About the Jewish Holidays

 

HOLIDAY HEBREW DATES ENGLISH MONTHS
Tishrei 1-2 Sep/Oct
Tishrei 10 Sep/Oct
Tishrei 15-22 Sep/Oct
Tishrei 22 Sep/Oct
Tishrei 23 Sep/Oct
Kislev 25 (8 days) Nov/Dec
Shvat 15 Jan/Feb
Adar 14 Feb/Mar
Nissan 15-22 Mar/Apr
Nissan 27 Mar/Apr
Iyar 4 Apr/May
Iyar 5 Apr/May
Iyar 18 Apr/May
Iyar 28 Apr/May
Sivan 6-7 May/Jun
Av 9 Jul/Aug

 

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Rosh Hashanah

On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the trial opens, the Judge enters and takes the bench. The evidence is reviewed. Individual Jews hasten forward to plead their cases. The liturgy attempts to capture this mood. On Rosh Hashanah, God as Creator and Ruler is the central focus of the prayer.

The divine qualities of awesomeness and judgment stand out in the human mind. By the time of Yom Kippur, the primary liturgical focus shifts to the trial itself and to God’s mercy, which more than anything else sustains people in the process of the judgment.

The liturgical highlight of Rosh Hashanah is the shofar blowing. The shofar is sounded repeatedly throughout the service, a total of one hundred blasts in the traditional synagogue. This is based on the biblical verse: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion; you shall not work. You shall observe it as a day of sounding the horn” (Numbers 29:1).

Although the Torah does not refer to Rosh Hashanah either by that name or as the Day of Judgment, it continually refers to this holiday as a day of sounding the shofar, its primary meaning seeming to be that of the coronation theme — a symbolic declaration of faith in God as Ruler of the world.

After Minchah on the second day of Rosh Hashana, the ceremony of Tashlich is performed. People go to rivers, oceans or lakes (bodies of living waters) and symbolically cast their sins into the waters. Tashlich expresses the feeling of being freed from the burden of past sins by repentance and God’s forgiveness.

One special fact should be noted about the length of Rosh Hashanah. The custom of two days’ observance goes far back in history. The second day of Rosh Hashanah, therefore, unlike other holidays, is not considered “an extra day of festival because we are in exile.” Two days are also observed in Israel. The two days are called yoma arichta, that is, “one long day.”

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Yom Kippur

The climax of the High Holy Day period arrives with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a solemn day of fasting and confession of sin. Do Jews believe in sin? Yes indeed — not in the innate sinfulness of human nature, but in the human propensity to choose wrongly, to delude even ourselves and to hurt even those we love best.

Jewish confessions, however, are communal, not private; they are liturgical staples that everyone says together, rather than personal soul-searching shared only by a single solitary soul with God. This communal confession is indicative of the communal responsibility that Judaism believes we should take for one another.

Yom Kippur is marked by twenty-four hours of prayer and fasting. Kol Nidre, along with the Shema, one of the most famous prayers in all of Judaism, opens the evening service. Kol Nidre is an ancient prayer for absolution, composed in ancient Aramaic. It asks God to release us from vows undertaken but not fulfilled. These vows refer only to our unfulfilled promises to God, not those we make to human beings. All the prayers of Yom Kippur cannot absolve us from sins against our neighbor: Only a forgiving neighbor can accomplish that.

What moves people, at any rate, is the music, not the words. People rise as all the Torah scrolls are taken from the ark, and stand throughout the prayer as the cantor chants one of the oldest of our traditional melodies. It is hard to describe the solemnity with which the people in the overflowing sanctuary listen to this tune, year after year.

Judaism stresses that prayer is not the sole avenue of God’s grace. Equally important, in God’s eyes, are deeds of love and compassion. Many Jews therefore take advantage of the day to reflect on the past year, to tell neighbors and family members that they are sorry for any hurt they may have caused them in the year past, and to resolve to live better lives in the year ahead.

The High Holy Days that begin with the anniversary of the birthday of the world remind us of our worldwide mission to be sure the earth and its inhabitants are not wiped out by the ultimate sin of turning from God and gratifying selfish whims at the expense of the very continuity of the human race. “To save one person,” says our tradition, “is to save the world; and to destroy one person is to destroy everyone.” Never has that been more true than today!

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Sukkot

Sukkot (the Festival of Tabernacles, or “Booths”) falls five days after the Day of Atonement and continues for eight days (seven for Reform Jews). In biblical days, it was the most impressive celebratory event of the entire year, far eclipsing even Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in popular stature. Nowadays, synagogues fill up on the High Holy Days but originally it was Sukkot that drew the multitudes.

