You are here

Jewish Holidays

Jewish Holidays

An Overview of Jewish Holidays

By Rabbi Dr. Byron L. Sherwin

The Jewish liturgical year is replete with various types of holidays: joyous and sad, celebratory and commemorative, holidays primarily observed at home and those primarily observed at the synagogue, community oriented holidays as well as those that focus on individual introspection.

Most Jewish religious holidays are of biblical origin. These include: the Sabbath (Shabbat), Passover (Pesah), The Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), The Feast of Booths (Sukkot), Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and others. Some holidays, like The Festival of Lights (Hanukkah), were established by the Talmudic rabbis in ancient times. Still others are of recent origin, such as Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah) and Israel Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut). What each of the holidays mean, which prayers are recited on each of them, and which rituals are practiced on each of them is the product of on-going rabbinic interpretation and popular development. Most holidays are celebrated by a combination of prayers and ritual practices in the home and in the synagogue. On many holidays, it has become customary to eat certain foods, though such foods sometimes vary according to Jews' country of origin.

Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, and the Hebrew Calendar

Most Jewish holidays are celebrated once a year; however, some are not. For example, the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) is celebrated each week. All Jewish holidays begin at sundown and continue to sundown on the subsequent day. The Sabbath, for instance, begins each week at sundown on Friday and continues until a little after sundown on Saturday. Sabbath is a day of peace, rest from labor, prayer, study, family unity, and both physical and spiritual regeneration from the frenzy of the work week. Another example of a holiday observed more than once annually is the celebration of the new Hebrew month — Rosh Hodesh. Hebrew months follow the lunar calendar and are usually 28 or 29 days in length. Each month begins with the new moon. In recent years, the celebration of the new month has become of special interest to Jewish feminists, who have revived certain discarded rituals and introduced new ones to observe it.

In order to make sure that the holidays come in their proper seasons, a "leap month" is added to the calendar every few years. In years this month is added, the Jewish calendar has 13 months. The months of the Hebrew calendar have Hebrew names. They are: Tishrei, Heshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, Nissan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, and Ellul.

When Holidays Occur

Traditionally the Jewish liturgical year begins with the month of Nissan in the spring, the month Passover occurs. This is because Jewish tradition considers the Exodus from Egypt celebrated on Passover as the beginning of the history of the Jews or Israelites as a people. Rosh Hashanah, which was not known as the New Year until the post-biblical period, is celebrated at the beginning of the seventh month. Here is a list of the most important Jewish holidays and when they occur:

  • 15-23 Nissan: Pesah (Passover)
  • 27 Nissan: Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day)
  • 5 Iyyar: Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel Independence Day)
  • 6-7 Sivan: Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks, sometimes called Pentecost)
  • 9 Av: Tisha B’Av (The Ninth of Av)
  • 1-2 Tishrei: Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year)
  • 10 Tishrei: Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement)
  • 15-24 Tishrei: Sukkot (The Feast of Booths, sometimes called the Feast of Tabernacles)
  • 25 Kislev: Hanukkah (The Festival of Lights) begins for eight days
  • 15 Shevat: Tu Beshvat (15th day of Shevat, The New Year of the Trees)
  • 14 Adar: Purim (The Feast of Lots)
  • Every week beginning Friday at sundown: Shabbat (Sabbath)
  • Every month: Rosh Hodesh (Celebrating the New Month)