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History of Christmas: King Herod

December 3, 2006 /
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HISTORY OF HEROD THE KING

When the wise men asked Herod the King “Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” their question was not really spoken in a vacuum, for even the Roman author Suetonius wrote, “There had spread all over the East an old and established belief that it was fated for men coming from Judea at that time to rule the world”. But as wise as they were, their inquiry before the King showed no great tact. For instead of understanding the question to mean “Where is he who will someday succeed you”, Herod’s suspicious mind warped the query into “Where is the REAL king, you impostor?” At the time Herod mistrusted everyone and thought himself surrounded by young aspirants all plotting to seize his throne.

Rather than clap the Magi in irons for asking such a question, his native shrewdness tried to ferret out whatever information he could from them in order to kill off a possible rival. From the information he had gained about the date of the appearance of the star, and from the Old Testament prophesies his own scholars knew of, Herod concluded that the “king of the Jews” was about 2 years old and living in Bethlehem. By the way, since Herod died in 4 B.C., and Jesus was around 2, we might surmise that Jesus was born between 6-4 B.C. Furthermore, the wise men did not visit Jesus in the manger, contrary to the Hallmark Christmas cards, but some time later, perhaps 2 years later, when he was living in a house (Matthew 2:11).

The young Herod had been an exceptionally able ruler, governing Palestine as client-king in behalf of the Roman emperor Augustus. The House of Herod had the uncanny knack of being able to sniff the airs of Mediterranean politics and make the right choices. Herod’s father had given crucial help to Julius Caesar when he was down in Egypt, cut off from his supplies, and Caesar rewarded him handsomely for that. Herod himself shrewdly advised his friend Mark Antony to drop Cleopatra and make peace with Rome (advice he should have followed). And once Augustus emerged victorious from the civil wars, he was so impressed with young Herod that he allowed him to become one of his most trusted friends.

Herod beautified Palestine during his 33 year reign. He erected palaces, fortresses (Masada, for example), temples, aqueducts, cities, and – his crowning achievement – the great new Temple in Jerusalem. He created the magnificent port of Caesarea in honor of Augustus and stimulated trade and commerce. He also patronized culture in cities far from Palestine and easily became the talk of the eastern Mediterranean. He even sponsored the Olympic games of 12 B.C.!

But he had little support in his own kingdom. As a half-Jew he seemed far too Romanizing for his subjects, whom he taxed heavily. Soon he was hated as a tyrant, even by his own family. Herod was so jealous of his favorite wife (he married ten wives) that on two occasions he ordered that she be killed if he failed to return from a critical mission. He finally killed her anyway, as well as her grandfather, her mother, his brother-in-law, and three of his sons, not to mention numerous subjects. In his advancing paranoia, he was continually writing to Rome for permission to execute one or two of his sons for treason. Finally even his patron and friend Augustus had to admit, “I’d rather be Herod’s pig than his son”. It was not only a play on the similar sounding Greek words for son and pig, but a wry reference to the fact that pork, at least, was not consumed by Jews.

Old and very ill from arteriosclerosis, Herod worried that no one would mourn his death – a justified concern. So he issued orders from his deathbed that leaders from all parts of Judea were to be locked inside the great hippodrome at Jericho. When Herod died, archers were to massacre these thousands in cold blood, so there would indeed be universal mourning associated with his death. Although the leaders were gathered, the order was never given. Not only did this plan fail, but so did his plan to kill “he who has been born king of the Jews”.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

From Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of Christmas: the Wise Men

November 30, 2006 /
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THE WISE MEN

You’re familiar with the song that begins “We Three Kings of Orient Are…” but it is inaccurate in at least three ways. We don’t know how many there were, but we know they weren’t kings. They did not originate in the Orient, meaning the Far East.

How could they have seen the star “in the East” and arrived in Jerusalem unless they began somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew 2:2 “We saw his star in the east, and have come to worship him”. One easy explanation is to see it in the sense of “We saw his star when we were in the east and have come from the east to worship him”.

A number of traditions places their number at three, with the presumption of three gifts for three givers: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But some earlier traditions make quite a caravan of their visit, setting their number as high as twelve.

The term “magi” is usually translated wise men, astrologers, or magicians (the word “magic” comes from magi). “The East”, has been variously identified as any country from Arabia to Media and Persia, but usually no further east.

