Jewish Holidays

Hanukkah 

Begins sunset of Wednesday, December 12, 2017, to nightfall of Wednesday, December 20, 2017

 


Unlike most of the major Jewish holidays, Chanukah’s origin is not in the Bible, but rather in events that happened later. This is a holiday that lasts eight days and begins on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev (usually in December). There are no completely holy days, so businesses are open as usual.

Chanukah marks a historic event that took place in the Seleucid period, in the 2nd century BCE. A few of the Seleucid kings (the dynasty that followed Alexander the Great, and which was based in Syria) tried to force the Jews in the Land of Israel to adopt certain customs that were against the laws of Judaism. The worst decree was when King Antiochus IV ordered the installation of a statue in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

In 167 BCE, the Jews revolted against the Greek Seleucid regime. A few of the leaders of the revolt, the Hasmoneans, or Maccabees, were the sons of Mattathias, the high priest. In 164 BCE, under the leadership of Judah Maccabee, the revolt reached its climax with the liberation of Jerusalem from foreign rule, including the Holy Temple. The events are documented in a few historical sources written at the end of the 2nd century CE, a few decades after the revolt. According to Jewish tradition, the holiday of Chanukah was instituted by Judah Maccabee.

The holiday lasts eight days, commemorating the celebrations marking the purification and rededication of the Holy Temple, and a miracle recorded in the traditions: When the Maccabees looked for holy oil to light the candelabrum in the Temple, they found only one small flask whose seal had not been broken and was therefore still pure. The oil in the flask was enough for only one day, but a miracle occurred and the oil burned for eight days. In addition to the element of heroism marked by this holiday, Chanukah also has a motif of light against darkness, so Chanukah is also called the holiday of Lights.

In modern times, Chanukah has been adopted as a symbol of the Jews’ struggle against their enemies on both the religious and national level. Today some people emphasize the religious, miraculous side of the holiday, while others focus on the national victory aspect. In any event, this is a holiday full of joy and is a special favorite among children.

Holiday Customs

Candle lighting - Throughout the eight days of Chanukah candles are lit in a Chanukiah, a candelabrum with eight branches in a row and an extra candle holder, called the shamash, from which the other candles are lit. On each night of Chanukah an additional candle is lit, starting with one on the first night, two on the second, etc. The shamash is always lit, too, such that in practice two candles are lit the first night, three on the second, etc. The Chanukiah is placed on the window sill or in some other visible place, and it is forbidden to use the light for any purpose. There is a custom to light the Chanukiah with olive oil, although most people today use colorful wax candles. A short blessing is recited over the lighting of the candles, a ceremony in which children are included, and which is followed by the singing of Chanukah songs.

Jelly donuts (sufganiyot) and potato fritters - Another Chanukah custom is the eating of special foods, mainly those fried in oil, such as donuts and fritters.

Spinning tops - children play with four-sided spinning tops, marked with the Hebrew initials of a Great Miracle Happened Here. It is also customary to give children “Chanukah gelt” money for buying candies or toys.

 

 

Tu B'Shevat

Wednesday, January 31, 2018  

 

This holiday has its origins not in the Bible, but rather in the Mishna, which was written in the early 3rd century CE. It is primarily an agricultural holiday, as evinced by its other name, New Year of Trees. 

This holiday is celebrated in the midst of the rainy season (late January or early February). It was originally a holiday with halakhic (Jewish legal) significance, as it was used to mark the age of a tree for the purpose of harvesting and tithing its fruit - tithes that were given to the priests who served in the Temple and did not own any land.

After the Jewish people were scattered in the Diaspora and were no longer involved primarily in agriculture, Tu B’Shvat became a holiday symbolizing the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. It is not a holy rest day and businesses are open as usual.

 

Passover

Begins sunset of Friday, March 30, 2018,  to nightfall of Sunday, April 8, 2018

 

Passover is the eight-day observance commemorating the freedom and exodus of the Israelites (Jewish slaves) from Egypt during the reign of the Pharaoh Ramses II. The holiday's name, Pesach, meaning "passing over" or "protection" in Hebrew, is derived from the instruction that tradition says were given to Moses by God. In order to encourage the Pharaoh to free the Israelites, the story goes that God intended to kill the firstborn of both man and beast. To protect themselves, the Israelites were told to mark their dwellings with lamb's blood so that the angel of death would pass over their homes. Passover today is celebrated with family gatherings, a festival meal, and special foods.

