6. Next year in Jerusalem
The three pilgrimage festivals
Tableau pour marquer l'est (mizrah), Europe orientale, 2e moitié du XIXe siècle
The Bible recommends that Hebrews go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year. At Passover at the beginning of spring, at Pentecost in early summer, and for the Feast of Tabernacles in early autumn, adult men went to Jerusalem from all the cities of Israel and the diaspora to make sacrifices, offerings and rejoice.
According to tradition, Passover (Pessah) celebrates the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. On the eve of their departure, they sacrificed a lamb and ate it with bitter herbs. They daubed the lintel and doorposts of their houses with lamb’s blood to protect their families from the plague killing all Egyptian firstborn children. Then, led by Moses, they fled, taking with them loaves whose dough had not had time to rise.
Passover begins on the fifteenth day of the month of Nissan and lasts seven days. On the eve of the first day, the Jewish family gathers for a ritual meal, the seder, involving the retelling of the story of the exodus from Egypt (Haggadah). Bitter herbs are eaten in memory of the misery and hardship of slavery, and throughout the festival only unleavened bread (matzah) and food containing no yeast is eaten. Passover also marks the beginning of spring and is celebrated by seasonal festivities.
On the sixth day of the month of Sivan, marking the conclusion of a seven-week period, the Feast of Weeks (Shavu’ot) commemorates the divine revelation on Mount Sinai and the giving of the Law (Matan Torah) to Moses. Night time is devoted to the study of the Torah, and the next day the Ten Commandments (‘Asseret ha-Dibrot) are read in the synagogue decorated with flowers. Passover is also the wheat harvest festival, celebrated in Israel by rustic processions recalling those of the ancient Israelites, who went to Jerusalem to offer the first fruits of their harvests to the Temple.
The Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkot, celebrated from the fifteenth day of Tishri – the first month of the Jewish year – lasts a week. It recalls the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert after their flight from Egypt, before they reached the Promised Land. Makeshift walled structures are constructed in courtyards, on balconies and terraces. The roof of these temporary huts is made of foliage through which one can see the stars. Meals are eaten in the shelter at least once a day in an atmosphere evoking the precariousness of human existence. In the synagogue, the congregation waves bunches composed of four plant species (arba’ah minim): a palm branch (lulav), three branches of myrtle (hadass), two willow branches (‘aravah) and the fruit of the citron tree (etrog). The bunch is waved towards the four cardinal points successively. On the seventh day of the festival, Hoshana Rabbah, the bunch of the four species is replaced by willow branches, and worshippers form processions and beat them on the ground. On the eighth day, the Rejoicing of the Torah (Simhat Torah), concludes the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah and begins the next. All the Torah scrolls are taken from the Ark and carried seven times around the platform (bimah) by the congregation.
Cabane rituelle (soukkah), Autriche ou Allemagne, fin 19e siècle
Around 1000 BC, King David, intent on maintaining the unity of the twelve Israelite tribes under his rule, established his capital in a small autonomous city in the Judean Mountains, where he moved the Ark of the Covenant (literally “Ark of the Testimony”), containing the Tables of the Law (Luhot ha-Brit, literally “Tablets of the Covenant”). His successor, King Solomon, built a temple that sealed the alliance between Jerusalem and God. Destroyed first by the Babylonians in 585 BC, the city was rebuilt by the priest Ezra and Nehemiah, the governor sent to reform Judea by Artaxerxes II of Persia, in the first half of the 4th century BC. Later, King Herod (40-3 BC) rebuilt the temple, making it one of the splendors of the ancient world. Jerusalem became a hallowed place for sacrifices and pilgrimages, a spiritual center where men came to discuss God and his Law and seek the salvation of humanity. But when the city was destroyed again by the Romans in 70 AD, its defenders were expelled from their homeland. From then on, these exiled Jews nurtured their dream of recreating their city, creating in their collective and individual memories the image of a heavenly Jerusalem, and hoping for its realisation in the earthly Jerusalem. They came to regard it as the navel of the world, destined to welcome the Messiah and become a “city of justice,” “city of beauty,” city of truth” and “city of God.”
In their houses and synagogues, the Jews indicate the direction of Jerusalem and face it when they pray. In their prayers they pray for its reconstruction, tirelessly repeating the famous verse from Psalms: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill” (137: 5). They fast for at least three days yearly in mourning and never conclude the Passover ceremony and the service on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) without saying: “Next year in Jerusalem.” For centuries, whenever possible, they chose to die in Jerusalem so as to buried on the Mount of Olives, at the foot of which the dead are resurrected and towards which all the nations of the world converge.