Often called the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah falls on the first of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. Rosh Hashanah marks the first of the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), during which Jews repent for their sins against God or against their fellow men. The midrash depicts God as seated upon a throne reviewing books containing the deeds of all humanity. During the two days of Rosh Hashanah, the synagogue service includes an extended repetition of the Amidah prayer, both for Shacharit and for Mussaf. At several intervals during Mussah, the Shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown to awaken symbolically Jews from their spiritual slumber. The Mishnah states during the blowing of the shofar, ten verses are recited referring to kingship, remembrance, and the shofar. In addition, medieval penitential prayers, called piyyutim, are recited with themes of repentance. During the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah, the Alenu prayer is also recited.
Falling on the tenth of Tishrei, Yom Kippur is the climax of the Yamim Noraim, or Jewish High Holy Days. Also known as the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is observed through twenty-five hours of repentance, atonement, prayer, and fasting. Under the Jewish oral tradition of the Mishnah, Jews observe additional prohibitions against bathing, wearing leather shoes, use of lotions or perfumes and marital or sexual relations. On the day prior to Yom Kippur, Erev Yom Kippur is observed through acts or charity and visits to others to seek or give forgiveness. Traditionally, Jews enjoy a large, festive meal after afternoon prayers, prior to Kol Nidre. Yom Kippur prayer services begin with the Kol Nidre recited prior to sunset, followed by ma’ariv evening prayers featuring an extended Selichot service. These selichot prayers for forgiveness also precede the morning prayer. Shacharit prayers are followed by musaf, an added holiday prayer and the mincha afternoon prayer including a Haftorah reading of the Book of Jonah. The cantor and some Jews traditionally wear a kittel, a white robe, during all of these services. The Haftorah reading shows God’s willingness to forgive those who repent. To conclude the service, the congregation recites the ne’ilah prayer, followed by the Shema and blowing of the shofar.
The last of the three pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot, like Pesach and Shavu’ot, has both historical and agricultural significance. Falling on Tishri 15, five days after Yom Kippur, Sukkot commemorates the ancient Jews’ forty years of desert wandering and of living in temporary shelters. Sukkot means “booths” and refers to the temporary dwellings in which Jews must live for seven days to remind us of the years of wandering. The sukkah built must have at least two and one-half walls and a roof, made from sekhakh — natural materials such as twigs that were cut from growth in the ground. Placed last on the sukkah, the sekhakh must cover the booth loosely so that rain can enter the sukkah, and stars can be seen. Also called Chag Ha-Asif, or the Festival of Ingathering, Sukkot celebrates the agricultural harvest. For this reason, Jews customarily decorate the inside of a sukkah with autumn fruits and vegetables. According to Leviticus 23:33, during the first and second days of Sukkot, Jews attend synagogue services and may not work. At synagogue services, Jews use in prayer Four Species: a citron (etrog), a palm branch (lulav), two willow branches (aravot), and three myrtle branches (hadassim). Holding these four plant species, Jews recite a blessing and wave the plants in six directions to symbolize God’s omnipresence. Other meanings are also ascribed to the lulav. One midrash likens the different plants to parts of the human body.
Celebrated on the twenty-second day of Tishrei, Shemini Atzeret means “the Eighth (day) of Assembly,” and it follows the seventh day of Sukkot. The sukkah is no longer needed for this holiday, so during the cantor’s repetition of the Musaf Amidah, the Geshem prayer is recited with a request for rain. On Shemini Atzeret, Jews recite the Yizkor memorial prayers and if Shabbat does not fall during Sukkot’s intermediate days, the book of Ecclesiastes is also chanted. Generally, the cantor wears a kittel, or special white robe, as a symbol of piety.
Observed on the twenty-third day of Tishrei, Simchat Torah marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of public Torah readings and the start of a new cycle. Translated as “rejoicing with the Torah,” Simchat Torah involves joyous processions in which all the Torah scrolls are carried around the synagogue in seven symbolic circuits or hakafot. Each circuit is announced by chants asking God to save us (Hoshiah Na), ending with a request that God, “Answer us on the day we call” (Aneinu B’yom Koreinu). Torah readings consist of both the last parashah of Deuteronomy and the first parashah of Genesis. Simchat Torah features the only evening service in which the Torah is read. Jews also recite biblical and liturgical verses about God’s goodness and the Torah, as well as prayers for the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the House of David and the Temple in Jerusalem. During the evening service, children are often given small Israeli flags, candies, and other treats. The morning service includes the Hallel, the holiday Amidah, and a holiday Mussaf. Once again, when the Torah scroll is removed for reading, the congregation repeats the seven hakafot and associated prayers.
Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is observed for eight days, beginning on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev. “Hanukkah” derives from the Hebrew for “dedication” or “consecration,” referring to the Second Temple’s rededication in Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century B.C.E. against Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Although the Books of Maccabees are not part of the Tanakh, the story of Hanukkah is alluded to in religious and historical documents in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible. The Talmud states that when the Temple was being rededicated, the Jews found only enough consecrated olive oil to light the Temple’s Eternal Flame for one day. Miraculously, that oil burned for eight full days, allowing time to prepare new oil. In celebration of Hanukkah, Jews light eight candles on a Hanukiah for each night of the holiday. The shamash (“servant”), an extra candle, is usually located higher or lower on the Hanukiah and is lit each night to adhere to the Talmudic restriction of use of Hanukkah lights to publicize the holiday. Three brachot, or blessings are recited during the holiday. After lighting the candles, many Jews sing the hymn Ma’oz Tzur to praise God for rescuing us from tragedy and persecution. Other Hanukkah traditions include preparation of latkes and sufganiyot, which are both fried with oil. Children play with dreidels marked with Hebrew letters for the acronym, “A great miracle happened there.”
Celebrated on the fourteenth day of Adar, Purim commemorates Persian Queen Esther’s rescue of the Jews from Haman’s plans to destroy them, as recounted in Megillat Esther. When the Jewish orphan, Esther, becomes King Ahasuerus’s new wife, her cousin Mordechai advises her to conceal her Jewish identity. Mordechai learns of a plot to kill the King. When the plotters are caught, Mordechai’s service to the King is remembered. The King’s prime minister orders Mordechai killed for refusing to bow to Haman. When Haman learns that Mordechai is Jewish, he decides to order the destruction of Mordechai and of all Jews in Persia. Mordechai learns of the plan and asks Esther to help to save the Jews. Since Esther has found favor with the King, Ahasuerus believes Esther’s report of Haman’s plans. Haman’s plot is foiled, and the King orders Haman’s death.
To observe Purim, Jews attend a synagogue recitation of the Book of Esther on Erev Purim and on the following morning. With the Megillah readings, the cantillation, or chant, differs from that used in other Torah readings. The Megillah also calls for the reading of the story in Exodus 17:8-16 of the much earlier attack on the Jews of Amalek. In keeping with a passage in Deuteronomy 25:19 calling for Jews to destroy memories of Amalek, when Haman’s name is mentioned during Megillah readings, Jews shake groggers or noismakers. Other traditions include giving gifts of food and drink to friends (mishloach manot), the giving of charity to the poor, and enjoyment of a festive meal. Hamantaschen baked especially for Purim are fruit-filled cookies shaped like Haman’s three-cornered hat.
Celebrated on the fifteenth day of Nisan, Passover (Pesach) commemorates the Israelites’ escape from slavery and their exodus from Egypt. Since the Jews left Egypt in the spring, the Jewish calendar is synchronized with the longer solar calendar to ensure that Passover occurs annually during spring. Outside Israel, Jews attend synagogue services, and no work is performed during the first two and the seventh and eighth days of Passover.
The term “Passover” refers to the lamb’s blood that the Israelites marked on their doorposts to alert God’s angel of death to pass over them when setting the tenth plague upon the Egyptians. Similarly, Passover is called the “Festival of Unleavened Bread” in part because of the Jews’ haste in leaving Egypt, requiring them to pack their dough before it had time to rise. As unleavened bread baked under special rules and rabbinic supervision, matzah became the symbol of Passover. In observance of this biblically mandated holiday, Jews are prohibited from eating any “chametz,”- – leavened, fermented, or yeast-containing products- – for eight days. This includes wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt. Ashkenazi Jews also refrain from eating “kitniyot” such as rice, maize and legumes as these swell during cooking. Prohibited leavening and fermenting agents include yeast and sourdough. According to oral law, within eighteen minutes’ contact with water, grains begin to ferment and become chametz. Therefore, Exodus 12:15 requires Jews to remove from their households, offices, and cars all chametz prior to the first day of Passover and to avoid acquiring or consuming these substances during the holiday. Jews carefully clean their homes and perform a special ceremony with blessings to mark the elimination of chametz. Typically, separate meat and dairy dishes, pots, and utensils are used only during Pesach.
