Major Jewish Holidays

     In recognition of the 4th Commandment, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy…for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth…and rested on the seventh day…. (Exodus 20:8-11).”  Jews observe Friday evening and Saturday as a day of rest, joy and spiritual renewal.  To usher in the Sabbath, candles are lit Friday before sunset.  Ceremonial blessings are recited over wine (Kiddush) and a special bread (hallah).  It is obligatory to partake of three festive meals.  Each Sabbath is named after the portion of Torah (Five Books of Moses) read during Saturday morning services.  Upon appearance of the first stars Saturday night, the Sabbath ends with Havdalah (separation service) and a new week begins.

     CONCEPTS: Jews engage in a process of returning (Teshuvah) from sins of omission and commission through introspection and evaluation of past deeds.  It is a time when the people pray for guidance and search for ways to correct wrongdoing between themselves and others, and between themselves and God.
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: In preparation for the New Year, the shofar is blown daily in the synagogue at the end of morning services, except Saturdays and the day before Rosh ha-Shanah.  Sephardic Jews offer prayers for forgiveness (Sehihot) all month, while Ashkenazic Jews say them 4 to 10 days before Rosh ha-Shanah (not Sabbath).  Jews exchange New Year greetings, apologize to those whom they've wronged and try to make amends.  They give charity (Zedakah) to the needy and visits graves of dear ones and of illustrious rabbis.

     CONCEPTS: This is the beginning of the Jewish calendar year.  It launches the special Days of Awe and Repentance.  Traditionally recognized as the anniversary of the creation of man, it is a time for self-renewal, and a time to make a fresh start.  The sounds of the shofar call for Repentance (Shofarot) and Remembrance (Zikhronot) of God's Sovereignty (Malkhuyyot).
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: Since the Jewish 'day' begins at sundown, a festive meal in the evening of Rosh ha-Shanah sets the holiday mood.  A special hallah (bread) is served: it is round to symbolize the cyclical year, and is braided as a ladder to God, or bird-shaped to symbolize God's mercy.  Pieces of hallah or apple are dipped in honey for a sweet year.  In synagogue the Shofar is blown several times totaling 100 notes during and after morning services.  People are symbolically freed from sins through the Tashlikh ceremony in which pockets are shaken clean over a body of running water.

     CONCEPTS: This is the high point of self-evaluation (Teshuvah) and accountability.  Forgiveness is asked of fellow men and amends are made for wrongdoing through acts of Justice and Charity (Zedakah).  Then full attention is given to God with fasting and Prayers (Tefillot) for forgiveness, guidance, praise and thanksgiving, while submitting to God's judgment, which is sealed by nightfall.
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: Before Yom Kippur, charity (Zedakah) is donated.  Some people perform the ancient rite of “Kapparot” by swinging a live fowl (or small bag of money) around by the head to represent a scapegoat bearing the repentant's sins.  The fowl or money is later given to the needy.  A family festive meal, eaten before sunset, is followed by a 25-hour abstention from eating, drinking, washing, wearing leather shoes, using cosmetic ointments and having sexual relations.  Prayer begins at sunset with request for absolution from all personal vows to God (“Kol Nidre”) and conclude after dark the next day with the closing service (Ne'ilah).  The fast ends in a joyous atmosphere.  Then the obligation (Mitzvah) of building a Sukkah begins (see Sukkot below).

     CONCEPTS: The Sukkah (a small booth covered with branches) reminds Jews how their ancestors dwelt in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.  This Harvest Festival was celebrated in Temple times by pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Hospitality (Hakhnassaat Orehim) is extended to family and friends who visit the Sukkah.  Here rich and poor alike experience the impermanence of material possessions.
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: It is an obligation (Mitzvah) to dwell in a Sukkah, which is often gaily decorated in a harvest motif, and to bless the 4 species: palm branch (lulav), citron (etrog), myrtle (hadas), and willow (aravah).  Congregates circle the synagogue each day of Sukkot while carrying the 4 species.  The custom of Ushpizin is practiced, in which one of 7 exalted guests is symbolically invited each day to represent the caring leadership of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and King David.

     CONCEPTS: Judgments not completed on Yom Kippur are finalized.
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: On this 7th day of Sukkot congregates carry the 4 Species around the synagogue 7 times commemorating ancient Temple services.

     CONCEPTS: God's judgment on next year's rainfall is celebrated.  This holiday emphasizes the unique relationship of water to all life.
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: A special prayer for rainfall for the land of Israel (Tefillat Geshem) is recited.