What we know about their origin suggests to Mesopotamian or Persian origins for the magi, who were known to be an old and powerful priestly caste among both the Medes and Persians. These priest-sages who were extremely well educated for their day, were specialists in a variety of disciplines, including medicine, religion, astronomy, astrology, divination, and magic, and their caste eventually spread across much of the East. As in any profession, there were both good and bad magi, depending on whether they did research in the sciences or practiced augury, necromancy, and magic. The Persian magi at least were credited with higher religious and intellectual attainments, while the Babylonian magi were sometimes deemed impostors. The safest conclusion is that the Magi of Christmas were Persian, for the term originated among the Medo-Persians, and early Syriac traditions give them Persian names.

Primitive Christian art in the second-century Roman Catacombs of Pricilla, which I have visited, dresses them in Persian garments, and a majority of early church fathers interpret them as Persians.

The Church of the Nativity was built in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine’s mother upon the traditional site in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, and indeed it is the only major church in the Holy Land that survives intact from the early Christian period. In 614, the church had a narrow escape. A Sassanian army from Persia had invaded the Holy Land and proceeded to destroy all the churches. However, they desisted at Bethlehem because they recognized the images of their ancestors, the Magi, above the entrance to the Church of the Nativity in Persian headdress. This account makes sense by virtue of the fact that the Magi were traditionally represented in early Christian art as Zoroastrian priests

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

Inspired by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of the Christmas Star

November 29, 2006 /
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christmas starHISTORY OF THE STAR

The star of Bethlehem has puzzled scholars for centuries. Some have skeptically dismissed the phenomenon as a myth, a mere literary device to call attention to the importance of the Nativity. Others have argued that the star was miraculously placed there to guide the Magi and is therefore beyond all natural explanation. Most authorities, however, take a middle course which looks for some historical explanation for the Christmas star, and several interesting theories have been offered.

The Greek term for star in the Gospel account, “aster”, can mean any luminous heavenly body, including a comet, meteor, nova, or planet (wandering star). The Chinese have more exact and more complete astronomical records than the Near East, particularly in their tabulations of comets and novae. In 1871, John Williams published his authoritative list of comets derived from Chinese annuals. Comet No. 52 on the Williams list appeared for some seventy days in March-April of 5 B.C. near the constellation Capricorn, and would have been visible in both the Far and Near East. As each night wore on, of course, the comet would seem to have moved westward across the southern sky. The time is also very appropriate. This could indeed have been the wise men’s astral marker. Comet No. 53 on the Williams list is a tailless comet, which could well have been a nova, as Williams admitted. No. 53 appeared in March-April of 4 B.C.-a year after its predecessor – in the area of the constellation Aquila, which was also visible all over the East. Was this, perhaps the star that reappeared to the Magi once Herod had directed them to Bethlehem in Matthew 2:9? Comets do not display all the characteristics described in the full Nativity story. A planet or planets seems more likely.

The astronomer Johannes Kepler noted in the early 17th century that every 805 years, the planets Jupiter and Saturn come into extraordinary repeated conjunction, with Mars joining the configuration a year later. Since Kepler, astronomers have computed that for ten months in 7 B.C., Jupiter and Saturn traveled very close to each other in the night sky, and in May, September, and December of that year, they were conjoined. Mars joined the configuration in February of 6 B.C. The astrological interpretation of such a conjunction would have told the Magi much, if, as seems probable, they shared the astrological lore of the area. Jupiter and Saturn met each other in Pisces, the Fishes.

In ancient astrology, the giant planet Jupiter was styled the “King’s Planet”, for it represented the highest god and ruler of the universe: Marduk to the Babylonians; Zeus to the Greeks; Jupiter to the Romans. The ringed planet Saturn was deemed the shield or defender of Palestine, while the constellation of Pisces, which was also associated with Syria and Palestine, represented epochal events and crises. So Jupiter encountering Saturn in the sign of the Fishes would have meant that a divine and cosmic ruler was to appear in Palestine at a culmination of history.

