The Jewish holidays fall on the same date every year … on the Jewish calendar! The civil calendar and the Jewish calendar do not align because the Jewish calendar is semi-lunar while the civil one is the Gregorian solar calendar. Because the lunar month is approximately 29½ days long, the two calendars differ by some eleven days each year. So as to keep the harvest festivals within their appropriate seasons (in the Northern Hemisphere), an entire leap month is added to the Jewish calendar seven times during a nineteen-year cycle. The months, starting from Passover, are: Nissan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, Elul, Tishri, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Sh’vat, Adar, (Adar II). In ancient times, the appearance of the new moon at the beginning of each month (Rosh Hodesh) was celebrated as a minor festival.
The Jewish day, and consequently, every Jewish holiday, begins with sunset the day before the date indicated on the civil calendar. The reason is to be found in the first chapter of Genesis,
“… and it was evening, and it was morning …”
Head of the year. The Biblical name is Yom Teruah (“Day of the Fanfare”), that is, the Feast of the Trumpets. Also known as Yom haDin (“Day of Judgment”). The High Holy Days begin with the New Year, which falls on the first day of the seventh month. The New Year is a time to reflect upon the past year, asking forgiveness of friends and associates for any wrong we may have done them, repenting for transgressions, and planning to change for the better in the coming year. The popular image is of a day on which God opens the book of life to inscribe our fates and fortunes for the year to come. During the Ten Days of Awe, starting with Rosh Hashanah and closing with Yom Kippur, prayer, penitence and charity can attenuate the decree; the book is not sealed until the Day of Atonement or, perhaps, even as late as the last day of Sukkot. The blowing of the shofar (“ram’s horn”) is the essential ritual of the holiday.
Day of Atonement. Also known as Shabbat Shabbaton (“Sabbath of Sabbaths”). The holiest day of the Jewish year is dedicated to intense reflection and prayer, asking forgiveness for transgressions against God. During this twenty-five hour White Fast, it is customary to wear white or to don a kittel (“ritual white robe”) to symbolize the quest for purity and joy associated with a time of reconciliation. It is the only time during the year that the tallit (“prayer shawl”) is worn at evening prayers. Yom Kippur concludes with a joyous blast of the shofar and the conviction that we have all been inscribed for a good year.
Booths or Tabernacles. Also known as Chag ha-Asif (“Holiday of the Ingathering” or “Harvest Festival”). One of three biblically ordained pilgrimage festivals. Rabbinic tradition associates the holiday with the temporary shelters (sukkah, plural sukkot) built by the Israelites during the forty years of wandering in the desert after the bondage of Egypt. Today, booths are constructed to celebrate the holiday, recalling not only the Exodus from Egypt but also the simple huts farmers would build at harvest time, so as not to lose a moment before the rains commenced. In practice, the sukkah is a temporary structure of no fewer than three walls, lightly covered with branches or reeds and open to the sky, usually decorated with fruits and vegetables. On this holiday, the Bible commands us to make a blessing over the lulav (“a closed frond of a date palm, bound together with willow and myrtle branches”) and etrog (“citron”). It is obligatory to partake of a meal in the sukkah, even if it is no more than an olive-sized piece of bread. Sukkot is celebrated for seven days in the State of Israel and in Liberal Jewish communities; it is an eight-day holiday in more traditional Jewish communities of the Diaspora. The last two days are Hoshana Rabbah and Sh’mini Atseret.
Great Hosanna or Great Supplication. The seventh day of Sukkot is known as Hoshana Rabba. In the days of the Temple, the altar would be circled not once, as on the other days of Sukkot, but seven times, to the supplication Hosha na (“Pray, save [us]!”), hence the “Great Hosanna.” Today, it is impressive to see all the Torah scrolls taken from the Ark and borne round and round the synagogue, followed by congregants, shaking lulavim and etrogim to the cardinal points, then heavenward and earthward, as the entire congregation pleads for God’s assistance. It is traditional to spend the night studying either the Book of Deuteronomy or the Book of Psalms. Another tradition involves beating five willow branches on the ground. The Zohar says that only on the last day of Sukkot is the final judgment for the year delivered.