Fun Facts About Passover

  • Passover is the oldest continuously celebrated Jewish festival.
  • Jewish people eat matzos, a flat, unleavened bread made of flour and water, during the Passover holiday. They do this to remember their ancestors who, in order to escape from slavery in Egypt, left in such a hurry that there was no time for their dough to rise.
  • During Passover, the Coca-Cola bottling company of New York makes Coke that is kosher for Passover. Sugar is used instead of corn syrup because corn is not considered kosher for Passover.
  • Children play an important role in the Passover celebration. During the Seder dinner, the youngest child at the table generally asks four questions, the answers to which explain "why this night is different from all other nights."

 

Yom Hasho’a - Remembrance, of The Holocaust and Heroism 

Begins sunset of Wednesday, April 11, 2018, to nightfall of  Thursday, April 12, 2018

 

Yom Hasho’a, Israel’s Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and Heroism, is held on the 27th day of Nissan (towards the end of April or beginning of May), one week after Pesach (Passover). The day is dedicated to the memory of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis and to the heroism of the Jewish resistance to the Holocaust. The date was set to mark the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising on the eve of Pesach, April 19, 1943.

The memorial day was first marked in 1951, and was decreed by law in 1959. The law stipulates that all places of entertainment including restaurants and cafes are closed from the eve of Yom Hasho’a till the following evening. Memorial services are held throughout the country, and the central state ceremony takes place at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust Remembrance organization. At 10 a.m. on Yom Hasho’a sirens are sounded for one minute throughout the country and it is customary to stand in silence. Flags are flown at half-mast and TV and radio broadcasts are devoted to the subject. Yom Hasho’a is an ordinary business day. Some Israelis do take part in memorial ceremonies, but the day is felt most in the country’s schools where special ceremonies are held. Holocaust survivors and their families usually light remembrance candles in memory of their relatives on this day.

 

 Yom Hazikaron -  Remembrance Day

Begins sunset of Tuesday, April 17, 2018, to nightfall of Wednesday, April 18, 2018

 

Yom Hazikaron, the Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars and for Terror Victims is marked every year on the fourth of Iyar (towards the end of April or beginning of May,) one week after the Holocaust Remembrance Day and two weeks after Pesach (Passover.) The day is dedicated to commemorating the country’s soldiers and members of security forces, the memory of the fallen from the pre-state undergrounds, and to victims of terrorism.

Yom Hazikaron was formally decreed by law in 1963, but the practice of commemorating the fallen on this day started in 1951 to mark the connection between Independence Day and the people who died to achieve and maintain this independence.

The day starts on the evening of the fourth of Iyar and ends the following evening with the opening of the Independence Day celebrations. By law, all places of entertainment are closed on Yom Hazikaron, ceremonies commemorating the fallen are held throughout the country, and flags are flown at half mast. On the eve of Yom Hazikaron a siren is sounded at 8 p.m. and again at 11 a.m. on the following morning. It is customary to stand in silence when the sirens are sounded.  Commemoration ceremonies are held in urban centers, public buildings and cemeteries and TV and radio are devoted to the subject.

There is hardly anybody in Israel who has not lost a family member, friend or acquaintance in Israel’s wars, which makes this day significant for every Israeli. Many go to commemoration ceremonies, and family members of the fallen go on this day to military cemeteries. Yom Hazikaron is not a holiday and workplaces that do not deal with entertainment are open as usual, but it is worthwhile checking in advance to see if specific places are open. In any case, the special atmosphere of mourning is discernable in the street.

 

 Yom HaAtzma'ut  -  Israeli Independence Day

Begins sunset of Wednesday, April 18, 2018, to nightfall of Thursday, April 19, 2018

 

Israeli Independence Day commemorates the declaration of independence of Israel in 1948.  Although Yom HaAtzma'ut is normally observed on the Jewish date 5th of Iyyar, it may be moved earlier or postponed if the observance of the holiday (or Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day), which always precedes it) would conflict with Shabbat.

