift from the heavens/deities/G-d is quite universal among Indigenous groups, and for Jews, it is no different. Though most Jews were forcibly displaced from the land of their ancestors, Jewish culture remained firmly rooted in the Land of Israel. Most Jewish holidays, for example, mark and honor the agricultural cycle of the land and our deep spiritual connection to it.
Since the times of the Torah (3000+ years ago) and perhaps even earlier, Jews and our ancestors have practiced Shmita, also known as the “Sabbath of the land.”
The Torah mandates that Israelites follow a seven-year agricultural cycle. Just like G-d commands that we rest on the seventh day of the week, Jews believe that we have been entrusted with a special responsibility to our Indigenous land. As such, the earth, too, deserves to rest.
During the seventh year of the agricultural cycle, the land is left un-farmed to allow for it to rest and recover.
Beyond the agricultural elements of Shmita, all interpersonal loans are also forgiven. Jews in the Diaspora can commemorate Shmita in some ways — e.g. forgiving loans, not purchasing fruit from the Land of Israel — but the agricultural practice applies *exclusively* to the Land of Israel. In other words, Jewish farmers in the Diaspora continue farming during the Shmita year. This is because we only have stewardship over our ancestral land.
During the Shmita year, Jewish farmers in the Land of Israel must allow their fields to lie fallow. Food storage and perennial harvests are made accessible to all.
In recent decades, environmentalists have begun studying the Indigenous practice of Shmita as a means of addressing environmental problems.
The holiday of Sukkot is celebrated for seven (Israel) or eight (Diaspora) days during the Hebrew month of Tishrei. During the times of the ancient Jewish Temples in Jerusalem, the Israelites were commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple. Sukkot is also known as the “Harvest Festival” and the “Festival of Booths.”
Sukkot is significant for two reasons: (1) it marks the end of the agricultural cycle in the Land of Israel, and (2) it commemorates the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering the desert after they escaped from slavery in Egypt. As the narrative of Exodus goes, the Israelites lived in temporary shelters in the desert. As such, during Sukkot, Jews build a temporary hut known as a “sukkah.” The sukkah “ceiling” is covered with branches or other organic material that is no longer “connected to the earth.” It’s customary to eat inside the sukkah during festival.
It’s also mandatory to perform a waving ceremony with the Four Species. In Talmudic tradition, the Four Species are the etrog (the fruit of a citron tree), the lulav (a closed palm branch from a date palm tree), the hadass (a branch of a myrtle tree), and the aravah (leafed branches from a willow tree). All of these species, of course, are Indigenous to the Land of Israel and have held deep spiritual significance for millennia.
Sukkot bears overwhelming resemblance to older Canaanite harvest festivals, indicating an Indigenous cultural continuity that long predates imperial or colonial conquest (for a more in-depth look into the ancient Hebrews and their cultural, genetic, and linguistic Canaanite origins, see my post WHEN JEWS BECAME JEWS).
Shemini Atzeret marks the end of the seven-day festival of Sukkot. “Shemini” translates to “eighth.” In Israel, the celebrations for Shemini Atzeret are combined with those for Simchat Torah, which marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings.
There is a certain duality to Shemini Atzeret, as it’s considered both a part of and independent from Sukkot.
It’s tradition to pray for rain in the Land of Israel during Shemini Atzeret. The “Tefillat Geshem,” or the prayer for rain in English, is recited during this holiday because this marks the beginning of the rainy season in the Land of Israel. Since ancient times, the agriculture of the Land of Israel has largely depended on the heavy rains of this season. Thousands of years ago, especially, Israel had a highly agrarian society, so rains could make or break a farmer’s yearly harvest.
Tu Bishvat is a Jewish holiday known as the “New Year of trees.” In ancient times, Tu Bishvat was not so much a spiritual festival, but rather, it marked an important date for farmers in the Land of Israel.
The Torah itself states: “When you enter the Land [of Israel] and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten.” The fourth year, the fruit of the tree was offered to the Kohanim in the Temple as a gift of thanks for the bounty of the Land. Finally, on the fifth year, the fruit was suitable to be consumed. This tradition, however, created somewhat of a conundrum for the farmers: how does one mark the “birthday” of a tree? It was then that the rabbis decided to mark the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Shevat as the birthday for all trees, regardless of when a tree was actually planted. Thus, the holiday of Tu Bishvat was born.