On Erev Pesach and the next night, Jews hold a seder, or special meal, during which they read the Haggadah detailing the story of the Jews’ persecution in Egypt, God’s intervention, and the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah also contains special prayers and songs of thanksgiving for God’s continuing acts of mercy and kindness to the Jews. In place of Korban Pesach, or sacrifice of a lamb at the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, Jews assemble a Passover seder plate with special symbols, including the following: a roasted shank bone (sacrificed Pascal lamb), a roasted egg (spring), charoset (pounded fruits and nuts resembling brick mortar), maror (bitter herb for Jews’ slavery), fresh green vegetable (spring). A separate plate (or the same plate depending on one’s custom) contains three matzot, with one to be broken and hidden as afikoman for children to find at the conclusion of the meal. Two main interpretations exist for the three matzot. Some Jews view the matzot as symbols of the Kohanim, Levites, and Israelites. Others see the matzot as symbols of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Traditionally, the middle matzah represents the Pascal Lamb, or sacrifice at the First Temple. In modern times, the afikoman affords children a distraction and in many families, a token gift follows for finding it.
To remember approximately six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, Yom
Hashoah is normally observed on the twenty-seventh of Nisan, eight days before Israeli Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzma’ut). The full Hebrew, Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura translates as “Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and Heroism.” Israeli proposals to establish a Holocaust remembrance day date back to 1949. Originally, Yom Hashoah was to be observed on the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising (April 19, 1943), but that day, the fourteenth of Nisan, immediately precedes Pesach. On April 12, 1951, the Knesset established the twenty-seventh of Nisan as the official date of national Israeli observance of Yom Hashoah as a day of mourning and commemoration. Observance includes a special ceremony at Yad Vashem and the blowing of sirens at sundown and again at 10 a.m. on Yom Hashoah. The sirens signal cessation of regular activity for a moment of tribute to the dead. In collaboration with Jewish leaders in the United States, Israel and Canada, Israel’s Conservative Masorti movement created Megillat HaShoah, or a special Yom HaShoah scroll and other readings for Yom Ha Shoah. Many Jews light a special yellow yahrzeit candle. Typically, synagogues hold educational programs about the Holocaust. Some Orthodox Jews, such as Haredim and Hasidim, prefer not to observe Yom Ha Shoah and observe only traditional fast days, such as Tisha b’Av and the Tenth of Tevet.
Conceived as an Israeli civil holiday, Yom Hazikaron is observed on the fourth of Iyar as a Memorial Day for all those who died while fighting to establish the State of Israel or while serving on active duty in Israel’s army or security forces. As declared by the Knesset, Yom Hazikaron falls on the day before Israel’s Independence Day. The proximity of the two holidays reinforces the reality that people sacrificed their lives to establish and to preserve Israel’s independence. Unlike America’s Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron is marked by somber observance and the closing of all sites of public entertainment from sunset to sunset. Throughout Israel, an air raid siren is sounded at 8 p.m. and again at 11 a.m. to signal a moment of silence and the cessation of all activity. At Israel’s military cemeteries, there is a public recitation of prayers. Radio and television stations broadcast solemn Israeli songs and programs about the founding pioneers and soldiers who lost their lives. Outside Israel, Jews typically observe Yom Hazikaron with a memorial service, which may include special readings and the kaddish prayer.
Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s independence day, falls on the fifth of Iyar to commemorate Israel’s establishment as a state on May 14, 1948. In Israel, on the evening of Yom Ha’atzmaut, a special ceremony is held on Mount Herzl including speeches, a march of soldiers, and the lighting of torches for each of the twelve Tribes of Israel. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has established the tradition of reciting Hallel. Conservative Jews read a Torah portion and part of Al Ha Nissim, also read on Hanukkah and Purim, thanking God for the miracle of Jews’victory over powerful enemies. On the Shabbat closest to Yom Ha’atzmaut, synagogue members generally recite special prayers and sing Hatikvah. Many Jews display Israeli flags. Israel sponsors an international Bible contest for high school students. Many synagogue religious schools promote the contest to encourage Jewish learning and pride in Israel.
On the eighteenth of Iyar, Jews celebrate Lag B’Omer to mark the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer. Jews count the Omer from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot. This custom originated in Leviticus 23:15-16 of the Torah, which commands Jews to count seven full weeks from the day after Pesach to the forty-ninth day, which is Shavuot. The thirty-third day of the count is viewed as the last day of the plague suffered by Rabbi Akiva’s students for failure to show proper respect during the counting of the Omer. The counting of the Omer originated when Moses had told the Jews that they would receive the Torah forty-nine days after the exodus from Egypt. In addition, Lag B’Omer marks the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, credited as the author of the Zohar. Modern scholars believe the Zohar was composed in the Middle Ages by multiple authors. To symbolize the light from this Jewish mysticism, Jews traditionally light bonfires on Lag B’ Omer. The bonfires also symbolize Jews’ fight for freedom, coinciding with Bar Kochba’s short-lived victory over the Romans.