 

Shavuot

Begins sunset of Sunday, May 20, 2018, to nightfall of Monday, May 21, 2018 

   

 Shavuot, the Holiday of Weeks, is one of the three pilgrimage holidays, along with Pesach and Sukkot. These are the holidays on which the whole Jewish people would come to Jerusalem in ancient times, when the Holy Temple was there and would offer animal and grain sacrifices. Shavuot is observed at the end of the counting of the Omer: the counting of seven weeks (actually 50 days) from the first day of Pesach. At the beginning of the counting, Jews would bring an Omer (Biblical measure) of grain from the first barley harvest to the Holy Temple, and at the end would bring an Omer of grain from the first wheat harvest. The seven weeks in the counting of the Omer are what give the holiday its name.

 A fundamentally agricultural holiday, Shavuot is also called the Harvest Holiday and the First Fruits (Bikkurim) Holiday, commemorating the custom of bringing offerings to the Holy Temple from the first fruits of the harvest and the first animals born to the flocks. This agricultural aspect of the holiday was retained even after the destruction of the Holy Temple: among the symbols of the holiday are the seven species with which the Land of, Israel is blessed - wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.  Shavuot is also the holiday of the Giving of the Torah. According to tradition, it was on this day that the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai.

During the period when most of the Jewish people was in the Diaspora and could not celebrate Shavuot as an agricultural holiday, the religious traditions took precedence. With the renewal of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel, the new farmers (mainly in the kibbutz and moshav cooperative farming communities) reinstated the agricultural aspect as the main focus of the holiday, and a rich and colorful tradition developed around ceremonies commemorating the bringing of Bikkurim.  Shavuot is also connected to the Biblical Book of Ruth, which relates the story of Ruth the Moabite, who joined the Jewish people and who is the ancestor of King David. This story is connected with Shavuot as it takes place during the wheat harvest, around the time of Shavuot.

Holiday Custom:

Shavuot night prayers - One custom connected with tradition is that the Torah was given on Shavuot: Thus on the night of the holiday, it is customary to learn Torah all night long at the synagogue in order to prepare oneself for receiving the Torah, just as a bride prepares herself to receive her groom. The texts that are studied vary from one community to another but usually include passages from the Torah, the Mishna and the Zohar.

The reading of the Book of Ruth - On Shavuot day the Book of Ruth is read in the synagogue and the reading is accompanied by various liturgical songs connected with the precepts in the Torah.

Eating dairy products - This is a relatively recent tradition, whose origin is unclear. Many Israelis who are not specifically religious have adopted this custom and hold fancy meals based on the many dairy products available in Israel.

 

 

Tisha B'Av  

Begins sunset of Saturday, July 21, 2018, to nightfall of Sunday, of July 22, 2018

 A day of mourning marking the destruction of the First Temple destroyed in 586 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon; and the destruction of the Second Temple, destroyed in 70 CE by Titus, emperor of Rome. This date also marks the beginning of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, by order of the Spanish monarchy. All these have turned this day into the main day of mourning among the other days of mourning on the Jewish calendar. There are three more days of mourning associated with the destruction of the First and Second Temples, but Tisha B’Av is the most important of all.

The three weeks preceding Tisha B’Av are a period known as Bein ha-Metsarim - a mourning period that starts on the 17th of Tammuz, the day the walls of Jerusalem were breached prior to the destruction of the Second Temple (it, too is a day of fast). Various mourning practices are observed during this period: there are no weddings and religious Jews do not cut their hair or listen to music.

Tisha B’Av is a fast day like Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), lasting from sunset on the eve of the 9th of Av until sunset the following day. The day of fast includes many other prohibitions on physical pleasures.

 

Rosh Hashanah 

Begins sunset of Wednesday, September 20, 2017, to nightfall of Friday, September 22, 2017

 

Rosh Hashanah, the holiday that marks the beginning of the Jewish year, is in the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which coincides with late September and early October. 


Unlike the other holidays, which have one holy day on which businesses are closed, Rosh Hashanah is a two-day holiday, and businesses are closed on both days. The holiday is two days according to the tradition started in the Diaspora when the onset of the new moon – which traditionally was decreed by the High Court in Jerusalem – was not known.

According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah commemorates the culmination of the creation of the universe and acceptance of God’s sovereignty over the world. These are also the days on which God judges people’s deeds throughout the year and decides their future for the coming year - death for the sinners, life for the pious and a repentance period until Yom Kippur for people whose status is uncertain. The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called “The Ten Days of Repentance,” during which people have the opportunity to atone for their sins.

Holiday Customs

Prayer - Religious Jews attend lengthy synagogue services and recite special prayers and liturgical songs written over the centuries. The versions of the prayers and liturgical songs vary slightly from one ethnic group to another.

