June 20th marks the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. For most of us this is a day like any other early summer day. We spend it on vacation or at camp, or maybe we take advantage of the extra sunlight by spending time outside enjoying Milwaukee’s beautiful weather and picturesque parks. While some religious traditions mark this day with holiday and festivity, for Jews this is one of the few months, and few seasons without a single festival.
This does not mean, however, that our tradition has nothing to say about the summer solstice. According to Rabbi Jill Hammer, during the Middle Ages Jewish communities feared that water might be impacted by the “eerie power of the day.” According to the book of Jubilees (3:23, 6:26) God expelled Eve and Adam from the Garden of Eden, animals lost the ability to speak, and this was also the day that the 40 days of rain that destroyed the world (except Noah’s friends and family on the ark) finally ended. Other midrashim teach that, on summer solstice animals are protected from predators (Otzar haMidrashim, Hashem beChachmah Yasad Aretz 6), we don’t have shadows (Genesis Rabbah 6:6), and that this was the day Moses struck the rock to make water flow for the people (Machzor Vitry). For some modern Jews the summer solstice has become associated with Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, a month associated with mourning the loss of the ancient Temple. For others summer solstice has become associated with the harshness of summer in Israel and the vulnerability it creates for people.
In so many ways summer solstice is a day of opposites. At once it marks a day of loss and sadness in our tradition, and as well as our loving relationship with God, it recalls gifts God gives through nature as well as the harshness of nature. It is the day with the most light, yet also marks the end of the period of lengthening days and the point when days will begin to get shorter. A quick google search can turn up a variety of modern Jewish rituals to acknowledge these connections and associations and help people to make the day special. My favorites can be found at the websites I’ve quoted from ritualwell.org.
Whether you choose to mark the day ritual, or live it like any other, I hope the longest day of the year greets you with health, happiness and joy.