Meanwhile, new research on the star based on recently available astronomy software and historical research on Josephus’ manuscripts is being conducted and collected at www.bethlehemstar.net.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

Inspired by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of Christmas: the Year

November 28, 2006 /
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THE YEAR

It’s obvious that Jesus was born on December 25, A.D. 1, right? Wrong. We do know that Herod the Great (who killed all the babies in Bethlehem younger than 2 years of age) died in the spring of 4 B.C., and the king was quite alive during the visit of the Wise Men (Magi) in the Nativity story told in the Gospel of Mark. So Jesus must have been born before this time, anywhere from 7-4 B.C. (Before Christ, or before himself!)

Why is there a gap of this much time in our modern calendar? There was a Roman monk-mathematician-astronomer named Dionysis Exeguus (Dionysis the Little) during the 6th century who unwittingly committed what has become history’s greatest numerical error as it relates to the calendar. As he endeavored to reform the Western calendar to center around Jesus’ birth, he erroneously placed the date of the Nativity in the year 753 from the founding of Rome (753 a.u.c. or Ab Urbe Condita), even though Herod died only 749 years after the founding of the city of Rome. The cumulative effect of Dionysis’ calendar error, which is the same calendar we use today, was to give the correct traditional date for the founding of Rome, but one that is at least 4 to 7 years off for the birth of Christ.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

Inspired by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of Christmas: Nativity Season

November 27, 2006 /
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NATIVITY SEASON

Perhaps you’ve seen the greeting card — Joseph along with Mary on the back of a donkey making their way to Bethlehem in the wintery snow. But could Jesus have been born during that time of the year, perhaps with snow on the ground? It is possible, as 3 to 4 days a year snow can fall in Palestine. In January on 1950 for example there was 20 inches on the ground in Israel. It is usually pointed out that shepherds don’t have sheep on the hillsides during the winter, though the Nativity story reports “…shepherds watched their flocks by night…” But there were flocks of special sheep, those who were designated for sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem who were kept all year round near Bethlehem at Beit Sahur, the “Tower of the Flock”.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

Inspired by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of Christmas

November 26, 2006 /
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THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS

Here begins a series of articles on the history of Christmas.

The Advent Season (Advent means the “coming” of the Christ Child) is marked by the four Sundays before Christmas and is celebrated in the church calendar as one the most festive seasons of the year. This year, because Christmas itself falls on a Monday, Advent starts three weeks before Christmas, or next Sunday.

As we shall see, many of the traditions, customs, and stories of the Advent Season have Christian roots while others have non-Christian sources. Some are legendary, and others are firmly rooted in history.

Ironically, the date for the Nativity — upon which our Western calendar system is based — is not known with certainty. The Feast of Christmas was not an early festival for the church, as Resurrection Sunday (Easter) was and did not see general observance until the 4th century. It was not until the early part of the 5th century that the western church agreed upon the current date of December 25. Historians believe this date was picked to supplant the pagan holiday Saturnalia that was celebrated by the Romans and whose many customs survive today: evergreen, holly, mistletoe, feasting and gift exchanges.

The 25th of December, the ancient date for their winter solstice, was celebrated as the birthday of the unconquerable sun or natalis invicti solis when the sun’s transit was in the lowest point on the horizon with the shortest “day” of the year and then with longer days coming began its transit northward. Under the Christian calendar the 25th was to become known as the birth of the unconquerable Son.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

Inspired in part by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of Thanksgiving: Friendly Indian?

November 22, 2006 /
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HISTORY OF THANKSGIVING: FRIENDLY INDIAN?

We’ve all heard the story of how the Pilgrims, landing in Massachusetts on the Mayflower in 1620, were ill equipped to survive the harsh winters of the New World. We’ve also heard how they met an Indian of the Pawtuxet tribe named Squanto who befriended them, taught them how to survive in their new wilderness home, showed them how to plant crops, and acted as an interpreter with the Wampanoag tribe and its chief, Massasoit (pictured above from Plymouth, MA).

The fact that he already knew English before the Pilgrims landed is what is remarkable.

Squanto probably was present at the first Thanksgiving celebration held by the Pilgrims. He was certainly was there by 1621 — after the winter when the Puritans lost half of their population to starvation and diseases — when another Indian, Samoset, introduced Squanto to the Pilgrim settlers, and he became a member of their colony. Because Squanto could speak English well, Governor William Bradford asked him to serve as his ambassador to the Indian tribes.

