You Gotta Know These Jewish Holidays

  1. Rosh Hashanah Celebrated on the first and second days of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish year. It is believed that on this day, people's souls are judged, and God "temporarily" decides their fate. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are the Ten Days of Repentment, when people are given a chance to reflect and repent. On Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to wear white clothes and eat apples, honey, and pomegranates. Other customs include the blowing of the shofar (an instrument made from a ram's horn) and the ceremony of Tashlich, in which Jews throw bread crumbs into running water to symbolize the cleansing of their sins, is also performed.

  2. Yom Kippur Celebrated on the tenth day of Tishrei, it is the Jewish Day of Atonement; at the end of Yom Kippur, it is believed that one's fate is sealed. Jews are required to abstain from eating, drinking, washing, and sex. Forbidden fashions include jewelry, makeup, and leather shoes. One traditionally wears white clothes to symbolizing purity from sin. In the afternoon, the Book of Jonah is read. A full day of prayers begins with the Kol Nidre, an ancient incantation that forgives Jews from vows or promises unwittingly made during the past year. As on Rosh Hashanah, the shofar is blown.

  3. Sukkot Celebrated on the 15th of Tishrei, Sukkot commemorates the sukkot (booths) that the Israelites lived in following the Exodus from Egypt; it also celebrates the harvest. Traditionally, Jews build booths, in which they live and eat for seven days. In synagogue, four symbolic species (the palm, the etrog [a large yellow citrus], myrtle, and willow) are waved in seven directions. Each night, in the sukkah, it is traditional to invite a Biblical figure to be your guest for that night.

  4. Hanukkah This festival lasts for eight days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev (the third month). It celebrates the victory of the small Maccabee army against the large Greek army of Antiochus, as well as the recapture and purification of the Temple in Jerusalem (ca. 168 BC). It is traditional to light the eight-branched Menorah each night and spin the dreidel. Exchanging presents is only a recent tradition developed in the U.S.

  5. Purim Celebrated on the 14th of Adar (the sixth month) and commemorating the victory of the Jews, led by Esther and Mordechai, against Haman, who tried to destroy the Jews because of his anger at Mordechai. The story, recorded in the Book of Esther (read from a one-handed scroll called a megillah), takes place in Shushan, the capital city of the kingdom of the Persian King Ahasueras. On Purim, it is traditional to dress up, get drunk, give charity, eat triangular pastries called hamentaschen, and exchange gifts (Mishloach Manot) with friends.

  6. Passover (Pesach) Celebrated for seven days beginning on the 15th day of Nissan (the seventh month), Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. It is also the ancient Hebrew New Year (superceded in that role by Rosh Hashanah). On the first two days, Jews have a festival dinner called a seder, where they retell the story of the Exodus, from a book called a hagaddah. Jews are required to abstain from eating or owning leavened bread for the duration of the festival; matzah (usually a square flat unleavened bread) is eaten instead. On Passover, the Song of Songs is recited. Passover also begins a cycle of seven weeks, called the Omer, a period of semi-mourning.

  7. Shavu'ot Celebrated on the sixth day of Sivan (the ninth month), the 50th day of the Omer, after Passover; the word Shavu'ot means "weeks," hence the name Pentecost. Shavu'ot commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, as well as the beginning of the harvest in ancient Israel. Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu'ot are the three pilgrimages, when Jews would all gather at the Temple each year; on Shavu'ot, Jews would dedicate their first harvest fruits to the Temple. The Book of Ruth is read in synagogue on Shavu'ot, and it is traditional to study all night on this festival.

  8. The Ninth of Av This is a day of mourning for the destructions of both the First and Second Temples. It is traditional to fast and to keep oneself in a solemn mood. The Book of Lamentations and the Book of Job are read, traditionally while sitting on the floor and with candles as the only lights, as Jews are supposed to refrain from physical comfort.

This article was contributed by Sam Ackerman.

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