Days of Change: Solstices and Equinoxes (Jill Hammer)

The equinoxes and solstices, in Jewish tradition, have been regarded as times of danger, each associated with a frightening and undesirable event.

Autumn Equinox: the time when Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac at Godís
command.

Winter Solstice: the time when Jephthah, a war chieftain, sacrificed his
daughter to God because of a vow he made.
According to legend, women mourned her on this day.

Spring Equinox: the time God turned the Nile to blood as a plague upon
Egypt.

Summer Solstice: the time that Moses struck a rock harshly while seeking
water, and incurred the Divine decree that he never enter
the Promised Land.


There is a tradition (Machzor Vitry, Ginzei Yerushalayim) not to draw water on these days because the water contains a drop of poisonous blood on those days, corresponding to the violence of the four events. In this view, the solstices and equinoxes are moments of frightening transition, when the angel of one season gives way to the angel of another season, leaving the world unprotected for a moment. One way to understand this is that these moments are moments of change from one mode to another.

At the autumn equinox, near Rosh haShanah, we travel inward, into the spirit world or underworld, examining and refining ourselves.

At the winter solstice, near Chanukah, we travel toward light, seeking strength, rebirth, illumination and direction.

At the spring equinox, near Passover, we travel outward, striving for new activity and effectiveness in the world.

At the summer solstice, near the days that commemorate the Templeís destruction, we travel toward darkness, probing our losses and broken places.

At these moments, our angels change. The world around us takes on a new appearance, and we can turn to new things, moving away from useless patterns and harmful behaviors. We move away from the fruitless anger of Moses, the unfeeling actions of Jephthah, the paralysis of Isaac on the altar, and the cruelty of the Egyptians. This is the Jewish practice of teshuvah, or return to the right path. Teshuvah can be gradual, steady work over time, or it can be shocking, all-at-once. The stories of violence and danger associated with these seasonal moments join, perhaps, to tell a story of how painful it is to change, yet how the changing seasons teach us that we must.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is a poet, author, ritual-maker, and editor. She is senior associate at Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Project, where she serves as editor of Journey and as a teacher of text and ritual.

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