Jewish Holidays

FROM REFORMJUDAISM.ORG

ROSH HASHANAH 

Rosh HaShanah (literally, “Head of the Year”) is the Jewish New Year, a time of prayer, self-reflection, and t’shuvah. We review our actions during the past year, and we look for ways to improve ourselves, our communities, and our world in the year to come. The holiday marks the beginning of a 10-day period, known as the Yamim Nora-im (“Days of Awe” or “High Holidays”), ushered in by Rosh HaShanah and culminating with Yom Kippur (the “Day of Atonement”). Rosh HaShanah is widely observed by Jews throughout the world, often with prayer and reflection in a synagogue. There also are several holiday rituals observed at home.

Rosh HaShanah is celebrated on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which – because of differences in the solar and lunar calendar – corresponds to September or October on the Gregorian or secular calendar. Customs associated with the holiday include sounding the shofar, eating a round challah, and tasting apples and honey to represent a sweet New Year.

YOM KIPPUR 

Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement” and refers to the annual Jewish observance of fasting, prayer, and repentance. Part of the High Holidays, which also includes Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year), Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

Yom Kippur is the moment in Jewish time when we dedicate our mind, body, and soul to reconciliation with our fellow human beings, ourselves, and God. As the New Year begins, we commit to self-reflection and inner change. As both seekers and givers of pardon, we turn first to those whom we have wronged, acknowledging our sins and the pain we have caused them. We are also commanded to forgive, to be willing to let go of any resentment we feel towards those who have committed offenses against us. Only then can we turn to God and ask for forgiveness. As we read in the Yom Kippur liturgy, “And for all these, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement.”

SUKKOT 

Sukkot is one of the most joyful festivals on the Jewish calendar. “Sukkot,” a Hebrew word meaning “booths” or “huts,” refers to the Jewish festival of giving thanks for the fall harvest. The holiday has also come to commemorate the 40 years of Jewish wandering in the desert after the giving of the Torah atop Mt. Sinai.

Also called Z’man Simchateinu (Season of Our Rejoicing), Sukkot is the only festival associated with an explicit commandment to rejoice. Sukkot is celebrated five days after Yom Kippur on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, and is marked by several distinct traditions. One, which takes the commandment to dwell in booths literally, is to erect a sukkah, a small, temporary booth or hut. Sukkot (in this case, the plural of sukkah) are commonly used during the seven-day festival for eating, entertaining and even for sleeping.

Our sukkot have open walls and open doors, and this encourages us to welcome as many people as we can. We invite family, friends, neighbors, and community to rejoice, eat, and share what we have with each other.

Another name for Sukkot is Chag HaAsif (Festival of the Ingathering), representing the importance in Jewish life of giving thanks for the bounty of the earth.

SH’MINI ATZERET & SIMCHAT TORAH 

Immediately following Sukkot, we observe Sh’mini Atzeret (8th Day of Assembly) and Simchat Torah (Rejoicing with the Torah), a fun-filled day during which we celebrate the completion of the annual reading of the Torah and affirm Torah as one of the pillars on which we build our lives.

As part of the celebration, the Torah scrolls are taken from the ark and carried or danced around the synagogue seven times. During the Torah service, the concluding section of the fifth book of the TorahD’varim (Deuteronomy), is read, and immediately following, the opening section of Genesis, or B’reishit, is read. This practice represents the cyclical nature of the relationship between the Jewish people and the reading of the Torah.

Historically, Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah were two separate holidays (a day of reflection after the end of Sukkot and a celebration of Torah the following day). However, in Israel and in Reform congregations, which generally observe one day of holidays rather than two, Sh’mini Atzeret is observed concurrently with Simchat Torah.

HANUKKAH

Hanukkah, one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays, is a festive eight-day celebration that for many people falls during the darkest, coldest season of the year. Also called the Festival of Lights, the holiday brings light, joy, and warmth to our homes and communities as we celebrate with candles, food, family, and friends. Light comes literally, with the lighting of an additional candle each day, and metaphorically, through a newer emphasis on charitable donations and a commitment to tikkun olam during the holiday. Hanukkah (alternately spelled Chanukah), meaning “dedication” in Hebrew, commemorates the victory of a small group of Jewish rebels (led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers, collectively known as “the Maccabees”) over the armies of Syria in 165 B.C.E. and the subsequent liberation and “rededication” of the Temple in Jerusalem. Modern celebrations of Hanukkah focus on family and friends and include the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah (also called a hanukkiyah); singing and playing special songs and games (dreidel); and eating foods prepared in oil including latkessufganiyot, bimuelos (fried dough puffs) and keftes de prasas (leek patties).

