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Holidays + Festivals

Shabbat / The Sabbath
Shabbat is observed from sunset Friday evening until nightfall on Saturday. It is the day par excellence of rest and joy, for spending time with family and community, and connecting to the values of the Jewish tradition and spirituality. The word Shabbat is drawn from the Hebrew root sh.v.t, meaning “to cease”; this verb is used to describe Gods rest from creation on the seventh day of the week (Gen. 2:2-3). Observance of Shabbat is the fourth of the “Ten Commandments” (Ex. 20:8-11) and is the only ritual observance that is included. Shabbat is in many ways the most holy of days on the Jewish calendar, rivaled only by Yom Kippur, which is termed the “Sabbath of Sabbaths” (Lev. 23) However, in any instance that human life is endangered, everything possible must be done to save it, even if doing so violates Shabbat. Moreover, Jewish fast days, except Yom Kippur, are moved forward a day if they fall on Shabbat; mourning rituals are postponed and, traditionally, weddings do not take place. 

Major Holidays

Rosh Hashanah
Literally, “Head of the Year,” Rosh Hashanah commemorates the “birthday” of creation. It is not designated as Rosh Hashanah in the Bible, but rather simply as the first day of the seventh month of Tishrei, commemorated with “loud blasts” (Lev. 23:23-25), which would become the source for the sounding the shofar (ram’s horn) on the holiday. The holiday developed rabbinically after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, identified as the day upon which human beings are judged (M. Rosh Hashanah 1:2). The three primary themes of the holiday are: 1) God’s sovereignty, 2) God’s remembrance and special relationship with human beings, and 3) The promise of God’s redemption and forgiveness symbolized through the sounding of the shofar, just as Isaac was spared from sacrifice and replaced with a ram (Gen. 22). Although Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, and is characterized by a day of prayer, it is also a joyous and sweet occasion symbolized by sweet foods, such as apples and honey. 

Yom Kippur
With the development of Rosh Hashanah as the “Day of Judgment,” the Rabbis established inherent connections with Yom Kippur, “The Day of Atonement” (expiation of sins), which falls just ten days later on the calendar. The Rabbis wrote, “All are judged on Rosh Hashanah and the verdict is issued on Yom Kippur” (B.T. Rosh Hashanah 16a), thus the concept of the High Holidays or Yamim Nora’im was born. In addition to the recitation of special prayers in synagogue, observances of Yom Kippur include abstentions from eating and drinking, wearing of leather shoes, bathing, putting on perfumes or lotions, and marital relations. Interestingly, although Yom Kippur is a very serious day, it is not a sad day, especially since the Rabbis also describe it as one of the most joyous days of the year (M. Ta’anit 4:8).

Sukkot
Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals, along with Passover and Shavuot. Literally meaning “Booths,” the festival was originally an agricultural celebration, marking the fall harvest (Deut. 16:16). Sukkot also plays a key role in the historical and spiritual identity of the Jewish people, as the Israelites were instructed to live in booths as a memorial to the exodus from Egypt, “in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt” (Lev. 23:41-43). Sukkot’s significance is distinguished by the fact that King Solomon chose it as the day upon which to dedicate the First Temple (I Kings 8:2) and it is biblically designated as the day to publicly read the Torah (Deut. 31:1-12; Neh. 8:1-18). Rabbinic Judaism emphasizes Sukkot’s celebratory mood, referring to it as Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing. Its celebration is symbolically represented by the sukkah itself and the four species that make up the components of the lulav and etrog (palm, citron, myrtle, and willow).

Simchat Torah
Literally, “Joy of the Torah,” this festival is observed the day after the holiday Shemini Atzeret by many Jews in the Diaspora. In most Reform congregations and in Israel, Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret are combined into one day and are celebrated immediately following the conclusion of the seven days of Sukkot. Simchat Torah celebrates the completion and recommencement of the yearly cycle of public Torah reading. The joyous celebration begins in the evening when the final Torah portion is read in the synagogue. The reading is followed by seven hakafot (circuits) with Torah scrolls around the synagogue and accompanied by singing and dancing. The following morning the Torah reading begins again with the opening sections of Genesis.

Passover
Pesach in Hebrew, Passover is one of the three pilgrimage festivals, celebrated in the spring. From an agricultural perspective, Passover is associated with the beginning of the barley harvest, which is still remembered today by the counting of the omer (“sheaves”), starting on the second day of the festival. The Hebrew name of the festival relates to the idea of “passing over” or “sparing”, hearkening to the last of the ten plagues when God “passed over” the houses of the Jews and targeted only the firstborn Egyptians. The word also refers to the paschal sacrifice, which was a sheep or goat offered during the festival at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Torah instructs that Passover last for seven days (Lev. 23:5), the first and final days having greater significance than the intermediate days. It begins on the first night with a Passover seder (most Jews in the Diaspora observe a two-day extension of festival days and therefore conduct a seder on each of the first two nights). The seder is a ceremonial meal, including storytelling, symbolic foods, and songs. The week of Passover is largely characterized by the abstention from eating, owning, and deriving benefit from hametz, which is a food made from any of the five grains of wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye that has been allowed to rise.