First-century rabbis tell us, “Anyone who has not seen the joy of Sukkot has never seen real rejoicing!” Sukkot marked the autumn harvest and looked ahead to winter rains, without which the spring harvest would fail.

Sukkot is filled with rich and colorful symbols, most notably the sukkah itself, the booth or hut (something like a four-sided lean-to, built in suburban backyards, on apartment fire escapes, and even atop roofs!). Synagogues build communal sukkot that everyone can enjoy.

The sukkah is a deliberately improvised structure, just a few two-by-fours hammered together, with a roof of leaves, cornstalks and branches. The roof must not be solid, for those in the sukkah should be able to see the sky at all times. The interior of the sukkah is decorated with autumn fruit and vegetables, generally tied to strings and hung from the branches. During the week of Sukkot, some Jews try to eat all their meals there. Others simply spend a few minutes each day in the sukkah, usually saying some traditional prayers associated with the lulav and etrog.

The citron, known as the etrog (a fruit that is cousin to the lemon), and the lulav (a palm branch to which myrtle and willow sprigs have been attached) are two prominent symbols of the holiday. Overall, like the sukkah, they recall our dependence on nature and the foolish self-delusion that any of us is strong enough, talented enough, lucky enough or smart enough to “go it alone.”

Open to nature, surrounded on all sides by reminders of our inherent connectedness to the earth and its produce, we experience the sukkah today as a contemporary reminder of our need to protect the earth and the ecosystem on which we all depend.

An excellent article about religious observance during Sukkot can be seen in Dennis Gura’s Occasional Commentary.

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Shmini Atzeret

The eighth day of the holiday Sukkot (see previous entry) is Shmini Atzeret. Its major feature is the recitation of the prayer for rain; the holiday falls at the beginning of Israel’s rainy season.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg has called Shmini Atzeret the “Zionist holiday” because it kept alive a strong identification between world Jewry and the land of Israel.

Reciting the prayer for rain when it was needed in Israel, and not in their native lands, “was the Jews’ way of maintaining an unbroken tie, a statement that as Jews they were living on Jerusalem Standard Time, not Greenwich Meridian or Central Mountain Time.”

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Simchat Torah

Simchat Torah (celebrated in Israel on the 22nd of Tishrei together with Shmini Atzeret and everywhere else on the 23rd) is a one-day festival that is celebrated the very day after Sukkot ends and is often misunderstood as an extension of Sukkot. In reality, however, it is a festival in its own right. It marks the day when the weekly readings of the Torah are completed for one year and begun again for the next.

On Simchat Torah, the worshipers read the last chapters of the Torah’s final book (Deuteronomy) and immediately afterward, the first chapter of Genesis. Our study of Torah never ends, this ritual declares.

On the eve of Simchat Torah, an elaborate service is held. All the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark and given to members of the congregation. Everyone takes their turn carrying a scroll in a procession around the sanctuary. The entire event occurs with great singing and dancing as the people carrying the scrolls break into spontaneous dances of joy.

During the morning worship, the ceremony is repeated in a somewhat more sedate vein. All adult worshipers are given the opportunity to be called to the Torah to say the blessing over the Torah reading, and when they are through, the children are gathered together to receive a collective blessing in a memorable ambience of love and joy.

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Hanukkah

Hanukkah is a so-called “minor holiday,” falling in December. It is called “minor” not because it is not celebrated with vigor, but because it is postbiblical in origin, and because we do not cancel work obligations on account of it. The “major” Jewish holidays are like Shabbat, in that Jews are bidden to refrain from work on them. On Hanukkah, however, aside from the special practices associated with the days, we go about our regular business.

Hanukkah marks the rescue of Judaism as a faith from obliteration. Popularly known as the Feast of Lights, the word Hanukkah actually means “dedication.” It commemorates the Jewish people’s victory in the first recorded battle for religious liberty.

Hanukkah recalls the Maccabees, who in 167 BCE led a small guerrilla army of Jews against the overwhelming might of their Syrian rulers in a struggle to the death for the right to worship God in their own traditional way. It is a valiant story. But Jewish tradition was hesitant about transforming a military triumph into a religious celebration.

The Rabbis therefore preferred to emphasize the spiritual aspects of the Maccabean war. Hence the title “Hanukkah” refers to the rededication of the ancient Temple, a final spiritual act in which the victorious Jewish army cleansed the Temple of the idols with which the Syrians had stocked it while their army was occupying the Temple mount.