TU BISHVAT (NEW YEAR OF THE TREES)

Tu BiShvat or the “New Year of the Trees” is Jewish Arbor Day. The holiday is observed on the 15th (tu) of the Hebrew month of Shvat. Scholars believe that originally Tu BiShvat was an agricultural festival, marking the emergence of spring. In the 17th century, Kabbalists created a ritual for Tu BiShvat that is similar to a Passover seder. Today, many Jews hold a modern version of the Tu BiShvat seder each year. The holiday also has become a tree-planting festival in Israel, in which Israelis and Jews around the world plant trees in honor or in memory of loved ones and friends.

PURIM

With celebrations including costumes, skits and songs, noisemakers, and gifts of food, Purim is definitely full of fun! Purim is a joyous holiday that affirms and celebrates Jewish survival and continuity throughout history. The main communal celebration involves a public reading—usually in the synagogue—of the Book of Esther (M’gillat Esther), which tells the story of the holiday: Under the rule of King Ahashverosh, Haman, the king’s adviser, plots to exterminate all of the Jews of Persia. His plan is foiled by Queen Esther and her cousin Mordechai, who ultimately save the Jews of Persia from destruction. The reading of the m’gillah typically is a rowdy affair, punctuated by booing and noise-making when Haman’s name is read aloud.

Purim is an unusual holiday in many respects. First, Esther is the only biblical book in which God is not mentioned. Second, Purim, like Hanukkah, is viewed as a minor festival according to Jewish custom, but has been elevated to a major holiday as a result of the Jewish historical experience. Over the centuries, Haman has come to symbolize every anti-Semite in every land where Jews were oppressed. The significance of Purim lies not so much in how it began, but in what it has become: a thankful and joyous affirmation of Jewish survival.

PASSOVER

Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is a major Jewish spring festival celebrating freedom and family as we remember the Exodus from Egypt more than 3,000 years ago. The main observances of this holiday center around a special home service called the seder, which includes a festive meal, the prohibition on eating chametz, and the eating of matzah.

On the 15th day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, Jews gather with family and friends in the evening to read from a book called the Haggadah, meaning “telling,” which contains the order of prayers, rituals, readings, and songs for the Passover seder. The Haggadah helps us retell the events of the Exodus, so that each generation may learn and remember this story that is so central to Jewish life and history.

Passover is celebrated for either seven or eight days, depending on family and communal custom. In Israel and for most Reform Jews around the world, Passover is seven days, but for many other Jews, it is eight days.

YOM HASHOAH

Yom HaShoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, occurs on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan. Shoah, which means “catastrophe” or “utter destruction” in Hebrew, refers to the atrocities that were committed against the Jewish people during World War II. This is a memorial day for those who died in the Shoah. The Shoah is also known as the Holocaust, from a Greek word meaning “sacrifice by fire.”

The Holocaust was the largest manifestation of antisemitism in recent history. Yom HaShoah reminds us of the horrors that Jews and other persecuted groups faced: forced labor, starvation, humiliation, and torture, which often resulted in death. It was a systematic effort to wipe out an entire population from the face of the earth.

Many commemorate Yom HaShoah by lighting yellow candles to keep alive the memories of the victims. Most synagogues and Jewish communities gather together to mark the day through worship, music and the stories from survivors. Find a congregation near you to attend a Yom HaShoah commemoration event.

YOM HAZIKARON & YOM HATZMAUT

 the Jewish calendar – Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day), and Yom Y’rushalayim (Jerusalem Day, which celebrates the reunification of the city in 1967). In Israel, these days are observed as national holidays; around the world, they are observed in various ways by Jewish communities.

The Israeli Knesset (parliament) established the day that precedes Yom HaAtzmaut as Yom HaZikaron, a day to memorialize soldiers who lost their lives fighting in the War of Independence and subsequent battles, as well as a day to remember civilian victims of terrorism. The official State name given to the day is Yom HaZikaron LeHalalei Ma’arakhot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot HaEivah (יוֹם הזִּכָּרוֹן לַחֲלָלֵי מַעֲרָכוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְנִפְגְעֵי פְּעוּלוֹת הָאֵיבָה) which means “Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism” and was enacted into law in 1963. 

