Jewish Holy Days
Jewish celebrations are not limited to life-cycle events.
As do all religions, Judaism sets aside certain holidays and days of
remembrance as holy days. These holy days are scheduled according to the
The Jewish calendar is not based on the earth's revolutions around the
sun, as the secular calendar is. Instead, the Jewish calendar is made up
of moon cycles, each month beginning with the time of the new moon. Jewish
holidays fall each year on different dates according to the secular
calendar, but on the same date according to the Jewish calendar. Generally
speaking, however, Jewish holidays always fall in the same season each
year. (Because it is a modified lunar calendar, the Jewish calendar is
often in need of adjustment to match the solar year. Just as the secular
calendar is adjusted once in four years by adding an additional day, the
Jewish calendar adds an additional month every third or fourth year.)
THE HIGH HOLY DAYS
The Jewish year begins in the fall with the celebration of the High Holy
Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah ("Head of the Year")
is the official Jewish New Year's Day, on which Jews look back over the
year just passed and forward to the year about to come. The blowing of a
ram's horn in the synagogue or temple announces the coming of the new year
in a memorable way. This ram's horn is called a shofar. The shofar
used in ancient times as a call to battle against the enemy. Used in the
synagogue today, it calls Jews to battle against evil.
Jews believe that, during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,
God judges each person's deeds, deciding who shall live and who shall die
in the year to come. Therefore, Jews pray fervently, fasting for the
entire day of Yom Kippur, the "Day of Atonement." This day is devoted to
praying for forgiveness for any sins which a Jew may have committed, or
which the community may have committed. As the day comes to an end, the shofar
is again sounded -- in one long, clear blast. Then with a feeling of
having a slate wiped clean and a fresh beginning, Jews enter into the new
Five days after Yom Kippur comes the weeklong Festival of Booths,
Sukkot. On Sukkot traditional Jews each build a small open-roofed
booth-like building in which they may take their meals or even sleep. The
roof of this “booth” (Hebrew: sukkah) is covered with green
branches taken from trees and shrubs. The leafy covering does not
completely cover the booth in order that the stars may be seen at night.
The sukkah is said to be a reminder of the way in which the ancient
Israelites lived as they crossed the wilderness under the leadership of
Moses. (More likely, though, the Children of Israel used tents rather than
booths in the wilderness.)
Before the Romans destroyed the Temple and scattered the Jews, Sukkot
was the most important Jewish festival, outstripping even Passover and the
High Holy Days. It was called, HeHag, "The Holiday." During Sukkot,
farmers and shepherds from every part of the country brought sacrificial
offerings to the Temple in the hopes that God would bless them with
abundant rain throughout the growing season. Their journey was commanded
in the Torah, where Sukkot is listed as the first of the three "Pilgrimage
Holidays" -- Passover and Shavuot being the other special occasions for
bringing sacrifices to the Temple. On Sukkot, in particular, Jerusalem was
so overcrowded with pilgrims that temporary wooden housing was erected on
every rooftop, in every alley, along every street, and on every adjoining
hill. It is probably to commemorate this use of "booths" that Jews
everywhere began to build a family sukkah in which to celebrate the
A blessing is recited on this holiday when the lulav (branches
of palm, willow, and myrtle) and etrog (a citron fruit), symbols of
the agricultural variety of the Promised Land, are waved. These reminders
of nature tie the holiday to its beginnings as an agricultural festival, a
venerable ancestor of our modern Thanksgiving.
The day after Sukkot has a special meaning all its own. It is called
Simchat Torah, the Rejoicing over the Torah. On this holy day, Jews
complete the yearly cycle of reading portions from the Torah scroll in the
temple or synagogue. The concluding lines of Deuteronomy (the last book of
the Torah) are recited, followed by opening lines of Genesis (the first
book of the Torah) -- to demonstrate that Jewish study is an everlasting
process that has no beginning and no ending. Whereas, in the United
States, most Jews dance in the synagogue carrying scrolls of the Torah in
their arms, in Israel the dancing is done in the streets and this is one
of the most colorful of all Israeli Jewish customs.