Selichot (special penitential prayers) - During the week (or month, depending on the ethnic group) prior to Rosh Hashanah there are special “Selichot” prayers, requesting forgiveness and expressing remorse and repentance.

The blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn) - On Rosh Hashanah, 100 (or 101, depending on the ethnic tradition) shofar blasts are sounded in the synagogue, in single, triple and nine-blast groupings. The shofar blasts are intended to symbolize God’s sovereignty over the world, to remind Jews of the giving of the commandments on Mt. Sinai, of Abraham and Isaac’s devotion to God, to arouse people to repentance and to herald the Day of Judgment and the coming of the Messiah. When the first day of Rosh Hashanah is on Shabbat, the shofar is sounded only on the second day.

Apple and honey - At the evening meal on Rosh Hashanah it is customary to eat an apple dipped in honey and other sweet foods to symbolize a sweet new year.

Tashlich - On Rosh Hashanah afternoon it is customary to walk to a river, lakeshore or another open body of water, to shake out one’s pockets and symbolically cast one’s sins into the water. If you come to Israel during this period, it is worth going to see religious Jews performing this custom. When the first day of Rosh Hashanah is on Shabbat, Tashlich is performed on the second day.

New year greetings - Until a few years ago Jews in Israel (and around the world) used to send “Shana Tova” greeting cards to their friends and relatives wishing them health, happiness, and prosperity for the new year. Today this custom has all but disappeared, as most Israelis prefer to use the telephone or e-mail. One way or the other, it is customary for Jews to wish everyone they meet during this New Year period a “Shana Tova” - a good new year.

Holiday meal - Even secular Jews who do not go to synagogue services have a holiday meal on the Rosh Hashanah evening, with fine wine, apple dipped in honey and other sweet dishes. It is customary to eat a pomegranate, as a symbol of a plentiful year, the head of a fish, symbolizing the desire to keep ahead, and other symbolic foods.

Yom Kippur

 Begins sunset of Friday, September 29, 2017, to nightfall of Saturday, September 30, 2017

 

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest and most important holiday in Judaism. It is a day of fasting and prayer that is celebrated on the 10th of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. 

Yom Kippur marks the end of the “Ten Days of Repentance,” or the “High Holidays,” and grants Jews a last opportunity to obtain forgiveness and absolution for their sins in the previous year. According to Jewish belief, on Yom Kippur judgment is passed on each person for the coming year. In order to be worthy of forgiveness from sins, this day is devoted to spiritual repentance and a commitment to start the new year with a clean conscience, secure in the knowledge that God forgives every person who truly regrets his misdeeds.

The idea of purification is fulfilled by fasting: on Yom Kippur observant Jews fast from the evening of the holy day until the following night. Unlike all the other Jewish fast days, Yom Kippur is observed in full, even when it coincides withShabbat. Yom Kippur is the only day on the Jewish calendar of which there are five prayer services.

Yom Kippur is not directly connected with any specific historical event, although some believe that on this day Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the second set of tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments and God forgave the Israelites for the sin of the Golden Calf. This is a holiday ordained in the Torah, where it is called a Shabbat of Solemn Rest, a day on which no productive work can be done, just like on Shabbat.

Even though most of the Jewish population in Israel is not religiously observant, Yom Kippur has and remains a special day for all and has retained its unique character. Many Jews who define themselves as secular and do not visit the synagogue all year long, go to prayer services on the special day, and many also observe the fast, completely or partially.

Customs

Fast - The Torah states that this is a day on which Jews are to “afflict their souls” - by observing a total fast, abstaining from both food and drink. There is also a prohibition against all physical pleasures, wearing leather shoes, washing any part of the body (including brushing the teeth). The fast, which lasts from sundown on the eve of the holiday until the stars come out the following night, is intended to not only cause physical discomfort, but to relieve a person of involvement in physical matters so that he can concentrate on the prayer and spiritual introspection required on this day.

Kaparot - atonement ritual. On the day before Yom Kippur there is a customary atonement ritual, in which a live chicken is swung in circles above the head of a person, in the belief that the person’s sins will be transferred to the chicken, which is then slaughtered (the ritual is, of course, accompanied by special prayers). The chicken is customarily given to the poor or sold, and the money given to charity.  