To honor the Holy City of Jerusalem, spiritual capital of the Jews, Israelis instituted Jerusalem Day, or Yom Yerushalayim, on the twenty-eighth day of Iyar. The holiday celebrates the re-capture and unification of Jerusalem after the Six Day War on June 7, 1967. Prior to this, although Israel became independent in 1948, the Arab and Jewish sections of Jerusalem remained separate for nineteen years. When Jordan had captured Old Jerusalem in 1948, Arabs destroyed the beautiful Jewish Quarter and desecrated the Western Wall. The Jordanians barred Jewish access to the Western Wall. Then, during the Six Day War, Jordan joined Syria and Egypt against Israel, and Israel won back all of Jerusalem. Israel re-built the Jewish Quarter and Jewish holy sites, while continuing to allow people of other religions to visit their own sites of worship.
In contrast with Yom Hazikaron, Yom Yerushalayim is generally observed only in Israel. Israeli schools hold special programs and schedule lessons on Jerusalem’s historical importance to Jews. Many Israelis travel to Jerusalem to participate in parades and to show solidarity. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate established the custom of reciting both the Hallel prayers of praise and the psalms Psukei d’Zimra. Some congregations outside Israel also observe the holiday by reciting the Hallel prayer or supplemental readings.
With the end of the Counting of the Omer on the sixth day of Sivan, Shavuot celebrates the day that the Israelites received the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Bible calls Shavuot the Festival of Weeks, the Day of the First Fruits, and the Festival of Reaping. In ancient times, the Jews celebrated the harvest with a seven week festival, beginning with the barley harvest during Passover and the wheat harvest on Shavuot. On Shavuot , the ancient Israelites could first bring their bikkurim, or first fruits of the harvest, to the Temple in Jerusalem. Deuteronomy 8:8 calls for bringing to the Temple the Seven Species of Israel: barley, dates, figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates, and wheat.
Israelis celebrate Shavuot on one day, while, outside Israel, Jews observe two days of Shavuot. During morning synagogue services, Jews read a liturgical poem praising God (the Akdamot). On the second day, before reading the Torah portion, Jews read the Book of Ruth. One can find a parallel between the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah and Ruth’s acceptance of Judaism. Ruth also came to Israel around the time of Shavuot, the end of the grain harvest. Traditionally, Jews devote the night to all-night Torah study. As another custom, Jews eat dairy products, since King Solomon referred to the Torah as “milk and honey under your tongue.”(Song of Songs 4:11).
On the ninth day of Av, Jews fast and mourn to commemorate both the destruction of the First and Second Temples and also, other tragedies which the Jews have experienced on this date throughout history. The Mishnah (Taanit 4:6) mentions five sorrowful events that occurred on the ninth of Av. Both Temples were destroyed on the ninth of Av: first by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and next by the Romans in 70 C.E. Ten of Moses’s twelve scouts had disparaged Canaan to the Israelites, such that God punished that generation of Israelites for lack of faith and kept them from entering the Promised Land. Simon Bar Kokhba’s revolt against the Romans failed on this date in 135 C.E., resulting in his death and the destruction of the city of Betar, and Jerusalem was destroyed. In addition, on this date in 1492, Spain expelled its Jews. This annual fast day falls in July or August.
Tisha B’Av marks the end of a three-week mourning period, beginning with the fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz, which commemorates the first breach in Jerusalem’s walls. For the first nine days of Av, with the exception of Shabbat, Jews traditionally avoid indulgence in meat, wine, and new clothes. Weddings, parties, and haircuts are not permitted during the three-week mourning period. On Tisha B’Av, Jews do not perform regular work. As on Yom Kippur, Jews also do not eat, drink, wash, shave, bathe, wear cosmetics, wear leather shoes, or engage in sexual relations. Since Torah study is considered an enjoyable activity, the only permitted texts on Tisha B’Av are portions of Jeremiah, the Book of Lamentations, the Book of Job, and Torah chapters on laws for mourning. The most observant sit on low stools and avoid idle or joyful behavior or conversation. In synagogues, the ark is covered in black, and congregations read Kinnot, (elegies) and the Book of Lamentations. Since the Temple was thought to have burned from the ninth of Av through most of the tenth of Av, many Jews fast until nightfall but customarily refrain from eating meat and drinking wine until noon of the day after Tisha B’Av.
On the fifteenth of Av, forty years after the Jews began wandering in the desert, the Jews learned that G-d would allow them to enter the Promised Land. Secular Israelis celebrate Tu B’Av as a minor holiday of love, also called Hag Ha-Ahava, with night-long concerts