In the Middle Ages, Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) assigned Tu Bishvat greater spiritual, rather than practical, significance. According to Kabbalist tradition, all physical beings have within them a spark of the Divine Presence. This is similar to some fruits and nuts, which have seeds within them that create potential for new life and growth. According to Jewish mysticism, humans can release these sparks to increase the presence of G-d in the world. On this date, Kabbalists, regardless of their location in the Diaspora, would eat fruits associated with the Land of Israel to release the Divine Sparks.
In modern times, Tu Bishvat also serves as a Jewish equivalent to an environmental day or an Earth Day. It’s customary for Jews to plant trees in Israel on this date. Jews in the Diaspora will often donate to the Jewish National Fund, an organization dedicated to the reforestation of Israel, on Tu Bishvat.
Pesach, or Passover in English, commemorates the Israelites’ freedom from slavery in Egypt. What many people don’t know, however, is that Passover is also connected to the barley harvest of the Land of Israel and bears resemblance to an earlier Canaanite festival of spring, during which the Canaanites practiced a ceremony of unleavened bread, just as Jews eat today during Passover.
The origins of Passover date even farther back, prior to the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel in 1047 BCE, when the Hebrew tribes had not yet united to form a unified state. Many of the rites traditional to Passover likely begun as protective magic to ensure the protection of the family home and protection from the rains.
The Torah itself stresses the agricultural aspects of Passover, also calling the holiday “Chag Ha’Aviv” (“Spring Festival”). The Torah depicts spring as the “season of deliverance.” Passover always falls on the full moon, with tradition dictating that the Israelites fled Egypt during the full moon as it would provide light to lead the way.
At some point in history, the Hebrews married the ancient agricultural Spring Festival to the story of Exodus as depicted in the Torah, but its ancient, Indigenous, land-based origins still live on in the rituals that we practice every year during the holiday.
Shavout, known as the Feast of Weeks in English, is a Jewish and Samaritan holiday that marks the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer.
The Counting of the Omer records the 49 days between the beginning and the end of the grain harvest in the Land of Israel. In the Torah, Shavout marked the wheat harvest of the Land of Israel. In rabbinic Judaism, Shavout also marks the date when G-d revealed the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, though the Torah does not specify that the revelation occurred on this date.
It’s customary for Jews to eat cheese on Shavout, with three main possible explanations for the tradition: (1) gematria (Hebrew numerology) indicates that the Hebrew word for milk, “chalav,” has a numerical value of 40, which is equivalent to the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai; (2) after the Israelites received the Torah on Mount Sinai, they learned of the laws of kashrut for the first time and chose not to eat the meat they’d already prepared, as it wasn’t kosher, and consumed dairy instead; and (3) eating dairy symbolizes the Land of Israel, which the Torah describes as the “Land flowing with milk and honey.”
In ancient times, farmers would present the Kohanim in the Temple with the first fruits. The first fruits were brought from the Seven Species: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. The farmers would go on a long procession to Jerusalem, accompanied with music and parades.
Tu B’Av — also known as the Jewish holiday of love — is an ancient Jewish festival that marks the beginning of the grape harvest in the Land of Israel. In ancient times, unmarried girls would dress in white garments and dance in the vineyards, a practice that has been revived over the past 100 years.
During the Arab colonization of the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and parts of Turkey) in the seventh century, the Arab conquerors destroyed ancient Jewish vineyards to comply with Muhammad’s prohibition against consuming alcohol. During Ottoman rule (1517-1917) the production of wine was discouraged, but Arab farmers were free to produce distilled spirits.
While the Torah warns of the dangers of overconsumption, wine is an important part of Jewish rituals. As such, the destruction of the vineyards was particularly culturally and spiritually destructive to the Jews of the Land of Israel. Grapes are one of the Seven Species and symbolize both beauty and fertility. Wine is also considered a symbol of joy, celebration, and liberation.
Tu B’Av is celebrated during the full moon and is considered a favorable date for weddings.
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