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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 Jewish calendar.

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 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 was 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 year.


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 holiday.

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.

Basic Judaism--Keyterms: Jewish, jewish, Jews, jews, Judaism, judaism, Jewish beliefs, Jewish observances, Jewish holidays, Jewish holy days, Jewish history, Rossel, rossel, Seymour Rossel, seymour rossel, beliefs, belief, observances, holy days, holidays, prayer, study, professions, history, past, future, basic, introduction, customs, ceremonies, modern, movements, Moses, monotheism, faith, philosophy, Hasidism, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Torah, prayer, study, bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, Jewish law, reference, WannaLearn award, ritualHANUKKAH

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 festival.

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.


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.


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.


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 Orthodox congregations.


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.


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.


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