According to Raphael, two themes underlie the Jewish holidays. The first is nationalism, which focuses on Jerusalem and the Temple. The other theme relates to the cycle of nature, reflected most obviously in the pilgrim festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles but also in the Jewish New Year, Chanukah, even in the minor celebration of Tu B’Shvat, Hebrew Arbor Day.
The first section of Raphael’s book examines the festivals in general terms. The second section considers the specific characteristics of the various celebrations. Both parts draw fascinating parallels between Hebrew practices and those of neighboring cults. Mesopotamian moon worship may have been the source of Hebrew celebration of the New Moon. The story of Purim, with the victory of Mordecai and Ester over Haman and his family, perhaps derives from the Babylonian account of the triumph of the gods Mordik and Ishtar over their rivals Hamman and Kisrisha.
Raphael notes how pagan rituals and beliefs were transformed by Judaism. Rosh Hashanah, the Hebrew New Year, comes at the end of the dry season in Israel and has been celebrated in ancient Canaan as marking the defeat of destructive deities. Judaism changed the occasion into one of introspection and personal purification. Raphael also notes how religious practices have evolved over the centuries. He concludes his volume with a short anthology of literary responses to the holidays.
Because Raphael offers so many riches in little room, he oversimplifies or merely alludes to matters that one wishes were discussed in greater detail. (The volume has a misprint on page 42, where the date of Caligula’s assassination should read 41 C.E., not 61 C.E.) He does whet the appetite, though, and he offers a fine introduction for anyone seeking an overview of Judaism.