But it was over a decade before the Pilgrims landed that Squanto was captured from Massachusetts and taken, along with other Indians, by an English ship captain and sold into slavery in Málaga, Spain.

There, Squanto was bought by a Spanish monk, who treated him well, freed him from slavery, and taught him the Christian faith. Squanto eventually made his way to England — where he either learned or improved his English — and worked in the stables of a man named John Slaney. Slaney sympathized with Squanto’s desire to return home, and he promised to put the Indian on the first vessel bound for America.

It wasn’t until 1618 — ten years after Squanto was first kidnapped — that a ship was found. Finally, after a decade of exile, Squanto returned home. There he learned that his tribe had died from an epidemic, probably of smallpox brought by the earlier English colonists. It was while he was living among the Wampanoag near present-day Plymouth, MA that his friend Samoset introduced him to the new Pilgrim settlers.

In 1622, as Squanto lay mortally ill with fever while scouting east of Plymouth, the Pilgrim leader William Bradford knelt at his bedside. According to Bradford’s diary, Squanto asked him to “pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in heaven.” Squanto died November 1622, having bequeathed his possessions to the Pilgrims as remembrances of his love.”

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

Taken in part from Chuck Colson’s “God’s Instrument

HISTORY OF THANKSGIVING

November 21, 2006 /
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HISTORY OF THANKSGIVING

The origin of Thanksgiving Day has been attributed to a harvest feast held by the Plymouth Colony, although such celebrations date from ancient times. In 1621, Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony proclaimed a day of "thanksgiving" and prayer to celebrate the Pilgrims’ first harvest in America. The picture you usually see of a few Native American men joining the Pilgrims at the feast is a bit inaccurate however. From original settler Edward Winslow in a letter to a friend in 1621 we know that some 90 men accompanied the Wampanoag Chief Massasoit to visit at Plymouth for three days of fish, foul, and venison. But of the roughly 100 English settlers who had spent their first year on the Massachusetts coast, about half had died by this time. This would have left about half the 52 survivors as English men. So the Native men outnumbered the Pilgrim men by over three to one!

The idea of a day set apart to celebrate the completion of the harvest and to render homage to the Spirit who caused the fruits and crops to grow is both ancient and universal. The practice of designating a day of thanksgiving for specific spiritual or secular benefits has been followed in many countries.

One of the first general proclamations was made in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1676. President George Washington in 1789 issued the first presidential thanksgiving proclamation in honor of the new constitution. During the 19th century an increasing number of states observed the day annually, each appointing its own day. President Abraham Lincoln, on October 3, 1863, by presidential proclamation appointed the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day, due to the unremitting efforts of Sarah J. Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Each succeeding president made similar proclamations until Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1939 appointed the third Thursday of November, primarily to allow a special holiday weekend for national public holiday. This was changed two years later by both congress and the President to the fourth Thursday of November. Thanksgiving Day remains a day when many express gratitude to God for blessings and celebrate material bounty.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

History of Guy Fawkes

November 2, 2006 /
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HISTORY OF GUY FAWKES

For our friends across the Pond

November 5th is known as "Bonfire Night" or "Guy Fawkes Night", and all over Britain people fire off fireworks, light bonfires, and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes. Guido Fawkes was an Englishman who, in popular legend, tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament with barrels of gunpowder. He was caught, imprisoned, tortured on the rack, and finally executed, as we’ll see.

400 years ago, Guy Fawkes was a co-conspirator in the "Gunpowder Plot" of 1605 in England. He and his cohorts decided to blow up the both Houses of Parliament in London and kill King James I upon the inaugural opening of the Parliament, and succeeded in smuggling several barrels of gunpowder into the basement of the Parliament.

This "Gunpowder Plot" occurred two years after King James I (of the "King James Bible" fame) ascended to the throne. A group of English Catholics, of which Guido Fawkes was a member, decided to kill the King because it was felt he had reneged on his promises to stop the persecution of Catholics. To this day, it is the law in Britain that a Roman Catholic cannot hold the office of monarch. And the Queen is still Supreme Head of the Church of England.
The plot was foiled at the eleventh hour; some of the plotters escaped, some turned King’s Evidence and reported on the rest. The unlucky Fawkes was taken in chains to the Tower of London. He was hanged, drawn and quartered. After Guy was hanged, he was torn asunder and drug through the streets of London behind a horse cart. The charge was treason, though some people in England prefer to remember Guy as "the only man ever to enter Parliament with honourable intentions."

