Have you ever wanted to learn more about Jewish holidays? Maybe you have a friend or colleague who is Jewish, or you’ve recently learned you have Jewish heritage yourself. You have likely heard of Hanukkah and Passover, but some of the most important Jewish holidays are less common in popular media. For example, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur receive far less recognition from non-Jewish communities despite being much larger celebrations.
The Jewish calendar has many holidays; however, it is important to realize that these holidays follow a different calendar from the lunar calendar followed in the Western world. This is why Jewish holidays do not occur on the same day and month every year.
The Jewish Calendar
The Jewish or Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar calendar. There are 12 months each year, corresponding with the 12 lunar cycles. However, on leap years a 13th month is observed. The Jewish calendar is of great importance in Jewish traditions because it determines not only when holidays will fall, but on what days other important traditions and religious activities are to take place. On the Jewish calendar, hours are always one-twelfth of the daylight hours, which means they will vary in length depending on the time of year.
The Jewish calendar has a 7-day week, which begins on Sunday and ends on Saturday. Saturday, called Shabbat or the Sabbath, is the day of rest in Jewish tradition. The Sabbath is a weekly holiday during which Orthodox Jews do not work or travel. Traditions practiced on this day include lighting candles at sundown on Friday when the Sabbath begins, reciting prayers, singing songs, wearing traditional clothing, and having festive meals.
What Is Rosh Hashanah?
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. According to Jewish tradition, it is the day that God created the first human. It does not correspond with the start of the Jewish year; in fact, it is on the first of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. On the Gregorian calendar, it usually occurs sometime in September or October.
The observance of Rosh Hashanah lasts two days. This is a time of celebration and joy as well as personal renewal and great spiritual reflection. Jews gather in synagogues to listen to services and prayers, and they gather with family for meals of traditional foods, such as apples dipped in honey. Another tradition practiced during Rosh Hashanah is Tashlik, which is the throwing of breadcrumbs into the river to represent the sins of the past year being cast away.
What Is Yom Kippur?
Yom Kippur is the most holy day on the Jewish calendar. It is a day of atonement, a solemn day in which Jews seek to be cleansed of their sins. It is observed on the 10th of Tishrei, shortly after Rosh Hashanah.
This day is spent fasting, reciting prayers, and attending services at the synagogue. Jews will often wear white garments on this day to represent purity.
On this day, healthy adults and teenagers do not eat or drink anything, they do not bathe or wear perfume, and they do not wear leather shoes. Girls begin observing these traditions at age 12, and boys begin at age 13. One purpose of enduring these discomforts is to allow oneself to understand the pain that others feel.
Yom Kippur is the final day of the High Holy Days, or the Days of Awe, which begin with Rosh Hashanah. These 10 important days are the anniversary on the Jewish calendar of the last 10 days Moses spent on Mount Sinai. While there are two major holidays on either end, the Days of Awe are all spent reflecting and seeking forgiveness for misdeeds done over the past year.
What Is Passover?
Passover, called “Pesach” in Hebrew, is a holiday that celebrates the Jews’ freedom from enslavement by the Egyptians. Moses led them, following God’s word, as the Egyptians faced 10 plagues to demoralize their king as he refused to let the Jews go.
The name Passover refers to how the last plague passed over the homes of the Jewish people, only bringing harm to their enslavers. Despite the plagues, the Egyptians pursued the escaping Jews. This is when Moses parted the Red Sea and the Jewish people walked across the seafloor to their freedom.
Because they were forced to flee so quickly, their bread did not have time to rise; in memory of this, Jewish people today eat a flatbread called matzah on Passover. During Passover, which lasts 8 days, Jewish people do not eat any foods that contain leaven, or wheat that has been fermented in water. In fact, even having such foods in one’s house goes against the traditions of Passover.
The messages of Passover teach that it is important to be kind to immigrants and to stand up for justice in communities everywhere. In addition to matzah, during Passover Jews honor the holiday by drinking wine and eating bitter herbs and leafy greens.
What Is Hanukkah?
Hanukkah is one of the most well-known Jewish holidays to people outside of the religion. While it is a smaller holiday than many of the others, it is still an important celebration for many Jewish families.
Hanukkah celebrates having light in darkness and rededicating oneself to one’s beliefs. It is fitting that this holiday occurs in winter, during the darkest time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. Hanukkah does not come from the Bible, rather it is in memory of the Maccabean Rebellion, which stopped the religious oppression by the Greeks over the Jews in Jerusalem.
After the victory of the battle, Judah Maccabee, leader of the rebellion, rededicated the temple to the Jewish faith and the worshipping of one God. He had only enough oil left for one night, but after he lit the menorah with it, it burned for 8 days and nights. This is why Hanukkah is an 8-day celebration.
Lighting the candles on the menorah, or hanukkiah, is the main way this holiday is celebrated, but songs, family gatherings, playing with the traditional dreidel, and eating fried foods in honor of the oil that burned for 8 days is also part of the holiday.
Celebrating Jewish Heritage
Do you have Jewish heritage? Share with us your memories and traditions from these and other Jewish holidays. If you’re interested in learning more about your Jewish heritage, check out these resources.