For similar reasons, synagogue services during Hanukkah call for a reading from the prophet Zechariah, who warns that deliverance comes “not by might, nor by power, but by [God's] spirit.” The rabbis thus commemorated the military victory by obliterating its military character. They chose not to include the account of the war in their sacred scriptures, and the tale they told each other to explain Hanukkah’s existence said simply that after the war was over, a miracle occurred — not the miraculous victory against all odds but a miracle by which the eternal light of the Temple precinct, which had been put out by the Syrians, was rekindled and remained burning for eight days, even though the oil available was sufficient only for one. Eight days later new oil arrived by messenger, and the miracle ceased. That is why Hanukkah lasts eight days and we light a candle each evening.

In ancient times, it was suggested that the order of kindling the candles be reversed: eight candles the first night, seven the second, and so forth. But the Rabbis clung to the procedure that has now become fixed; the lights increase steadily, to reflect Israel’s faith in a brighter future.

(Note: The second most popular way to spell this holiday in English is “Chanukah” — see Quick Study #1 for the poll results.)

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Tu b’Shvat

Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day, usually falls in January or February (the 15th of Shvat) and marks the tree-planting season of ancient Israel. Custom dictates that fruits distinctive to Israel be eaten, specifically the seven types of fruits and grains mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:8 (“…a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey…”)

In modern Israel, schoolchildren, each bearing a young sapling, take part in a ceremonial planting of trees. Because reforestation is an important Israeli goal, many American and European Jews observe the holiday by making contributions to the Jewish National Fund, which uses the funds to develop forests in Israel.

Based on a practice initiated by Jewish mystics in the sixteenth century, some Jews make a special Tu B’Shvat Seder modeled largely on the structure of the Passover Seder: four cups of wine, for example, are served during the meal. Thirteen biblical verses that speak of the vegetation of Israel are read, and many different foods are blessed and eaten.

Among the foods served at such a Seder are olives, dates, grapes, figs, pomegranates, apples, walnuts, carob fruit, pears, cherries, sunflower seeds and peanuts.

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Purim

Like Hanukkah, Purim celebrates deliverance from ancient foes — in this case, from the archetypal enemy of the Jewish people, Haman, a character in the biblical Book of Esther.

According to the story, Haman, who controls the government under the Persian king, Ahasuerus, becomes fanatically angry when a Jew named Mordecai refuses to bow down to him. He therefore plots to kill all the Jews in the empire. Meanwhile, Mordecai’s cousin, Esther, has joined the king’s harem as his latest wife. In the end, Esther convinces the king that Haman, not Mordecai, is the enemy, and the Jews are saved.

The date that Haman was to destroy the Jews had been arrived at by drawing lots — in Hebrew, purim — hence the name of the holiday.

The main religious event of the day is a communal reading of the Purim story from a scroll (in Hebrew a Megillah). If Hanukkah is a time for family warmth and home celebration, Purim is a wild and public display of unrestricted joy, highlighted by carnivals and nonsense. In rabbinic seminaries, students devote the day to spoofs on their professors.

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Passover

The story of the first Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) dominates Exodus, the second book of the Torah. Pharaoh enslaved Jacob’s descendants, who were living in Egypt, and attempted to murder all male infants born to them. One of the Hebrew babies, Moses, was saved by Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him.

When Moses grew up, he saw an Egyptian overseer mercilessly whipping a Hebrew slave. He killed the overseer. Pharaoh, hearing what Moses had done, sought to kill him, and Moses was forced to flee Egypt.

Many years later, God summoned Moses from his exile in Midian to liberate the Egyptian Jews from slavery. When Pharaoh resisted Moses’ entreaties to free the Hebrews, God afflicted Egypt with Ten Plagues, the last of which was by far the most devastating: The firstborn son in every Egyptian family died, perhaps in retailiation for the earlier murder of the Hebrew infants.

The day before the killing of the firstborn, Moses instructed the Israelites to slaughter a lamb (an animal that was also an Egyptian deity), and to sprinkle some of its blood on their doorposts. Thus, when the Angel of Death saw the blood, he would know that the house was occupied by an Israelite and would pass over the home when he came to slay the firstborn.

After the ten plagues began, Pharaoh became terrified and announced that the Hebrews were free to leave. They fled Egypt so quickly that the dough they had started to prepare for bread did not have sufficient time to rise. As a result, the slaves departed from Egypt with the flat bread that became known as matzah. Since that first Passover, Jews commemorate the holiday by eating matzah, which symbolizes, among other things, that it is better to live in freedom and eat poor food than to remain in slavery and eat well.