Yom HaAtzmaut marks the anniversary of the establishment of the modern state of Israel. It is observed on or near the 5th of the Hebrew month of Iyar on the Jewish calendar, which usually falls in April.

LAG BAOMER

Lag BaOmer is a minor, festive holiday that falls on the 33rd day of the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot, a period of time is known as the Omer. (The numerical value of the Hebrew letter lamed is 30, and the value of gimel is three; lamed and gimel together are pronounced “lahg.”) This holiday gives us a break from the semi-mourning restrictions (no parties or events with music, no weddings, no haircuts) that are customarily in place for some Jewish communities during the Omer.

The Omer has both agricultural and spiritual significance: it marks both the spring cycle of planting and harvest, and the Israelites’ journey out of slavery in Egypt (Passover) and toward receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai (Shavuot). An omer (“sheaf”) is an ancient Hebrew measure of grain. Biblical law forbade any use of the new barley crop until after an omer was brought as an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Book of Leviticus (23:15-16) also commanded: “And from the day on which you bring the offering…you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.” This commandment led to the practice of the S’firat HaOmer, or the 49 days of the “Counting of the Omer,” which begins on the second day of Passover and ends with the celebration of Shavuot on the 50th day. Lag BaOmer commemorates a variety of historical events, including the end of a plague that killed many students of Rabbi Akiva (c. 50-135 C.E.), the yahrzeit of 2nd-century mystical scholar Shimon bar Yochai, and a Jewish military victory over Roman forces in 66 C.E. In remembrance of these events, some people celebrate with picnics and bonfires. Many couples in Israel choose to get married on Lag BaOmer, and many people also choose to wait until that day to get a haircut or beard trim.

SHAVUOT

The festival of Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and encourages us to embrace the Torah’s teachings and be inspired by the wisdom Jewish tradition has to offer.

Shavuot is the Hebrew word for “weeks,” and the holiday occurs seven weeks after Passover. Shavuot, like many other Jewish holidays, began as an ancient agricultural festival that marked the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest. In ancient times, Shavuot was a pilgrimage festival during which Israelites brought crop offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, it is a celebration of Torah, education, and the choice to participate actively in Jewish life.

TISHA B’AV

Tishah B’Av, observed on the 9th (tishah) of the Hebrew month of Av, is a day of mourning the destruction of both ancient Temples in Jerusalem. Liberal Judaism never has assigned a central religious role to the ancient Temple, so mourning the destruction of the Temple may not be particularly meaningful to liberal Jews. In modern times, many Jews understand Tishah B’Av as a day to remember many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history, and to reflect on the suffering that still occurs in our world.

Customarily, Tishah B’Av is a time set aside for fasting and mourning. As on Yom Kippur, the fast extends from sundown until the following sundown. In the synagogue, the Book of Eichah (Lamentations) is chanted, as are kinot, which are dirges written during the Middle Ages. Sitting on low stools, a custom associated with mourning the dead, Jews read sections of the books of Jeremiah and Job, as well as passages from the Bible and the Talmud that deal with the Temples’ destructions in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E.

Some Jewish communities begin a period of semi-mourning three weeks before Tishah B’Av, on the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz. It was supposedly on this day in 586 B.C.E. that the Babylonians first made an incursion into the Temple in Jerusalem. Beginning on this date, Jews who observe this custom refrain from holding weddings and festive celebrations or cutting their hair. The mourning intensifies on the first of Av, with no meat or wine consumed, no new clothing purchased, and no shaving allowed. On the evening before Tishah B’Av, a 24-hour fast begins, and in synagogue services, the Book of Lamentations is chanted. When Tishah B’Av falls on Shabbat, its observance begins after Shabbat ends and extends into the next day.

For most liberal Jews, Tishah B’Av has faded in importance as a ritual observance, as the rebuilding of a central Temple in Jerusalem has lost its priority and significance in modern times. Although historians dispute the fact that both Temples were destroyed on this day, Tishah B’Av has become a symbol of Jewish suffering and loss. Over the centuries, other tragic events have come to be commemorated on this day, including the brutal massacres of the Crusades, the Jewish expulsion from Spain, and the Holocaust.