Selichot - asking for forgiveness. In addition to the prayers during the days of repentance preceding Yom Kippur, on the holy day itself or before it, it is customary to ask forgiveness from anyone whom one might have offended. According to Jewish belief, Yom Kippur atones for the sins between man and God, but not between man and his fellow man - people must grant one another forgiveness individually.

The meal before the fast - on the eve of Yom Kippur there is a religious precept to eat a holiday meal that ends before the beginning of the fast at sunset. The fast begins immediately after the meal.

Prayer - Religious Jews spend the whole of Yom Kippur day in synagogue devoting themselves to prayer. The prayers include a general admission of sins, and each person silently adds his own personal sins. One of the important prayers is Kol Nidrei - All Vows, named after the opening words of the first prayer, which cancels any vows that a person has made. It is customary to go to synagogue dressed in holiday clothing, and many people wear all white clothes, symbolizing purity.

The blowing of the shofar - At the close of Yom Kippur, the shofar - a ram’s horn - is blown to mark the end of the day of prayer and fasting.

 

Sukkot                                                         

Begins sunset of Wednesday, October 4, 2017, to nightfall of Wednesday, October 11, 2017

 

Sukkot, or Feast of Booths, is the third holiday in the Hebrew month of Tishrei and is one of the most important Jewish holidays. Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage holidays when the whole Jewish people would come to Jerusalem in ancient times when the Holy Temple was there and would offer animal and grain sacrifices. It is a particularly joyous holiday that combines religious and agricultural elements.


Sukkot originates in the Torah and commemorates the booths in which the Israelites lived in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. A sukkah is a temporary dwelling, usually with wooden or cloth walls on at least three of its four sides and a roof made of tree branches (traditionally palm fronds) through which the sky can be seen.


Another explanation for the custom of building booths is to commemorate the booths built in the fields at harvest time to protect the harvested crops.

Sukkot is also known as the Harvest holiday, as it is celebrated in the autumn, after the summer harvest and before the planting of winter crops. A central theme in the holiday prayers is rain: the farmers thank God for this year’s harvest and pray for rain for the coming year. 

Sukkot lasts seven days, from the 15th to the 21st of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (usually the middle of October). The first day and last days are particularly festive: the first is a holy day, a rest day, when no productive work is allowed, similar to Shabbat, so most businesses are closed; the eighth day from the beginning of Sukkot is called Shemini Atzeret, is a separate holiday. The intermediate days are similar to weekdays. 

 

Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah        

Begins sunset of Wednesday, October 11, 2017,  to nightfall of Friday, October 13, 2017

 

The holiday of Sukkot is followed by an independent holiday called Shemini Atzeret. In Israel, this is a one-day holiday; in the Diaspora, it is a two-day holiday, and the second day is known as Simchat Torah. This holiday is characterized by utterly unbridled joy, which surpasses even the joy of Sukkot. The joy reaches its climax on Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the conclusion—and restart—of the annual Torah-reading cycle.

These two days constitute a major holiday when most forms of work are prohibited. The special joy of this holiday celebrates the conclusion—and restart—of the annual Torah-reading cycle the preceding nights, women and girls light candles, reciting the appropriate blessings, and we enjoy nightly and daily festive meals, accompanied by kiddush. We don’t go to work, drive, write, or switch on or off electric devices. We are permitted to cook and to carry outdoors (unless it is also Shabbat).

The first day, Shemini Atzeret, features the prayer for rain, officially commemorating the start of the Mediterranean (i.e., Israeli) rainy season, and the Yizkor prayer (supplicating G‑d to remember the souls of the departed).  We no longer mention Sukkot in the day’s prayers; in the Diaspora, however, we do still eat in the sukkah (but without reciting the blessing on it).

The highlight of the second day, Simchat Torah (“The Joy of the Torah”), is thehakafot, held on both the eve and the morning of Simchat Torah, in which we march and dance with the Torah scrolls around the reading table in the synagogue. (In many synagogues, hakafot are conducted also on the eve of Shemini Atzeret.)

On this joyous day when we conclude the Torah, it is customary for every man to take part in the celebration by receiving an aliyah. The children, too, receive an aliyah!  After the final aliyah of the Torah, we immediately begin a new cycle from the beginning of Genesis (from a second Torah scroll); this is because as soon as we conclude studying the Torah, G‑d’s infinite wisdom, on one level, we immediately start again, this time to discover new and loftier interpretations.

 

 

 

 

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