Bread products (in Hebrew chometz) are forbidden during all eight days of the holiday (seven days in Israel) and all chometz is removed from the home or sold to non-Jews for a nominal price (because owning chometz during Passover is forbidden).

On the last night before the holiday, a ceremony called bedikat chometz, intended to arouse the curiosity of children, takes place to rid the home of all chometz. The father of the home strategically places ten small pieces of bread in different rooms, the lights are dimmed and every family member is given a lighted candle or flashlight to search with. After all the pieces are found, they are placed in a bag and burned the following morning.

Passover is the most widely observed Jewish holiday. It celebrates not only God’s freeing the Jewish slaves from Egyptian slavery, but the beginning of Jewish nationhood as well.

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Shoah

Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom ha-Shoah) is so recent an observance that it still has no set rituals. Only in Israel is there a uniformly observed practice: the sounding of sirens for two minutes throughout the country at eleven a.m. All people stop whatever they are doing and stand at attention. Highway traffic pulls over to the side of the road as the sirens begin; drivers park and exit their cars. As deeply moving as this observance is, no doubt other, more spiritual practices will develop in the future to commemorate Yom ha-Shoah.

One problem with establishing rituals for Yom ha-Shoah is that the Holocaust’s horror overwhelms the religious imagination. What ritual can adequately convey Auschwitz, and what the Nazis did there?

It’s observed on the 27th day of Nissan, which usually falls between mid-April and early May. This date was officially designated by the Israeli Knesset, although the Israeli rabbinate had lobbied for the tenth of Tevet, one of the four minor fast days in the Jewish calendar. The tenth of Tevet commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and the rabbinate felt it should commemorate the Holocaust as well. Many survivors and other Jews opposed this date, feeling strongly that the Holocaust was so momentous that it deserved its own commemoration.

Some secular Israelis also opposed the twenty-seventh of Nissan. In their opinion, only one day could adequately commemorate the Holocaust: April 19, 1943, which is when the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto launched their remarkable revolt against the Nazis. The suggestion was a sensible one, and it accorded with the official name the holiday was given in Israel, Yom ha-Shoah ve-ha-Gevurah (The Memorial Day for the Holocaust and for Acts of Courage). However, April 19, 1943, was also the fifteenth of Nissan, the first day of Passover. This was no coincidence: the Nazis wanted to destroy the Warsaw Ghetto on one of the most joyous of Jewish holidays.

As a compromise, the 27th of Nissan was chosen, a date that commemorates no particular Holocaust event. However, it does fall within the time span during which the Warsaw Ghetto uprising was fought, and occurs precisely one week before Israeli Independence Day. The government wanted to underscore the connection between the murder of six million and the creation, three years after the end of the war, of the Jewish state.

That Yom ha-Shoah will become a permanent part of the Jewish calendar now seems certain. That it will be widely observed will largely be a function of developing rituals and liturgy that succeed in symbolically expressing some of the horrors and pain of the Holocaust. By the year 2015, there will be very few concentration camp survivors still alive.

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Yom ha-Zikaron

The day before Yom ha-Atzma’ut is as somber as Yom ha-Atzma’ut is happy. It is called Yom ha-Zikaron, a day of remembrance for the approximately fourteen thousand Israelis killed in the Israeli-Arab wars. At eleven a.m. on Yom ha-Zikaron, all of Israel comes to a stop — all traffic, business, and conversation ceases for two minutes of silence.

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Yom ha’Atzma’ut

Israeli Independence Day (Yom ha-Atzma’ut) is observed not only by Israelis but also by many Diaspora Jews. The day commemorates the declaration of Israeli statehood on May 14, 1948, the fifth of Iyar in the Jewish calendar. Yom ha-Atzma’ut is always celebrated on its Hebrew date.

In Israel the holiday is sometimes commemorated with a military parade, and always with partying. Among religious Jews, special prayers are recited, most notably Hallel, which is otherwise recited only on religiously mandated holidays. Some Orthodox Jews, whose feelings about Zionism are neutral or negative, have condemned the practice of treating Yom ha-Atzma’ut as a religious holiday. It is said that the noted Israeli rabbi Joseph Kahaneman was once asked if he said Hallel on Israeli Independence Day. The sharp-witted rabbi responded: “I act the same way as the (non-religious) prime minister David Ben-Gurion. He doesn’t say Hallel, and I don’t say Hallel.”

In New York, Los Angeles and many other centers of Jewish life in the United States, large celebrations and marches are arranged on the Sunday that falls closest to Yom ha-Atzma’ut.

