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Jewish Festivals in Iran
Encyclopedia Iranica

Most Jewish festivals are associated with nature and agriculture. The Jews of Persia celebrate all the usual festivals observed by the Jews worldwide. In addition, Persian Jews celebrate Persian national festivals, such as Nowrūz. The differences in the way these festivals are celebrated by Persian Jews are minimal; it is likely that there were some such differences in the past, but they have not yet been properly studied. The differences noted in this article are mostly taken from a book written by the teacher and educator Ḥanīna Mīzraḥī, who was born in Tehran in 1886, emigrated to Palestine in 1895, and died in Jerusalem in 1974. These differences in custom seem to have survived to the middle of the present century. As a result of improvements in global communication, Jewish emigration to Israel from 1948 onward, and the exodus of three-quarters of the 80,000 Persian Jews to Europe and the United States in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Persia, these differences have become blurred, and nowadays Persian Jews celebrate the major and minor festivals in the same way as their co-religionists throughout the world. A brief description of the festivals observed by Persian Jews is given below, with additional details in the bibliography at the end of the article.

Rosh ha-Shanah, which usually falls in September, is not mentioned in the Pentateuch, but in Leviticus 23:23-35 the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei) is singled out as a special day that occurs after the harvest. It is clear that this is the agricultural New Year, since the Pentateuch explicitly states that the month of Nisan is actually the beginning of the year (Exodus 12:2). Rosh ha-Shanah is observed on the first and second days of Tishrei, on which days no work is done. It is the custom to gather near a river, the sea, a well, or some other stretch of water in order to perforFEREŠTA, TĀRĪḴ-Em the rite tashlikh, casting away sins, in accordance with Micah 7:19. There is no mention of the custom of tashlikh in the Talmud. Persian Jews dress up in white to assemble in the synagogue for the holiday prayers. They bless each other with the words “May you reach a hundred good years” (ad sāl be-sālhā-ye ūb berasīd). They also gather in private homes in order to pray for the illumination of the souls of the dead. On the eve of the holiday, it is customary to eat an apple dipped in honey, beet, dates, black-eyed beans, pomegranates, squash, fish, and a dish made from sheep’s head and trotters, called in Persian kalla pāča. Because of the potential threat posed by the non-Jewish population, Persian Jews did not perform tashlikh outdoors,by a river or the sea. They used to carry out the rite at home, next to the well in the courtyard, or by the well in the synagogue courtyard.

Yom ha-Kippurim, the Day of Atonement, falls on the tenth day of the month Tishrei (September/October), and marks the reconciliation of man with God. The ten days from the first to the tenth of Tishrei are called the “Ten Days of Penitence,” and Yom ha-Kippurim is thus the most important Jewish festival. On this day, God forgives all one’s sins, though wrongs between human beings themselves cannot be forgiven until the sinner appeases and recompenses the person sinned against (Mishnah Yoma 8:9). The Pentateuch has very little to say about this day (Leviticus 16:29-34). Some hours before the beginning of Yom ha-Kippurim, Persian Jews used to slaughter a chicken as atonement for their sins. The head of the family first swung the chicken around his head, and then around the heads of all the members of his family, and said three times: “This is my substitute, this is my replacement, this is my atonement.” Two chickens were slaughtered for a pregnant woman, since the sex of the child was not yet known. The feathers were kept and used to stuff cushions; the wings and legs were given to the poor, and the remnants used to prepare a meal for the eve of Yom ha-Kippurim.

The custom of using chicken as atonement probably came from the Jewish community of Babylon. Some medieval authorities, such as Joseph Caro, the Ramban (Nachmanides) and the Rashba condemned the custom. After this, the fast began, lasting for about 25 hours. At the close of Yom ha-Kippurim, people used to bless each other with the words: “taʿnīt wa tešūvā-ye šomā qabūl.” (“May your fasting and your repentance be accepted.”) Sukkot (“booths” or “tabernacles”) falls on the 15th Tishrei and continues for seven days (September/October); it is primarily associated with the harvest. Work is prohibited on the first day in the Land of Israel, and on the first two days in the Diaspora. The Pentateuch gives no details of the customs associated with this festival (Leviticus 23:33-35, 42,43). As described in Deuteronomy (16:13-14), this festival was meant to be a joyous occasion for everyone. Feasting and carousing filled the Israelites’ houses, and even the Temple. Apparently the celebrations and wine-drinking during this festival were carried to such lengths that they incurred the wrath of the prophets.

The prophets Isaiah and Amos seem to refer to the revels in the Temple on Sukkot. The prophet Isaiah complains: “But they have also erred through wine, and through strong drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink” (Isaiah 28:7). These are the words of Amos: “I hate, I despise feast days, and I will not smell the sacrifices of your solemn assemblies… Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not bear the melody of thy viols” (Amos 5:21-23).

The day after Sukkot, i.e., the eighth day (the ninth day in the Diaspora), is Shemini ʿAtzeret “the eighth day of solemn assembly.” This day is also called Simḥat Torah, “Rejoicing over the Law,” since the cycle of reading the Pentateuch in the synagogue is completed on this day. Afterwards, all the Scrolls of the Torah are taken out and the worshippers dance and sing with them in the streets. The Jews of Persia did not observe the customs associated with this festival very strictly—sitting in the sukka or booth, waving the four species (except for the etrog), which consist of the etrog (citron), hadasim (myrtle twigs), lulav (palm branch) and ʿaravot (willow twigs); nor did they dance and rejoice with the Torah Scrolls in the streets, thus avoiding possible tension with their non-Jewish neighbors.

anukkah (“dedication,” an abbreviation of the phrase anukkat ha-mizbea “dedication of the altar,” as described in 1 Maccabees 4:45) is not mentioned in the Bible; it is celebrated for eight days, starting 25th Kislev (December/January). Tradition connects the festival to Hasmonaean Judah the Maccabee, and to the Jews’ victory over the Greeks in the second century B.C.E. The Maccabees subsequently entered the Temple and purified it (2 Maccabees 1:8; 10:1-5). The custom of kindling lights is not mentioned in these sources, but it is recorded in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities (12:325) and in the Scroll of Antiochus. The rabbinic sages ordained that the lights should be placed near a window or in some easily visible place. However, this was not always feasible: the Talmud tractate Shabbat 45a records the fear felt by the Jews when lighting the Hanukkah lights because of potential Zoroastrian animosity.

In this century, with the spread of the Zionist movement in Persia under the generally tolerant policy of the Pahlavis towards religious minorities, the festival became more popular among Persian Jews. That they were conscious of Ḥanukkah in earlier times is proved by the discovery of a tafsīr poem on the Scroll of Antiochus, known in Judeo-Persian as the Ḥanukā-nāma, by ʿEmrānī(q.v.; 15th-16th centuries) and a second poem called Antīyoḵus-nāma by Yūsof ben Esḥāq ben Mūsā (composed in 1688). No details of Ḥanukkah celebrations are known, however. According to Mīzraḥī (pp. 56-59), the poor among the Jews used to go out with a brazier full of glowing charcoal to the houses of the rich; there they would throw esfand (q.v.; wild rue) on the embers, blessing their rich neighbors and receiving in return gifts and donations of money. The children sang popular songs in the local dialect, asking that the evil eye stay away from their benefactors.


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