To this day, one of the ceremonies that accompany the opening of a new session of parliament, is the searching of the basement, by a bunch of men in funny hats. Parliament somehow made political capital out of the close call, and poor Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy every November 5th on bonfires all over Britain. They sell a lot of fireworks too, and children beg for money on the streets to buy them. The children usually exhibit the "guy" or dummy that will be put on the fire. "Penny for the guy, mister?" is a common refrain at this time of year.

In the last dozen years or so however, with the pervasiveness of American television and culture in England, the custom of celebrating Halloween is in the ascendancy, and many children are now going for the double treat: candy on October 31, money for November 5.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

History of October 31

October 30, 2006 /
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HISTORY OF OCTOBER 31

On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg 95 propositions or theses and marked the beginning of the Reformation. Of course, the Reformation began long before that, but this date proves to be a convenient coat hanger to mark the beginning of Protestantism. But the 95 Theses were not intended as a call to reformation and it is the story behind this event that proves so fascinating, and shows the real purpose of the 95 Theses.

Prince Albert wanted the archbishopric of Mainz. (You may know Mainz as the home of a goldsmith named Johann Gutenberg, who had developed the uniform-sized movable type printing press 60 years earlier.) Because Albert was less than 25 years old, the office of archbishop would cost him $500,000. Pope Leo X, who was financing the building of St. Peter’s in Rome (for $46 million) suggested that Albert borrow the money from the wealthy Fugger banking family. Albert was able to secure half the funds from the Fuggers, and for the rest he sold indulgences. An indulgence was a document which freed the holder from the temporal penalty of sin. The sale of indulgences, introduced during the Crusades, remained a favored source of papal income. In exchange for a meritorious work – frequently, a contribution to a worthy cause or a pilgrimage to a shrine – the church offered the sinner exemption from his acts of penance by drawing upon its "treasury of merits." This consisted of the grace accumulated by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the meritorious deeds of the saints. In Castle Church at Wittenberg for example, it was believed that the relics (bones of saints, etc.) were reckoned to earn a remission for pilgrims of 1,902,202 years and 270 days.

When the Dominican John Tetzel came preaching through much of Germany on behalf of Albert, he boasted that for a contribution he would provide donors with an indulgence that would even apply beyond the grave and free souls from purgatory. "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings," went his jingle, "quickly the soul from purgatory springs".

To Martin Luther, the professor of biblical studies at the newly founded University of Wittenberg, Tetzel’s preaching was bad theology if not worse. Luther thought this practice was wholly unwarranted by Scripture, reason or tradition. It encouraged not repentance but mere payment. Luther promptly drew up 95 propositions or theses in Latin, following university custom, for a call to theological debate. Among other things, they argued that indulgences cannot remove guilt, do not apply to purgatory, and are harmful because they induce a false sense of security in the donor. The 95 Theses were not a general call to break with the Roman Catholic Church. The irony is that someone took the 95 Theses and translated them into German, the language of the common man. And with the aid of the printing press copies were distributed to the masses. This was the spark that ignited the Reformation.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

History of Halloween

October 29, 2006 /
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HALLOWEEN

Halloween (Allhallows Even) is the evening of October 31. In its strictly religious aspect this occasion is known as the vigil of Hallowmas or All Saints’ Day, November 1, observed by the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. In the fourth decade of the 8th century, Pope Gregory III assigned this date for celebrating the feast when he consecrated a chapel in St. Peter’s basilica in Rome to all the saints. Gregory IV extended the feast to the entire church in 834. In Latin countries the evening of October 31 is observed only as a religious occasion, but in Great Britain, Ireland, and the United States, ancient Halloween folk customs persist alongside the ecclesiastical observance.

Students of folklore believe that the popular customs of Halloween show traces of the Roman harvest festival of Pomona and of Druidism. These influences are inferred from the use of nuts and apples as traditional Halloween foods and from the figures of witches, black cats, and skeletons commonly associated with the occasion.

