December 15, 2011
Scott-Martin Kosofsky —
Legends to Live By

Could a Yiddish text from the Middle Ages serve as a guide to living now? Book composer and typographer Scott-Martin Kosofsky revives unlikely sources of "customs" for leading a modern life and marking sacred time. For Hanukkah and all the seasons upon us.

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is a book composer, typographer, and author of The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year.

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Do Christmas ham and potato latkes go together? Can Santa visit as well as Judah Maccabee?" ˜guest contributor Adena Cohen-Bearak reflects on reconciling Chanukah and Christmas.

SoundSeen (our multimedia stories)

Illustrating Jewish Life

See a slideshow of woodcut images included in Kosofsky's Book of Customs.

1879 Newspaper Advertisment for Hanukkah-Related Event

Read and view a copy of the newspaper advertisement by the Young Men's Hebrew Association.

Title Page of 1593 Venetian Edition of the Sefer Minhagim

View a copy of the title page of a 1593 Venetian edition and its 2004 American equivalent.

About the Image

"It's beginning to look like Hanukkah."

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I enjoyed hearing the story quite a bit. Occasionally I was a little surprised that some of the holidays mentioned were deemed obscure. Any children's book of Jewish Holidays published in the US in the past 70 years would have as much info if not more as given in the talk. And the Sefer Minhagim woodcuts often relate to local folkways and customs more than to general customs - (eating apples with honey is widespread on rosh hashanah, haroset differs from place to place but is basically the same- fruit nuts spices drawn from the Song of Songs among other places). sefer minhagim woodcuts will show a man looking at his shadow (headless) shadow for Hoshana Rabba - the seventh day of Sukkot where the Ashkenazi superstition/folkway teaches thatif one sees his or or shadow headless on that day, it means that one will day in the coming year (last day for repentnence in the "Book of life" scenario whose highlight is Yom Kippur).

It was interesting to hear the discusssin of the luni-solar Jewish calendar. It should be noted that the leap month occurs in the spring, and so Hanukkah always begins 60 or 61 days after the end of Sukkot = Simchat Torah where the reading of the Torah begins again.Since Hanukkah is eight days long, occasionally the first and last days will coincide with Shabbat. BUT - the portions read on the Sabbaths of Hanukkah are NEVER the story of Isaac. USUALLY, the reading for the Sabbath of Hanukkah is MIKETZ, in Genesis and this section begins with Joseph in prison in Egypt and Pharaoh is dreaming about the seven cows. Rarely (in 2000, 2020) the reading will be the previous portion, VAYESHEV, which starts with Joseph's story and his recounting the dream of the sun,moon and 11 stars, and the dream of the sheaves of grain bowing to him. And when Hanukkah covers two Sabbaths, Vayeshev is the first sabbath, and Miketz is the second.

As for the idea of prayer replacing sacrifices, this is a Rabbinic dictum in as orthodox a circle as you can find and goes back before the destruction of the Second Temple (an aside, the First Temple was not traditionally destroyed on the Ninth of Av but on the Seventh. The destruction of the Second was on the Ninth and so the tradition combined the commemoration - [2 Kings 25:8 for the first, but the text says it took three days aloowing the combination]). There are verses in Hosea and Isaiah which are the basis for the idea that prayer is a valid substitute for sacrifices (not only animal but grain/flour as well) - Hosea 14:2, and we will fulfill/pay the BULLS of our lips (Vulgate has calves, Hebrew has bulls). this is taken as an equivalency. As well, Isaiah, 56:7 - "Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of PRAYER: their BURNT OFFERINGS and their SACRIFICES shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of PRAYER for all people." (AV)

The idea of animal and grain sacrifices makes sense when wealth is pastoral and agricultural - just look at our word "PECUNIARY" for an example. And for me personally, the image of the sacrifices can be helpful as a meditative focus. After all, in our country on thanksgiving we slaughter millions of birds - two sheep a day for an entire nation isn't much, esp as many of the sacrifices were the sole source of meat for the landless priestly class.

The sentiment and value we give to animal life doesn't make us more ethical in our dealings with other human beings - after all many cultures highly esteem vegetarianism and have also engendered massacres and oppresion of members of their own societies and societies which they've invaded. And the Jewish tradition teaches that the Egyptians in Pharaonic Egypt also held some animals to be totemic or sacred and looked down on herding peoples, such as the Israelites. Ibn Ezra, the 11th c commentator likens them to "Great India" where he had been told kine were esteemed. See - Genesis 43:32 (most commentaries), Exodus 8:25-27. The Egyptians viewed eating with the Hebrews (who were pastoral and thus slaughtered rams and bulls) as abominable, much like traditional Japaense with those who worked in leather, the E-Ta or Buraku-min.

In any case, it was a wonderful show and gave me much to think about. Thanks very much to Krista and all her guests.

There have been two Jewish liturgical books whose design -- beyond their contents -- I have found to be very moving, The Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook and the new Mahzor Lev Shalem. It never occurred to me that they were designed by the same person, nor that I would "meet" this person. But now that I have, I understand why I would be touched by his work.

Thank you for putting together these presentations. The presentations are very helpful in my understanding the Jewish culture.

That's funny! I was always the same way and didn't undesrtand why my sister's best friend got 7 days of gifts! My mom always tried to tell us that if you added up all of her gifts and our gifts it would be the same and that she wasn't at an advantage. And then of course she would go into an explanation of Christmas not being about gifts...but at that age I didn't really undesrtand. We celebrate with a big family party Christmas Eve and then Christmas morning with just our immediate family. We used to go have a big lunch on Christmas afternoon but that has stopped in the last few years.