Jewish Holiday Descriptions
The following Jewish holidays are listed in chronological order as they are celebrated, beginning with the Fall High Holy Day Season. All Jewish holidays, including Shabbat, begin with sundown on the evening preceding the festival, following the order of the repeated creation statement in Genesis, “There was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.”
Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first day of Tishrei, commemorating the month in which God created the world. In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means, literally, “head of the year” or “first of the year” and is commonly known as the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah is a time for introspection; a time to look back at the mistakes of the past year while planning to make changes in the new year. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are together known as Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, also commonly referred to as the High Holy Days.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, occurs 10 days after Rosh Hashanah on the 10th of Tishrei. Jewish belief and teaching is that on this day God places a seal upon the Divine decrees affecting each person for the coming year. In other words, decisions of life and death, peace and prosperity have all been decided and are now sealed. The Book of Life is closing on this day. Referred to as the “Sabbath of Sabbaths,” Yom Kippur holds a crucial place on the Jewish calendar.
The idea of atonement includes accepting responsibility for our actions through prayers of confession. These prayers mention both individual and communal sins and make up a large portion of the prayer service on Yom Kippur. The evening begins with the beautiful music of the Kol Nidre, a section that absolves the individual of unfulfilled personal vows between the individual and God for the coming year. Its haunting melody marks the start of the fast and sets the tone for the next 24 hours.
Throughout the Days of Awe, the shofar is blown regularly. The shofar and its sounds are complex symbolic images that call all Jews together and remind us of the power of these Ten Days of Repentance.
Beginning five days after Yom Kippur, on the 15th of the month of Tishrei, Sukkot is named after the booths or huts (sukkot in Hebrew) in which Jews are supposed to dwell during this week-long celebration. According to rabbinic tradition, these flimsy sukkot represent the huts in which the Israelites dwelt during their forty years of wandering in the Sinai Desert after escaping from slavery in Egypt. The festival of Sukkot is one of the three great pilgrimage festivals of the Jewish year.
Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah
The holiday of Sukkot concludes with an additional festival. The Torah declares that at the end of the seven-day holiday of Sukkot there should be an eighth “day of assembly.” According to a rabbinic commentary, Shemini Atzeret is a final and additional day of spiritual celebration of the close relationship between God and the people of Israel. In Israel and among many liberal Jews these two holidays are combined into one holiday on the day after the conclusion of Sukkot. Among more traditional Jews outside of Israel, they are observed separately from one another on two consecutive days.
Simchat Torah, meaning “rejoicing with the Torah,” festivities begin at the evening service when the doors of the Ark are opened and all of the community’s Torahs are brought out. The congregation recites poems and joins in a procession around the synagogue, dancing and singing in honor of the Torah. Seven hakkafot are celebrated with flags waving and then a selection from the end of the Torah is chanted, followed immediately by beginning to chant the Torah again from B’reisheit, starting a new yearly cycle.
Hanukkah, or the Festival of Dedication, celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE. Although it is a late addition to the Jewish liturgical calendar, the eight-day festival of Hanukkah has become a beloved and joyous holiday. It is also known as the Festival of Lights and it is the paramount Jewish festival celebrating religious freedom, beginning on the 25th of the month of Kislev.
The defining act of Hanukkah is kindling the lights of the hanukkiyah, the eight-branched candelabrum. One light is added each night of Hanukkah as a public proclamation of the Hanukkah miracle.
Tu B’Shevat (the 15th of the month of Shevat) is a holiday closely connected to the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, Tu B’Shevat served as the day on which farmers offered the first fruits of the trees they planted, after the trees had turned four years old. This holiday, also known as the “Birthday of the Trees,” celebrates the importance of nature and stresses the need for people to care for the natural environment. It is customary to plant trees on Tu B’Shevat.
Purim is a time of merriment and great fun. The festival of Purim derives from the Biblical story of Esther and commemorates the Jewish people’s victory over those who have tried to destroy them. Celebrated on the 14th of the early springtime month of Adar, it is the most unrestrained and joyous of all Jewish holidays, and includes theatrical and musical productions celebrating the physical redemption of the Jews from destruction.
Pesach is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals of ancient Israel. A springtime festival for the beginning of the growing season, it is a commemoration of the great Exodus from slavery in Egypt, especially the night when God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites during the tenth plague, and the following day when the Israelites had to leave Egypt hurriedly. Centered on the family or communal celebration of the Seder (ritual meal), Pesach is one of the most beloved and observed of all Jewish holidays. It is the model for nearly all freedom festivals the world over.
The full name of the day commemorating the victims of the Holocaust is “Yom Hashoah Ve-Hagevurah,” the “Day of remembrance of the Holocaust and Heroism.” It is marked on the 27th day of the month of Nisan, a week after the seventh day of Pesach, and a week before Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers). Jews in North America observe Yom HaShoah within the synagogue as well as in the broader Jewish community. Commemorations range from synagogue services to communal vigils and educational programs.
Israel’s Independence Day is celebrated on the fifth day of the month of Iyar, which is the Hebrew date of the formal establishment of the state, when members of the “provisional government” read and signed a Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv. Yom Ha-Atzma’ut in Israel is always preceded by Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers. The message of linking these two days is clear: Israelis owe their independence, the very existence of the state, to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for it.
Lag Ba’Omer is a minor Jewish holiday that focuses on the importance of study and learning. Lag Ba’Omer is celebrated on the 33rd day of the 50 days of the counting of the “omer,” or the measure of the newly ripened barley. The Lag Ba’Omer holiday provided a provided a break, historically, from the hard work of the harvest time. It is a festival celebrated with bonfires and song, usually outdoors.
Shavu’ot celebrates the day the Jews were given the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. It is also a celebration of the time of the first barley harvest and the offering of the first fruits of the new harvest. On Shavu’ot the Jewish people decorate the synagogue with greens and flowers , wear white clothing, and eat dairy dishes. A Tikun Leil Shavu’ot, a long (even all-night) study session is held to remember the night of receiving the Torah.
The Jewish holiday of Shabbat is a joyous occasion celebrated every Friday night to Saturday night. Shabbat commemorates the creation of the world, as the world was created in six days and the seventh day was the day of rest. Shabbat is a special time to come together each week to be with family and friends, to rest, to think, to share, to sing, to learn and to worship. The observance of Shabbat begins with a traditional ritual that includes blessings while lighting candles, drinking wine, and eating challah. Shabbat concludes just after sunset on Saturday night with the brief, beautiful ceremony of Havdalah. According to all Jewish authorities, Shabbat is the most important of all festivals, because it is observed most frequently—and therefore has the greatest potential to help us change our lives in good and meaningful ways.