Shavuot
Literally meaning “Weeks,” Shavuot is the third of the three pilgrimage festivals, falling in late spring or early summer. Originally it was an agricultural celebration of new wheat was cut and made into loaves to be offered at the Temple (i.e., it is also known as Hag Hatzir, “Feast of the Harvest”). Ancient Israelites would also bring offerings of new crops to the Temple of any of the shivat minim, seven species (Num. 28:26). During the time of the Second Temple, there was a debate as to the exact date to celebrate Shavuot based on the question as to which night of Passover one should begin counting the seven “weeks” to Shavuot. Simultaneously, the Rabbis were debating what date the Torah was revealed on Mt. Sinai. After centuries of discussion, the 6th of Sivan was celebrated as both Shavuot and the day on which the Torah was given, Z’man Matan Torateinu (“Season of the Giving of the Torah”). Customs for Shavuot include the decorating the synagogue with flowers and greenery as a remembrance of the bringing of first fruits to the Temple (bikkurim), the eating of dairy (likely a demonstration of self-control as manifested in the dietary laws in the Torah), and all-night study session (Tikkun Leil Shavuot) to kick off the festival as symbolic expression the restless anticipation for the giving of the Torah again.

Minor Holidays

Literally “dedication,” also known as Hag Ha-Urim or the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is an eight-day celebration commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in the second century BCE. Hanukkah’s great appeal lies in its unique symbols and its message of freedom from religious oppression. The earliest sources for Hanukkah are not found in the Hebrew Bible, but rather the First and Second Books of Maccabees (100-125 BCE), which provide parallel accounts of Maccabean history, from approximately 180-160 BCE. They recall the rebellion against the Seleucid (Greco-Syrian) ruler Antiochus and his attempts to impose aspects of Hellenism on the Jewish population and the land of Israel. The Maccabees achieved several military victories, recapturing the Jerusalem and rededicating the Temple on the 25th of Kislev. The eight-days of triumphant celebration probably correlates to the eight-day festival of Sukkot (2 Macc. 10:5-7). Rather than emphasizing military victories, Rabbinic Judaism focused on the survival of Jewish spiritual values. The Talmud claims that a miracle occurred when the Maccabees rekindled the menorah, and with one day’s worth of oil it lasted for eight days, representing God’s presence in the victory.  Each of the eight-days are remembered with the lighting of candles on the Hanukkiyah (Hanukkah menorah). Hanukkah customs include eating foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes (latkes in Yiddish) and fried doughnuts, and the playing of dreidel (a spinning top), and the giving of gifts especially monetary gifts (gelt in Yiddish). In North America, there have been recent attempts to equate Hanukkah with Christmas since they happen at the same time of year. Of course, the comparison accentuates an inherent contradiction, because Hanukkah represents the historic Jewish insistence against assimilation. 

Tu B’Shevat
Also known as Rosh Hashanah la-Ilanot, or the new year for the trees, Tu B’Shevat literally means “15th of Shevat”). Rabbinic Judaism identifies it as the boundary for determining a tree’s first year for tithing purposes. The holiday has no mandated observances and little religious significance, but reemerged in the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries when the Kabbalist endowed it with great mystical significance. They created a Tu B’Shevat seder that parallels the traditional Passover seder, including an order of eating fruits, reciting blessings, and drinking four cups of wine. Early Zionists enhanced its significance, associating it with restoring the Land of Israel and planting trees. Today, Tu B’Shevat inspires a cross-pollination of religious, mystical, ecological, and Zionist currents, including kabbalistic rituals, tree planting, expressions of environmental concern and welfare, and pride in Israel.

Purim
Purim (literally, “lots”) commemorates the events described in the book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible. The central observance is listening to the reading of the book of Esther from a parchment scroll or megillah. The megillah is read both in the evening and in the morning and it is customary to sound graggers or noisemakers whenever the wicked Haman’s name is mentioned. Other customs include, giving gifts to the poor (usually monetary), as well as sending gifts of at least two types of food to friends (mishlo’ach manot). A festive meal is also held during the mid or late afternoon. The spirit of the holiday is characterized by frivolity when costumes and role-playing are acceptable. Children and adults dress in costumes and masks, and Purim spiels (plays and skits) satirizing esteemed communal figures are popular. In addition, the Talmud says that one should become intoxicated on Purim, “until he is unable to distinguish (ad delo yada) between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai.’” 

Tisha b’Av
Literally, the “9th of Av”, is a major fast day on the Jewish calendar. According to tradition, this is the day on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, and it is also associated with other disasters in Jewish history. Observances include communal reading of the book of Lamentations in the Hebrew Bible (Eichah) and the recitation of other laments (kinot). Like Yom Kippur, Tisha b’Av is traditionally a day of abstention from eating and drinking, bathing, wearing leather shoes, and marital relations. 

Modern Holidays

Yom Ha-Shoah
Yom Ha-Shoah or Yom Ha-Shoah v’ha-Gevurah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day) is a day of commemoration for Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust and for those who resisted Nazi persecution. It is observed on the 27th of Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. It begins at sundown, typically with a communal ceremony. In Israel, at ten o’clock in the morning, sirens sound for two minutes and people throughout the land stand in silence. Throughout Diaspora communities, ritual and customs vary and are still being developed. One common custom is to light a twenty-four-hour yahrzeit candle. Some Orthodox Jews choose to commemorate the victims of the Nazi genocide on traditional mourning days, such as Tisha b’Av and the 10th of Tevet, rather than on Yom Ha-Shoah.

Yom Ha-Atzma’ut
Israeli Independence Day is the Israeli and religious holiday celebrating the proclamation of the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. It is observed according to the corresponding date on the Jewish calendar, the 5th of Iyar. In Israel, Yom Ha’atzma’ut events include an official evening ceremony on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, as well as related events, such as the International Bible Contest for Jewish Youth, the Hebrew Song Festival, and awarding the Israel Prize. The day before Yom Ha-Atzma’ut is Yom Ha-Zikaron (“Day of Remembrance”) in memory of Israeli soldiers who died in battle. Rituals and liturgy to commemorate Yom Ha-Atzma’ut are still being shaped; no formulations have achieved universal acceptance. 

Sat, January 28 2023 6 Shevat 5783