As winter sets in, the time comes for the holiday of Hanukkah,
which celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian army of
Antiochus Epiphanes (165 B.C.E.). Hanukkah is really an eight-day
celebration of religious freedom. A Jewish legend tells that when the
Maccabees drove the Syrian Greeks from Jerusalem, they cleansed and
purified the Temple. When it came time to light the Temple Menorah
(the seven-branched golden candelabrum God instructed the Children of
Israel to design) only a small jar of pure olive oil could be found. This
small jar of oil should have burned for only one night, but the legend
states that it burned for eight nights instead of one, giving the Jews
time to prepare new oil. The legend concludes that the festival of
Hanukkah is celebrated for eight nights on account of this miracle.
Actually the legend is a later addition to Jewish folklore. According
to the Book of Maccabees, the first Hanukkah was celebrated for eight days
because it was a late celebration of Sukkot and Simchat Torah
-- the two
important holidays -- since they had not been celebrated properly in
Jerusalem while the Temple was in the hands of the Syrian Greeks.
A special form of the menorah is used on Hanukkah. It has nine
branches: one for each night of Hanukkah and one branch used to light the
others. Hanukkah is celebrated by lighting one candle (or flame) in the
menorah on the first night and adding one candle each night until all
eight candles are lit at once. Until recently, it was customary to give
children gifts of nuts and Hanukkah gelt (token sums of money).
Since Hanukkah comes around the same time as Christmas, modern Jews have
taken to emulating Christian practice by giving their children more
significant gifts -- sometimes even, one gift for each night of the
For many Hebrew words like Hanukkah there is no absolute
transliteration into the English language, but the name of no other Jewish
festival has received so many different possible spellings in English. Not
only are there problems in representing the opening guttural sound of the
Hebrew letter het, but there are possible arguments for doubling
the "n" sound of the second Hebrew letter nun and the "k" sound of
the third letter caf. It is often fashion, more than scholarship,
that determines the English spellings which range through Chanukah,
Chanukkah, Channukah, Hanukah, Hannukah, Hanukkah, and so on.
SPRING FESTIVALS -- TU B'SHEVAT AND PURIM
A minor festival, Tu B'Shevat, “the fifteenth day of [the month
of] Shevat,” the New Year of the Trees, was set aside in ancient
times to mark the beginning of springtime in the Holy Land. Today, Jews
around the world use the holiday as an occasion to celebrate nature, to
recall God's commandment calling on human beings to care for the world,
and to donate money for the planting of trees in Israel.
Also in the spring, the festival of Purim ("Lots") celebrates
an incident from the biblical Book of Esther in which the Jews of Persia
were saved from persecution. The entire Book of Esther, called Megillat
Esther, is read on Purim. When the reader pronounces the name of the
arch-villain, Haman -- who threw lots to determine the day on which he
would order all Jews in Persia to be killed -- the congregation hisses and
boos and spins graggers ("Noisemakers"). Although Purim has its
serious side as a remembrance of the importance of religious freedom, it
is mainly considered a children's holiday. Children parade around the
synagogue costumed as characters from the Esther story; and special
three-cornered pastries called Homentashen ("Haman's Ears") are
baked for the occasion.
PESACH -- PASSOVER
The major spring festival is Pesach, Passover. Passover
celebrates the Exodus from Egypt when the Jews were led out of slavery and
into freedom. For eight days (seven in Reform Judaism), Jews eat no normal
bread but only the flat, unleavened, cracker-like bread called matzah.
The Bible tells how, as the Jews made their hasty preparations to leave
Egypt, they had no time to prepare bread for their journey. Instead, they
placed the dough -- which had no time to rise and be baked -- on their
backs. There the sun baked it into matzah.
Passover is one of three pilgrimage festivals. In Temple times, people
brought sacrifices to Jerusalem. Yet, even then, the primary focus of
Passover was in Jewish homes, where the holiday meal called the Seder,
"The Order [of Service]," was held. Toward the beginning of the
celebration, the youngest person present asks four questions set by
tradition, and the answer is read from the Haggadah, "The Telling,"
a short book telling the whole story of the Exodus from Egypt.
THE OMER PERIOD
From the second day of Passover, Jewish farmers would set aside a
measure of new barley called the omer. After seven weeks passed
(forty-nine days), these first fruits of the grain harvest were brought as
an offering to Jerusalem. The fiftieth day begins the festival of
Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost, the last pilgrimage holiday
of the Jewish year.
