You Gotta Know These Jewish Holidays
- Rosh HaShanah: Celebrated on the first and second days of the month of Tishrei, Rosh HaShanah marks the beginning of the Jewish civil year. (The beginning of the ecclesiastic year is Pesach.) It is believed that on Rosh HaShanah, people’s souls are judged, and God “temporarily” decides their fate for the coming year. Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the Ten Days of Repentance, when people are given a chance to reflect and repent. On Rosh HaShanah, it is customary to wear white clothes and eat apples with honey for a sweet year, and pomegranates to represent being as fruitful as its many seeds. Other customs include the blowing of the shofar (an instrument made from a ram’s horn) and a ceremony called Tashlich, in which Jews throw bread crumbs into running water to symbolize the cleansing of their sins.
- 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, as well as indulgent dress such as jewelry, make-up, and leather. One traditionally wears white clothes to symbolize purity. In the afternoon, the Book of Jonah is read. A full day of prayers begins with the Kol Nidre, which releases Jews from vows or promises to God. As on Rosh HaShanah, the shofar is blown unless it is Shabbat, in which case the shofar is blown only during the final service, N’ila (meaning “closing,” since the Temple gates were closed for this service).
- 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 outdoor booths in which they live and eat for seven days. In synagogue, four symbolic species — the palm, a yellow citrus called the etrog, the myrtle, and the willow — are waved in seven directions. Each night, in the sukkah, it is traditional to invite a Biblical figure to be the guest for that night.
- 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, and the Maccabees’ recapture and re-purification of the Temple in Jerusalem (c. 168 BC). When they did so, they found only a small amount of oil to light the menorah in the Temple, and it would take a week to make more; miraculously, the oil burned for the full week. To commemorate this, on each night, observers use a “helper candle” called the shamash to light candles in a menorah (more properly called a chanukiah, as a menorah only has six branches while a chanukiah has nine): one candle (besides the shamash) on the first night, two on the second night, and so on. Furthermore, it is traditional to eat foods fried in oil; in the United States, potato pancakes called latkes are popular; in Israel, fried jelly donuts called sufganiyot are more common. Children play a game with a spinning a top called the dreidel, which contains the Hebrew letters that form the initials of a phrase that translates as “a great miracle happened there” (in Israel, they say “a great miracle happened here”). Exchanging presents is only a recent tradition developed in the U.S. to make Jewish children feel less left out as their Christian peers get Christmas presents (or, if you are cynical, the tradition was invented by toymakers to sell more toys).
- Purim: Celebrated on the 14th of Adar (the sixth month) and commemorating the victory of the Jews — led by Esther and her cousin 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 scroll, or megillah), takes place in Shushan, the capital city of the kingdom of the Persian King Ahasuerus (Achashvayrosh). On Purim, it is traditional to dress up, get drunk, give to charity, eat triangular pastries called hamentaschen (meaning “Haman’s ears” or “Haman’s pockets” in German), and exchange gifts (mishloach manot) with friends.
- Passover (Pesach): Celebrated for seven or eight 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. On the first day or 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, and anything made with leaven, for the duration of the festival; matzah (a flat unleavened bread) is eaten instead. On Passover, the Song of Songs is recited. Passover also begins a period of seven weeks called the Omer, a period of semi-mourning that leads into Shavuot.
- Shavuot: Celebrated on the sixth day of Sivan (the ninth month), the 50th day of the Omer that began after Passover. The word Shavuot means “weeks,” (seven weeks of the Omer), hence the name of the homologous Christian holiday Pentecost. Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, as well as the beginning of the harvest in ancient Israel. Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot are the three pilgrimages, when Jews would all gather at the Temple each year; on Shavuot, Jews would dedicate their first harvest fruits to the Temple. The Book of Ruth is read in synagogue on Shavuot, and it is traditional to study all night on this festival.
- Tisha b’Av (the Ninth of the month Av): This is a day of mourning for the destructions of the First and Second Temples, as well as a number of other calamities in Jewish history. It is traditional to fast and to keep oneself in a solemn mood. The Book of Lamentations is read in a mournful tone, traditionally while sitting on the floor and with candles as the only lights.
This article was contributed by Sam Ackerman.