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Jewish Holidays

Jewish Holidays

An Overview of Jewish Holidays

By Rabbi Dr. Byron L. Sherwin

Most Jewish religious holidays are of biblical origin. These include: the Sabbath (Shabbat), Passover (Pesah), The Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), The Feast of Booths (Sukkot), Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and others. Some holidays, like The Festival of Lights (Hanukkah), were established by the Talmudic rabbis in ancient times. Still others are of recent origin, such as Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah) and Israel Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut). What each of the holidays mean, which prayers are recited on each of them, and which rituals are practiced on each of them is the product of on-going rabbinic interpretation and popular development. Most holidays are celebrated by a combination of prayers and ritual practices in the home and in the synagogue. On many holidays, it has become customary to eat certain foods, though such foods sometimes vary according to Jews' country of origin.

Most Jewish holidays are celebrated once a year; however, some are not. For example, the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) is celebrated each week. All Jewish holidays begin at sundown and continue to sundown on the subsequent day. The Sabbath, for instance, begins each week at sundown on Friday and continues until a little after sundown on Saturday. Sabbath is a day of peace, rest from labor, prayer, study, festive means, family unity, and both physical and spiritual regeneration from the frenzy of the work week. Another example of a holiday observed more than once annually is the celebration of the new Hebrew month — Rosh Hodesh. Hebrew months follow the lunar calendar and are usually 28 or 29 days in length. Each month begins with the new moon. In recent years, the celebration of the new month has become of special interest to Jewish feminists, who have revived certain discarded rituals and introduced new ones to observe it.

In order to make sure that the holidays come in their proper seasons, a "leap month" is added to the calendar every few years. In years this month is added, the Jewish calendar has 13 months. The months of the Hebrew calendar have Hebrew names. They are: Tishrei, Heshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, Nissan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av and Ellul.

Traditionally the Jewish liturgical year begins with the month of Nissan in the spring, the month Passover occurs. This is because Jewish tradition considers the Exodus from Egypt celebrated on Passover as the beginning of the history of the Jews or Israelites as a people. Rosh ha-Shanah, which was not known as the New Year until the post-biblical period, is celebrated at the beginning of the seventh month. Here is a list of the most important Jewish holidays and when they occur:

  • 15-23 Nissan: Pesah (Passover)
  • 27 Nissan: Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day)
  • 5 Iyyar: Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day)
  • 6-7 Sivan: Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks, sometimes called Pentecost)
  • 9 Av: Tisha B’Av (The Ninth of Av)
  • 1-2 Tishrei: Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year)
  • 10 Tishrei: Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement)
  • 15-24 Tishrei: Sukkot (The Feast of Booths, sometimes called the Feast of Tabernacles)
  • 25 Kislev: Hanukkah (The Festival of Lights) begins for eight days
  • 15 Shevat: Tu Beshvat (15th day of Shevat, The New Year of the Trees)
  • 14 Adar: Purim (The Feast of Lots)
  • Every week beginning Friday at sundown: Shabbat (Sabbath)
  • Every month: Rosh Hodesh (Celebrating the New Month)

In biblical times, the three "pilgrimage festivals" (shalosh regalim) were the major annual festivals of the Jewish year. Originally, they were linked to the three major harvest seasons, spring, summer and fall, in the Land of Israel. These are known as pilgrimage festivals because Jews would make pilgrimages to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and to celebrate the festival at the end of each harvest season. After the destruction of the Second Temple and the Second Jewish Commonwealth by the Romans (in the year 70), and the subsequent physical detachment of the people of Israel (i.e., the Jewish people) from the Land of Israel, these holidays became increasingly identified with significant historical events in Jewish history that occurred during biblical times. The three pilgrimage festivals are: Pesah (Passover), Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks) and Sukkot (The Feast of Booths).

Pesah or Passover, celebrated in the spring (usually in April), commemorates the liberation of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. It is a festival of freedom. On Passover, Jews hold a festive ritual meal at home called the Seder (or “order”). A major purpose of the Seder is pedagogical, to convey traditions about the historical experiences of the Jewish people from one generation to the next. A special liturgy called the Hagaddah is recited. It tells the story of the Exodus from Egypt and offers praises to God for the miracles that enabled the liberation from slavery. Matzah and other foods are eaten on Passover as symbols of the transition from slavery to freedom. Outside of Israel, Passover is celebrated for eight days; however, in Israel and among Reform Jews outside of Israel, it is celebrated for seven days.

Seven weeks and one day after Passover (usually in June) is Shavuot, (The Feast of Weeks). Originally a celebration of the summer harvest, Shavuot celebrates the revelation of the Torah at Sinai to the Jewish people. It is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot. Outside of Israel, Shavuot is celebrated for two days. However, in Israel, it is celebrated only for one day, a custom followed by Reform Jews.

In the fall (usually in late September or October), the third pilgrimage festival, Sukkot (The Feast of Booths, sometimes called The Feast of Tabernacles), is celebrated. Originally a celebration of the fall harvest, Sukkot is referred to in the liturgy as the "time of our joy." Like the other pilgrimage festivals, it is a happy holiday. Sukkot celebrates the divine providence experienced by the ancient people of Israel as they wandered through the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land. On Sukkot, it is customary to dwell in a Sukkah — a booth or temporary dwelling. In warmer climates, Jews eat and sleep in the Sukkah during the holiday; however, in colder climates, it became customary only to eat in the Sukkah — weather permitting. The Sukkah is often decorated with seasonal fruits and vegetables and its roof usually consists of branches of trees. The Sukkah must be constructed so that a person inside of it can look upward at the sky and be reminded of God’s providential care.