During the Omer period, three Jewish holy days occur. The first
is a holy day of remembrance. The most modern of all Jewish holy days,
added after the end of the Second World War, Yom Hashoah, occurs
just after Passover. Yom Hashoah is a memorial for the six million
Jews murdered by the Nazis. In a sense, it is a holy day that is still in
the process of being developed. Its celebration typically includes special
prayer services and sometimes the lighting of candles, but no established
form of worship yet exists.
A second modern holiday is Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel's
Independence Day, which is observed as a religious holiday by Jews outside
of Israel as well as by the Israelis. Here, too, the exact form of
celebration is still a work in progress.
Despite the celebration of Israel's Independence Day, the Omer period
is a somber time, but Lag Ba-Omer, the "thirty-third day of the
counting of Omer," intrudes as a day of joy and celebration. In Israel,
bonfires are lit all across the countryside, casting a yellow glow on the
evening sky. Lag Ba-Omer is called a "scholar's festival" because it
commemorates a time when the Romans had forbidden Jews to study the Torah,
but the Jews resisted the ban by continuing to study.
The Festival of Weeks, Shavuot, comes at the time of the wheat
harvest in ancient Israel. It marks the end of the counting of Omer and
the beginning of summer. It is also the holiday that commemorates the
giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is the last of the three Pilgrimage
Festivals. It is sometimes called Hag HaBikkurim, "The Festival of
the First-Fruits," since farmers would bring the first fruits of their
harvest as offerings to the Temple.
Because it celebrates the giving of the Torah, the modern Reform
movement gave it new meaning in the Diaspora by making this the occasion
for celebrating the Confirmation of young people. A Confirmation ceremony
is held in the synagogue in which the graduating class of the religious
school typically leads the service for the whole community, thus
"confirming" their commitment to the covenant made at Sinai. The ceremony
became so popular that, in some form, it has become a standard part of
Shavuot in both the Reform and Conservative movements, and even in many
TISHAH B'AV -- THE SUMMER SADNESS
As summer comes, Jews observe Tishah B'Av, the "ninth day of
the month of Av." According to legend, this was the day on which
the Assyrians destroyed the First Temple. It is also the date on which the
Second Temple fell to the Romans. And Jews in other places have
encountered this date in fateful ways throughout history. Some say the
ninth of Av, 1492, was the day on which King Ferdinand signed the
decree permitting the Spanish Inquisition to drive the Jews from Spain. In
commemoration of these and other events, Tishah B'Av is observed as
a day of fasting and mourning.
With the approach of fall, the yearly cycle of the Jewish festivals comes
to a close only to begin again. These holy days serve as constant
reminders to practicing Jews. But more constant than any other is the most
holy of all Jewish holidays -- the Sabbath.
SHABBAT -- THE WEEKLY CELEBRATION
Jews have long revered Shabbat, the Sabbath, as a "taste of the
world to come," a time of rest, of peace, and of contentment. From sundown
on Friday night until sundown on Saturday night, observant Jews set aside
time to pray and study -- a day to refrain from work and everyday cares.
Jews of every religious movement practice similar Sabbath customs.
Jews attend synagogue on Friday evening, where they welcome the Sabbath as
if it were a visiting monarch, calling it "the Sabbath Queen." At home,
candles are lit on Friday evening, and the Kiddush,
"Sanctification," the blessing over wine, is sung, welcoming the Sabbath
and its sense of peace into the family circle. Parents bless their
children; and thank God for providing sustenance by pronouncing a blessing
over a loaf of twisted egg-bread called a hallah (often spelled
challah). Jewish legend even has it that on the Sabbath every Jew is
given an extra soul, for the joy of Sabbath is so great that one soul
could hardly contain it.
The celebration continues on Saturday morning with a worship service
that includes the reading and study of the entire Torah portion for the
week, along with an accompanying portion taken from the Prophets (the
Haftarah). Though Bar/Bat Mitzvah can take place whenever the Torah is
read (Monday, Thursday, or Saturday), Shabbat has become the most popular
day for welcoming young Jews into adulthood.
A ceremony called Havdalah, "Separation," is held as stars
appear on Saturday evening. This closing ceremony separates the spiritual
time of Sabbath from the mundane week of workdays that follows.