     CONCEPTS: A time for rejoicing in the Torah, the basic document of Jewish belief.  The study of Torah is a life-long endeavor, and serves as a guide for individual and social conduct.
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: On this day, the Torah Reading is completed for the year and begun anew.  All Torah scrolls are removed from the Ark and carried round the synagogue 7 times.  Children follow with apple-topped flags, and join the congregates in singing and dancing.

     CONCEPTS: Hanukkah commemorates the reconquest and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BCE, when a small group of Jews led by the Maccabees (Hosmonean family) revolted against the Greco-Syrian King Antiochus and stopped the forced Hellenization of their people.  It celebrates the heroic victory of a minority group over oppression.  According to tradition, a one-day supply of purified oil for the Temple Menorah (7-branched candelabra) is burned for 8 days, allowing the Jews enough time to process a new supply.
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: These miracles are celebrated by lighting candles or lamps on an 8-branched candelabra (Hanukkiyyah) with an extra candle, the 'Shamsh' (utility candle), which is lit first and then used to light one candle the first night, two the next, and so on.  The Hanukkiyyah is often placed in a window to publicize the miracle.  Songs of praise and thanksgiving to God are sung.  During the 8 nights, parties are held with family and friends.  Foods fried in oil are eaten; pancakes among Ashkenazim and doughnuts among Sephardim.  Children receive money (Hanukkah gelt) or other gifts and they spin a 4-sided top (dreidle) with symbols for 'A Great Miracle Happened There.'  In Israel 'There' is changed too 'Here” (Ness Gadol Hayah Sham/Poh).

     CONCEPTS: New Year for Trees: Jews re-evaluate their relationship to nature (ecology), their role in the care and maintenance of trees and their responsibility to keep the land in bloom.  Special attention is given to reforestation, swamp drainage and reclamation of the land of Israel.
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: The age of trees is established on Tu Bi'shevat, i.e., a tree must be at least 3 years old before its fruits may be eaten.  Upon tasting a new fruit of the year, a blessing ('She-Heheyanu') is offered.  Israeli-grown fruits are favored: figs, dates, carob (St. John bread or bokser), olives, pomegranates, etc.  Weather permitting, saplings are planted and Jews all over the world contribute funds to Israeli reforestation projects, like the Jewish National Fund.  In synagogue, Sephardim chant from “Fruit of the Goodly Tree.”

     CONCEPTS: A celebration of Jewish survival.  It commemorates Mordecai and Esther's triumph over Haman's attempt to have all the Jews of the Persian Empire annihilated on a day selected by lots (Purim).  It highlights problems of living in the Galut (outside Israel), i.e., questions of status (degree of tolerance/persecution), hidden or open identity, and response to authority of the host country.
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: The fast of Esther is observed the day before Purim, followed by and evening reading of the Book of Esther (Megillah), which is read again the next morning.  Noisemakers are often used during these readings to drown out Haman's name.  At least two prepared foods (Mishlo'ah Manot) are sent to family and friends, and gifts to the poor (Matanot l'evyonim) are distributed.  Triangular fruit-filled tarts (Hamentashn) and other pastries reminiscent of Haman are eaten.  A festive meal (Se'udah) is held in the afternoon.  Masquerades, carnivals (called 'Adlayada' in Israel) and parodies (Purim Shpil) are performed.  The strolling actors (Purimshpiler) who entertain are rewarded with gifts and refreshments.

     CONCEPTS: Families meet to retell and re-enact the story of the Exodus from Egypt when Jews were slaves and how they became a free nation, subscribing to monotheism.  Empathy with strangers and the downtrodden is stressed.  This is a spring festival, and in Temple times, the nation made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: In preparation, houses are thoroughly cleansed of Hamtez (food containing leavening or otherwise unfit for Passover as designated by Jewish law).  On the first night of the holiday (also the second outside Israel), a ceremonial dinner (Seder) takes place at which the Exodus story is read from a special book, called the Haggadah.  The table is beautifully set with Mazzot (unleavened bread) and a Passover Plate on which symbolic foods are displayed, one of which is maror (bitter herbs) which simulates the taste of slavery.  A cup of wine is set for the prophet Elijah as a sign of future redemption.  As 'free' men, participants relax in their chairs and drink 4 cups of wine during the course of the Seder.  They sing melodious hymns.  Some dress in historical clothing; Ashkenazim wear white robes (kittles) and Sephardim carry bundles on their backs as if they were on their way out of Egypt.  Only 'Kosher for Pesah' foods may be eaten throughout the holiday.