Eighth Day Assembly. “On the eighth day, you shall observe a holy convocation” (Lev. 23:36; Num. 29:35). This holiday, while incontrovertibly connected to Sukkot, is a separate festival. The Jewish Encyclopedia (1906) describes the tradition of at least a century ago, when the reader would don his kittel, as on Yom Kippur, and sing the Kaddish preceding the Musaf to the solemn melody used on the Day of Atonement. He would continue: “For Thou, O Lord our God, causest the wind to blow … for a blessing and not for a curse, for plenty and not for famine, for life and not for death!” The congregation would respond, thrice repeating “Amen!” On this day, the words “You shift the winds and cause the rain to fall” are introduced into the liturgy, to be recited until Passover. In Israel and throughout Liberal communities worldwide, Sh’mini Atzeret is conflated with Simchat Torah.
Rejoicing of the Torah. In the circle of the running year, the Festival of Rejoicing with the Torah comes at the end of a cycle that immediately recommences. Upon reading the last verses of the Torah, we re-roll the Torah scroll and start over again with the first verses. There is much singing and dancing, eating and drinking.
Inauguration, or Dedication. Also known as the Festival of Lights. Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabean victory over Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-164 B.C.E.). When the Seleucid ruler erected a statue of Zeus in the Temple, defiled the altar, and slaughtered those who did not give up their Judaism, Mattathias the Hasmonean, priest of Modiin, and his five sons led a revolt against the far greater Hellenistic forces. Mattathias did not live to see the outcome; it was his third son, Judah Maccabee (the Hammer; in French, martel), who led the Jewish forces to victory.
After purifying the sanctuary and rebuilding the altar of the Temple (c.164 B.C.E.) in Jerusalem, the Maccabees and their followers celebrated an eight-day festival, a belated observance for the missed celebrations of Sukkot and Sh’mini Atzeret. In the Second Book of Maccabees, we are told that they voted and decreed that a new holiday should be observed on these dates forevermore.
There is a Talmudic legend that Nes gadol hayah sham (“A great miracle happened there”), for but a single phial of consecrated oil was found in the Temple, adequate to kindle the Eternal Light for only one day. Instead, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare more sanctified oil. Whether the miracle celebrates the rekindling of the Eternal Light or the Maccabean victory, on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, lights are kindled in the menorah (“candelabrum”), also known as a hanukiah.
Also known as Rosh Hashanah la’Ilanot (“The New Year of the Trees”). The fifteenth day of the month of Sh’vat. In the time of the Temple, the New Year of the Trees celebrated the beginning of the agricultural cycle for the purpose of collecting tithes. In Talmudic times, it became traditional to plant a cedar tree to honor the birth of a boy or a cypress tree for the birth of a girl. When each married, the branches served as a wedding canopy (TB Git. 57a). The revival of the custom of planting trees in Israel on Tu Bish’vat is to be credited to one man, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz, a founder of the Mizrachi (religious Zionist) movement. On Tu Bish’vat, 1890, he and his students planted trees in the moshava Zichron Yaakov (founded by the Baron Edmond de Rothschild and home of the Carmel winery). By 1908, both the Histadrut Hamorim b’Yisrael (“Teachers Association in Israel”) and the Keren Kayemet l’Yisrael (“Jewish National Fund”) had adopted the custom to reclaim and reforest the land. Tu Bish’vat is the Israeli Arbor Day.
Another custom has gained in popularity over the centuries: the Tu Bish’vat Seder, created by the Cabalists, includes mystical readings, four cups of wine (white, white mixed with some red, red mixed with white, and red!) and fruits of the Land of Israel.
Lots; chance or random selection (Esther 3:7). Purim commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from certain death in ancient empire of Persia. The name “Lots” refers to the date, chosen by chance, to massacre the Jews of Persia and appropriate their wealth. Mordechai and his niece, Queen Esther, foiled the plot, sending the evil Haman to his deserved doom. The holiday is celebrated with a public reading of the Scroll of Esther (during which every mention of the villain's name is drowned out with noisemakers, stamping and hooting). Re-enactments of the story, fancy dress and costume balls, gifts of drink and platters of sweets, and charity to the poor are all part of the fun.