The seventh-day of Sukkot is known as Hoshanah Rabbah (The Great Hoshannah). Now a minor holiday, Hoshanah Rabbah was a major holiday when the Temple stood in Jerusalem in ancient times. The eighth day of Sukkot, which seems to have been a discrete holiday of its own in ancient times, is called in the Bible Shemini Atzeret — The Eighth Day of Assembly. Prayers for rain — much needed in Israel to keep the earth fertile, as well as prayers for divine mercy, are recited in the synagogue on this holiday. A ninth and final day of Sukkot, likely introduced as a holiday during the Middle Ages, is known as Simhat Torah (The Rejoicing over the Torah). In Israel and among Reform Jews, this holiday is usually folded into Shemini Atzeret and is celebrated during the evening of that holiday. The Torah (the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible) is divided into sections that are read in the synagogue in order throughout the year. Simhat Torah celebrates the completion of the yearly cycle of reading the Torah and the beginning of a new cycle. This celebration includes the custom of marching, singing and dancing with the Torah scrolls during services in the synagogue.

Before Sukkot are the solemn fall holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement. This period of the year (which usually comes in September) is known as “The Days of Awe” or the “High Holidays.” Though apparently not major holidays in biblical times, these holidays evolved to become the major holidays of the Jewish liturgical year. Preceded by a month (the month of Ellul) of introspection and repentance, the “Ten Days of Repentance,” beginning on Rosh Hashanah and culminating on Yom Kippur, are a time of intense prayer, introspection and repentance for one’s sins. Based upon biblical precedent, it is customary to blow the shofar, an instrument made from a ram’s horn, during religious services on Rosh Hashanah. According to the great medieval Jewish sage Maimonides, the sound of the shofar serves as a kind of alarm clock to wake people up to the need to repent of their sins and to start the New Year afresh. With the exception of Reform Jews, Rosh Hashanah is observed by Jews for two days. Yom Kippur is a day of intensive prayer, repentance and fasting. No food or drink is taken on that day. The day is devoted entirely to spiritual concerns. Prayers are recited on the eve of Yom Kippur and throughout the following day until sundown.

Hanukkah and Purim are festive holidays. Hanukkah is celebrated in early winter (usually in December), and Purim in late winter (usually March). Hanukkah, which literally means "dedication," is also known as The Festival of Lights. Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by the ancient Greco-Syrians. It also celebrates the victory of the Maccabees — a Jewish guerilla army — over the Greco-Syrian invaders. The Talmud tells that when the Temple was rededicated, there was only enough pure oil to light the candelabra in the Temple for one day; yet, a miracle occurred and the oil lasted for eight days. For this reason, Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days. Each night, an additional candle is lit at home on a special Hanukkah-candelabra called in Hebrew menorah or hanukiah. Prayers of praise to God and other special prayers and scriptural readings are recited in the synagogue each day of the holiday. Certain foods (like potato pancakes) are eaten to celebrate the holiday. It is also customary to give children gifts of money, candy and other items each night of the holiday. In recent generations in Western Europe and America, Hanukkah has evolved into a much more significant holiday than it had been in the past because of its proximity on the calendar to Christmas. With Christians celebrating Christmas during this season, Jewish parents wanted their children to have something to celebrate at this time of the year (since Christmas is not celebrated by Jews).

Purim, The Feast of Lots, celebrates the redemption of the Jews in ancient Persia from threatened annihilation. The story of Purim is recounted in the biblical book of Esther, and tells of how Esther and her uncle Mordecai saved the Jews from the evil designs of the wicked counselor to the king, Haman. Besides religious services at which the biblical Book of Esther is read in the synagogue, Purim is celebrated with festive meals, masquerades, plays, pageants and humorous recitations. It is a favorite holiday of children. Purim is a raucous holiday, including the requirement for adults to become intoxicated to the point of being unable to tell the difference between the pious Mordecai and the evil Haman.

In addition, other Jewish holidays may be noted. Tu Bishevat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, usually late January or early February) is the New Year of the Trees or Jewish Arbor Day. The saddest day of the Jewish calendar is Tisha B'Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, usually in July), a day of fasting, mourning and prayer which commemorates various major tragedies in Jewish history including the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem in ancient times. Tisha B'Av is preceded by a three-week period of mourning that begins with the fast day of Shiva-Asar be-Tammuz (the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz), when, according to tradition, the assault against Jerusalem by the enemy began.

The Jewish liturgical year is replete with many varied types of holidays: joyous and sad, celebratory and commemorative, holidays primarily observed at home and those primarily observed at the synagogue, community oriented holidays as well as those that focus on individual introspection.

Jewish Holiday Highlights from the Spertus Institute Collection

This 18th-century brass menorah was most likely made in Germany or Bohemia. In 2003 it traveled from Spertus Institute in Chicago to Washington, DC, to be used in the White House Hanukkah celebration.


This etching by artist Dan Rubinstein is from a series illustrating the story of Purim. Spertus Institute is proud to have a set in our collection, generously donated by Luis and Fortuna Spitz in memory of Deborah L. Spitz.