Rosh Hashannah marks the start of a new year in the Jewish calendar. It is a time for family gatherings and festive meals. It is often symbolized with apples and honey and Jews wish each other a sweet new year. Spiritually, it is the beginning of the time of introspection.
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. It is a day spent fasting and in prayer. The day is divided into three main services: Kol Nidre on the night before, Yom Kippur Service and Neilah. The theme of the prayers recognize one’s imperfections and begin work to change the behavior.
Major Festivals (the Pilgrimage Festivals)
The festivals of Shavuot, Pesach, and Sukkot. In ancient times, on these holidays Israelites would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem with gifts of the first fruit and offerings for God.
Sukkot literally means “booths”. Beginning on the 15th of Tishrei, Sukkot is a joyous holiday celebrating the harvest of the Land of Israel, both in ancient times and today. It commemorates the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.
At Sukkot, Jews are commanded to build a temporary structure (Sukkah) in which to reside. Usually meals are eaten in the Sukkah and guests are invited to dine as an expression of the mitzvah of hakhnasat orchim.
Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah
The last two days of Sukkot are Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Shemini Atzeret means the eighth day and marks the conclusion of the festival with prayers for rain and a good harvest. Simchat Torah means the “joy of the Torah.” This holiday celebrates the completion of the reading of the Torah. The entire Torah is read over the course of a year. On Simchat Torah, the final verses of Deuteronomy are read, followed by the first verses of Genesis.
A list of Resources for Passover.
Beginning on the 15th of Nisan, Pesach is a joyous holiday celebrated for eight days. Pesach commemorates the ancient Exodus of the Israelites from generations of slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel.
Pesach is observed primarily at home, but there are synagogue festival services on the first and last days incorporating biblical readings from the Song of Songs and a Yizkor service. In the days leading up to Pesach, a Jewish family cleans the entire home to remove all chametz. Pesach begins with a long, carefully ordered meal and service called a seder (meaning “order”). While there is a precise order to the seder, topics, traditions and songs are personalized and vary from family to family.
The Omer, “sheaths of wheat,” is counted beginning with the second day of Pesach. This signals the start of the harvest season, which culminates in Shavuot.
Shavuot literally means “weeks.” Celebrated on the sixth of Sivan, Shavuot comes 50 days after Pesach. It marks the anniversary of Moses’ receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai and the first harvest of the fruits of spring. The Book of Ruth and the Ten Commandments are read. Synagogues often mark this as a time for study and deepening one’s commitment to religious practice.
Chanukah despite its proximity to Christmas is actually a very minor festival in the Jewish liturgical year. It is the Festival of Lights and the Chanukah menorah, the chanukiah, is lit on each of the eight nights.
Tu B’Shevat is Israel’s Arbor Day, a holiday on which to thank God for the beauty and bounty of trees. It is celebrated by planting trees both here and in Israel and eating the fruits of trees.
Purim is the celebration of the saving of the Jewish people in Babylonia by Queen Esther from the evil Haman. This is a very joyous festival with costumes, plays and gifts to friends.
Yom Hashoah is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Yom Hazikaron is Israel Remembrance Day honoring the memory of Israeli soldiers.
Yom Ha’Atzmaut is Israeli Independence Day commemorating the birth of the modern State of Israel.
Lag BaOmer the 33rd day of the Omer, see under Pesach, is rumored to be in celebration of a military victory by some and others say it marked the end of a plague.
Yom Yerushalayim celebrates the reunification of the city of Jerusalem after the Six Days War.
Rosh Chodesh celebrates the new moon and the first day of the month on the lunar-based Jewish calendar. Observed monthly, Rosh Chodesh is not a chag or holy day.
Fast days are observed as a sign of repentance or mourning. Fasts include abstinence from food, drink, sex, and wearing leather. Two major fast days, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, last from sunset until the stars come out the following day. Minor fast days last from sunrise to until the stars come out and involve abstinence from food and drink.
Tisha B’Av, literally the “ninth day of Av,” is the second major fast day of the year. It is a commemoration of the destruction of the Temples. Lamentations are read at the evening service.
Fast of Gedaliah commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah ben Achikam, the Jew appointed to govern Israel after the fall of the first Temple.
Fast of Tevet is one of the days of remembrance for victims of the Holocaust. Historically, the fast commemorated the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylonia.
Fast of Esther honors Esther’s time of fast and prayer before pleading for the life of the Jews.
Fast of the First Born is the reminder of the last of the Ten Plagues of Egypt before the Jews were released.
Fast of Tammuz commemorates the breach of the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the second Temple.
The Jewish Day
The Jewish Day begins at sunset of the previous day. For this reason, Shabbat begins on Friday evening and ends with the appearance of the stars on Saturday evening.