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Lag Ba’Omer

The origins of the happy holiday of Lag Ba’Omer are shrouded in mystery. To this day, no Jewish scholar can state with certainty exactly what Lag Ba’Omer celebrates.

The ancient rabbis speak somewhat obscurely of the cessation of a terrible plague that raged among Rabbi Akiva’s students on Lag Ba’Omer. but what sort of plague? If it was a physical illness, why did it apparently strike only talmudic scholars, and not the populace at large?

Most modern scholars assume that the plague referred to was not an illness. The second-century rabbi Akiva was a fervent supporter of Simon Bar-Kokhba’s rebellion against Rome. Moreover, he declared Bar-Kokhba the Messiah who would liberate the Jews from Roman domination. Although Bar-Kokhba did achieve some early military successes, eventually the Romans suppressed his revolt with incredible brutality.

Among Bar-Kokhba’s leading soldiers were, not surprisingly, thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students. Thus, it is likely that Lag Ba’Omer was a day on which the Jews either achieved a victory over the Romans or gained some respite from the slaughter.

The traditional observance of the holiday suggests some military origin: Children are taken to the park or countryside, where they often play games with bows and arrows.

The first word of the holiday’s name, Lag, is simply a combination of two Hebrew letters, lamed which stands for the number thirty, and gimmel which stands for the number three. Lag Ba’Omer is so named because it falls on the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer.

For many adult Jews, the primary association with Lag Ba’Omer is romantic. The seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, the period in which Jews count the Omer, are regarded in Jewish law as a period of semimourning during which no marriages are to be performed. But because of Lag Ba’Omer’s happy associations, the rabbis made an exception for this day.

Nowadays, most religious Jews who are also Zionists also celebrate weddings on two other new Jewish holidays that fall during the period of the Omer: Israel Independence Day (Yom ha-Atz’ma’ut) and Jerusalem Day (Yom Yerushalayim). Marriages are also permitted on the last days before Shavuot.

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Yom Yerushalayim

“Yom Yerushalayim” (or Jerusalem Day) commemorates the re-unification of Jerusalem on June 5, 1967 — Iyar 28 on the Hebrew calendar — during the Six Day War.

The city had previously been left divided between Israeli and Jordanian rule following cease-fire lines in the aftermath of the War of Independence in 1948.

This event was a watershed in Jewish history, as a 2000-year old dream was fulfilled and the Temple Mount, including the remnant of the Temple, the retaining Western (or Wailing) Wall was returned to Jewish sovereignty.

Click to read an article on Why Jerusalem Matters at Aish.com.

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Shavuot

Shavuot is the Festival of Weeks, a name derived from the fact that the date of Shavuot is determined by counting seven weeks from the Feast of Passover. If you count the day on each end of the sequence, you get fifty days; hence, Shavuot is also known as Pentecost, from the Greek word “pentecoste” meaning fiftieth. Unlike Sukkot and Passover, it is observed for only two days.

Originally Shavuot was an agricultural festival. The barley harvest that had ripened around Passover would have ended, but the wheat harvest would have just begun. When the Temple still stood, Jews celebrated the harvest by offering its first sheaves back to God. But celebrating the harvest was only one layer of meaning for Shavuot. Over the years, it was endowed with another: the anniversary of the giving of the Torah.

The Book of Exodus is read on Shavuot, including the chapter containing the Ten Commandments. The general theme of the day is our traditional love of learning. The Book of Ruth, the story of a Moabite woman’s devotion to her adopted Jewish faith, is also featured.

Unlike Sukkot and Passover, Shavuot has no colorful home ceremony that attracts attention: we build no sukkah and hold no seder. Nonetheless, Shavuot is not without its own attractiveness. In many circles, it is celebrated by a marathon study session from dusk to dawn. Those who can manage stay awake all night long as people take turns leading a discussion of Jewish texts.

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Tisha b’Av

A three-week period of mourning is observed every summer in commemoration of the destruction of the Second Temple, which occurred in 70 C.E.

The season is climaxed by the fast day called the Ninth of Av (the Hebrew date), or Tisha b’Av in Hebrew.

Special synagogue services that day feature the chanting of the Book of Lamentations in a plaintive minor key. The same sad melody is used in the services on the Sabbath preceding the fast. The following Sabbath is called the Sabbath of Consolation.

The synagogue is often decorated in white and the congregation reads the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, where God instructs the prophet, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” It is customary not to greet friends and acquaintances on Tisha B’Av, so don’t be offended if you go to services and are not warmly welcomed.