In pre-Christian Ireland and Scotland, the Celtic year ended on October 31, the eve of Samhain, and was celebrated with both religious and harvest rites. For the Druids, Samhain (pronounced: SOWin) was both the "end of summer" and a festival of the dead. The spirits of the departed were believed to visit their kinsmen in search of warmth and good cheer as winter approached. It was also an occasion when fairies, witches, and goblins terrified the populace. The agents of the supernatural were alleged to steal infants, destroy crops, and kill farm animals. Bonfires were lighted on hilltops on the eve of Samhain. The fires may have been lighted to guide the spirits of the dead to the homes of their kinsmen or to kill and ward off witches. In the City Center of modern day Dublin one can find signs advertising "Samhain Halloween" parties. Samhain is also the name for November in the modern Scots Gaelic and Irish languages.

During the middle ages when the common folk believed that witchcraft was devoted to the worship of Satan, this cult included periodic meetings, known as witches’ Sabbaths, which were allegedly given over to feasting and revelry. One of the most important Sabbaths as held on Halloween. Witches were alleged to fly to these meetings on broomsticks, accompanied by black cats who were their constant companions. Stories of these Sabbaths are the source of much folklore about Halloween.

Pranks and mischief were common on Halloween. Wandering groups of celebrants blocked doors of houses with carts, carried away gates and plows, tapped on windows, threw vegetables at doors, and covered chimneys with turf so that smoke could not escape. In some places boys and girls dressed in clothing of the opposite sex and, wearing masks, visited neighbors to play tricks. These activities generally resembled the harmful and mischievous behavior attributed to witches, fairies, and goblins. The contemporary "trick or treat" custom resembles an ancient Irish practice associated with Allhallows Eve. Groups of peasants went from house to house demanding food and other gifts in preparation for the evening’s festivities. Prosperity was assured for liberal donors and threats were made against stingy ones. These contributions were often demanded in the name of Muck Olla, an early Druid deity, or of St. Columb Cille, "dove of the Church" (also knownas St. Colomba) who was an Irish missionary to Scotland during the 6th century. In England some of the folk attributes of Halloween were assimilated by Guy Fawkes day celebrated on November 5. Consequently Halloween lost some of its importance there.

Immigrants from Great Britain and Ireland brought secular Halloween customs to the U.S., but the festival did not become popular in this country until the latter part of the 19th century. This may have been because it had long been popular with the Irish, who migrated here in large numbers after 1840. In America, though some churches observe Halloween with religious services, most people regard it as a secular festival. Other Protestant churches celebrate it as "Reformation Day"in commemoration of the date in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the95 Theses to the northern wooden door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com

History of Yom Kippur

October 1, 2006 /
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YOM KIPPUR

The Jewish High Holy Days begin with Rosh Hashana and continue until Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, or more correctly Yom ha-Kippurim (Leviticus 16) goes back to Jewish antiquity almost 4,000 years to the time of Moses. This most solemn occasion of the Jewish Festival cycle was the season for annual cleansing from sin, but in time its significance was deepened so that it acquired personal meaning and filled a private need. It is observed on the 10th day of Tishri, the seventh month, and is the climax of the whole penitential season.

Originally, on one day of the year the high priest would enter into the innermost part of the Tabernacle (and later the Temple in Jerusalem). He would enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of the sacrifice which was for the sin of the people as a congregation, and sprinkle it upon the ‘mercy seat’ of the Ark of the Covenant (made famous by the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” :-). This would ‘cover’ the sin of the people, as this is what the Aramaic (and Hebrew) root ‘kapar’ (atonement) means. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., later Rabbinic legislation adapted the old ritual to the synagogue. The blasts of the ‘shofar’ the ritual ram’s horn trumpet, signify, among other things, the inarticulate cry of the soul to God.

In later times, there is a whole body of Jewish law requiring the individual to seek forgiveness from one another. This a part of the Mishneh Torah – a distillation of Jewish law based in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud – written by the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher and legal authority Maimonides. It calls for an attention to requests for forgiveness from family, friends and associates for the offenses of the past year. The body of law, lore and custom surrounding repentance, forgiveness and the Day of Atonement is immense, and has grown since the time of Maimonides.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com