Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Festival of Tabernacles

In early November 1837, Rebecca wrote to her sister-in-law Maria Gratz in Kentucky about the Festival of Tabernacles (in Hebrew, Sukkot), the Jewish holiday of thanksgiving for the harvest which takes place in September or October each year:

"I am glad you...kept the Tabernacle celebration, in scenes so naturally appropriate to the season. For my own part I was only once under the shelter of its roof [Rebecca was ill during the festival], and partook no further of the feast spread before me than a little bread and salt tho' I enjoyed the sight of goodly fruit and wine distributed in plenty and listened to a hymn of thanksgiving...we were permitted to meet at the sanctification of this festival & view the emblems of former rejoicing. The palm and branches of goodly trees, mentioned in scripture as taken by the youths and damsels as they went out after the ingathering of the blessings of the year, to dwell in booths and rejoice before the Lord, has always had a great charm in my imagination. I like the idea of cheerful gratitude and combining religious worship with heartfelt thankfulness in scenes where they had just reaped the benefits of their labor -- and praying that God would enable them to use his gifts for their good and the benefit of the poor -- this is making religion one of our daily duties -- a habit of our lives..."

Besides giving us Rebecca's meditation on Sukkot and the place of religion in her life, this passage reveals that her brother Ben and his family observed the holiday in Kentucky. In 1819, when Ben married Maria Cecil Gist, a non-Jew, the couple decided that each would keep his/her own religion although the children would be brought up Episcopalian. Nearly twenty years into their marriage, we find what seems to be a modern and ongoing arrangement in which the family observed the Jewish holidays as well as the Christian ones. Rebecca had been initially hesitant about Ben and Maria's decision, but in 1825, she was able to write to Ben: "I love your dear Maria, and admire the forbearance which leaves unmolested the religious opinions she knows are sacred in your estimation. May you both continue to worship according to the dictates of your conscience and your orisons be equally acceptable at the throne of Grace...."

(Both letters are from Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by Rabbi David Philipson.)

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