     CONCEPTS: Counting of the omer (literally, a measure of grain) begins on the second day of Passover and spans a 49-day period between the barley harvest (on Pesah) and the wheat harvest (on Shavout).  It also links the Exodus from Egypt with the receiving of the Torah (see Sivan 5).  This is a period of semi-mourning in memory of various misfortunes that afflicted the Jews in the 2nd century CE, e.g., the death of Rabbi Akiva's students.
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: Every evening a special prayer for counting the days is recited.  Within this 49-day period of semi-mourning, neither weddings nor joyous gatherings are permitted for 33 days.

     CONCEPTS: Official memorial day for victims of the Holocaust of World War II, concentration camps and Jewish resistance (e.g., Warsaw Ghetto Uprising).  It reminds us that anti-Semitism in all its manifestations calls for active resistance and that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
     LAW & CUSTOMS: At community memorial services, 6 candles are lit to represent the 6,000,000 Jews who perished.  Programs include reading and retelling Holocaust experiences.

     CONCEPTS: Tribute is made to the courage, commitment and self-sacrifice of those who defended the State of Israel and to the value of national survival and independence.
     LAW & CUSTOMS: Commemorative programs are held at community centers where flags are lowered at half-mast and moments of silence are observed.  Memorial prayers are added to regular synagogue services.  In Israel, soldiers' graves and monuments are visited.

     CONCEPTS: Anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948, as a result of a United Nations decision.  It culminated almost a century of struggle to reclaim the land from Turkish and later British dominance.  Despite constant Arab opposition, the Jews succeeded in creating a homeland with national independence, thereby fulfilling a 2,000-year-old dream of returning to Zion.
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: Special thanksgiving services are held and the Shofar is blown in many synagogues to signify the beginning of Jewish redemption.  Community celebrations include parades with Israeli flags, and joyous singing and dancing in the streets.  In Israel, a Bible contest is held with student finalists from all over the world.  Celebrations are topped off in the evening with the annual Israeli Song Festival.

     CONCEPTS: A scholar's holiday to commemorate the lifting of the ban on Torah study, thanks to Bar Kokhba's revolt against the Romans (135 CE).  According to legend, many misfortunes (e.g., the plague, which afflicted Rabbi Akiva's students) halted on that day (see Sefirat ha-Omer, above).
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: Semi-mourning practices of the period are lifted for Lag Ba-Omer as students take to the hills with hiking, picnics, bonfires, and bow and arrow games.  In Israel many go to Meron, near Safed, to visit the tomb of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai, traditionally recognized as the author of the mystical text, the Zohar, who is believed to have died on this day.

     CONCEPTS: Anniversary of the re-unification (1967) of Jerusalem, which means, 'Undivided City' or 'City of Peace.'  Jerusalem, which had been divided in 1948, was originally established by King David in the 10th century BCE as the capitol and has served as spiritual center of the Jews ever since.
     LAWS & CUSTOMS: Worldwide celebrations are held and special prayers are added to regular Synagogue services.  In Jerusalem, these prayers are recited at the Kotel (Western Wall).  Soldiers' graves and Israeli battle sites of the Six-Day War are visited.]

     CONCEPTS: Commemorates God's gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai, thereby continuing the process of redemption, which began with the Exodus.  The Jews, no longer slaves, accepted the laws of the Torah, which served and continue to serve as guidelines for living as a free people.  In ancient Israel, the nation made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, bringing first fruits (Bikkurim) to the Temple.
     -LAWS & CUSTOMS: In synagogues, Torah Readings include the Ten Commandments.  The Book of Ruth is also read.  It describes her acceptance of Judaism and her loyalty to the Jewish people.  All night vigils are held with Torah readings and discussions.  Homes and synagogues are decorated with green boughs to recall the harvest and greenery at Mount Sinai.  Dairy foods are eaten.  Young children re-enact the bringing of Bikkurim to the old city in Jerusalem with fruit and wheat.

     CONCEPTS: A day of mourning for the destruction of both Temples (first Temple in 586 BCE and the second in 70 CE) which marks the beginning of the Jewish Exile.  Other national tragedies are also noted (e.g., the explosion of Jews from England in 1290, from Spain in 1492, etc.)
     LAW & CUSTOMS: A 25-hour fast, preceded by a modest meal which includes a hard-boiled egg and bread dipped in ashes is eaten.  The Book of Lamentations is read and Kinot (dirges) are recited while sitting on low stools in dim light.  Prayers for redemption conclude the Kinot.  For this day memorial customs apply.  In synagogues decorative Ark curtains are removed.  In Israel people visit the tombs of Rachel and the forefathers, and in Jerusalem they gather at the Western Wall for special services.