The Passing Over (Exod. 12:23). Also known as Chag haMatzot (“Festival of the Unleavened Bread”). One of three biblically ordained pilgrimage festivals. At a time when famine besieged the Middle East, Jacob and his sons took refuge in Egypt. Their descendants, the Israelites, continued to live peacefully in the Land of Goshen for some four hundred years until a dynasty arose that did not remember Joseph, the son of Jacob who, through his wisdom, had saved Egypt from seven years of starvation. The new Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites. To provoke him to relent, God visited ten plagues on Egypt, each more drastic than the previous, the most extreme being the death of the firstborn, from mightiest to most humble. But the Israelites were spared; God passed over them. The Pharaoh immediately ordered the Israelites to quit his realm but soon regretted his decision; they fled, following Moses through the Dead Sea, which parted to let them pass, and through the wilderness of the Sinai desert towards the Promised Land of Israel. This liberation from slavery and redemption from the House of Bondage is central to Judaism. In celebration, we hold a seder each year, being enjoined to see ourselves as if we had been there.
The Seder (“order,” or “organization”) includes the reading of the Haggadah (“the recounting”), the festive meal, and the concluding psalms and songs. To commemorate the haste of the departure from Egypt, when there was no time for bread dough to raise, matzah (“unleavened bread”) is eaten throughout the holiday. Passover is celebrated for seven days in Israel and in Liberal Jewish communities worldwide; traditional Jewish communities outside Israel celebrate for eight days.
Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. A day of remembrance for the six million Jews who perished during World War II as a result of the genocide carried out by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, and for recalling the Jewish resistance of that period. The term Holocaust, denoting a massacre, means “completely burnt,” and is used to describe a sacrifice, that is, a sacred offering to a god. While the term has come to be used in the Anglophone world in specific reference to the Nazi genocide, it is regarded with distaste in Europe and Israel where Sho’ah, meaning “calamity,” is the standard term.
Independence Day. The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, following upon the resolution and vote by the United Nations General Assembly on November 29, 1947, was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, by David Ben-Gurion, the Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, soon to become the first Prime Minister of Israel.
Thirty-third [day] in [the counting of] the Omer (“barley sheaf”). A minor, joyous holiday observed with picnics and bonfires. No one is quite certain of what it celebrates. The Talmud mentions a plague that abated against Rabbi Akiva's students during the second century on this day. It may commemorate the day that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, attributed with the authorship of the important Cabalistic text, revealed the Zohar (“the Radiance”) to his students and then expired. As Lag B'Omer is a festive day during the forty-nine day semi-mourning period (from the second day of Passover until the end of Shavuot), weddings may be celebrated, little boys may have their first haircuts, and older children go about with bows and arrows, perhaps in remembrance of a possible victory during the Bar Kokhba rebellion (132-135 C.E.), or to symbolize the trajectory of the rainbow, which is God’s covenant not to destroy the world by flood.
Weeks. Also known as Chag ha-Katsir (“The Harvest Festival”) and Yom ha-Bikkurim (“Day of the First Fruits”). One of three biblically ordained pilgrimage festivals. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. This pilgrimage festival takes place seven weeks after Passover when the offerings of new wheat were brought to the Temple in Jerusalem.
In 1533, Rabbi Joseph Caro (author of the Shulchan Aruch) invited Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alcabetz (who wrote Lekha Dodi) and other eminent cabbalists to join him for an all-night study vigil (tikkun leil Shavuot), beginning a tradition that has grown in popularity in recent years. The night of study closes with morning prayers.
On Shavuot, 1967, a week after the Israeli army retook the Old City of Jerusalem on June 7, HaKotel HaMa’aravi (the Western Wall [of the Temple]) was made accessible to Jews for the first time since the Old City was captured during the Arab-Israeli War that began with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. People streamed to the Western Wall, and a new custom was born in Jerusalem.
Shavuot is a one-day holiday in Israel and in Liberal Jewish practice worldwide, while more traditional Diaspora communities observe the holiday for two days.
Ninth [day] of Av. Also known as the Black Fast.
The twenty-five hour fast mourns the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. and of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E. Other disasters that have befallen the Jewish people on this date include the start of the First Crusade on August 15, 1096, the expulsion from England in 1290, from France in 1394, and from Spain in 1492. Even in our own times, tragedy has struck on Tisha B’Av: it was on this date that the deportations began from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942.
Fifteenth [day] of Av. In ancient times, this minor festival celebrated the beginning of the grape harvest when the unmarried daughters of Jerusalem (Israel), dressed in white, would dance in the vineyards and matches would be made. Today, it is the holiday of love and is considered a most appropriate date for proposals and weddings.