Ma’agal Hashana, the year cycle, refers to the study of the Jewish calendar, outlining the month-by-month events, with mitzvot and minhagim, and philosophical material, that occur over the course of the year. The Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar calendar, meaning it is based on the cycles of both the sun and the moon, whereas the Gregorian calendar is solar, based on the sun. This is why most holidays fall on the same date of the Hebrew calendar each year, but change annual dates on the Gregorian calendar. Our holidays are based on religious, cultural, and national elements, derived from mitzvot (commandments), rabbinic mandates, and the history of Judaism and the State of Israel.
Depending on their nature, certain terminology may be used to refer to different categories of holidays. For example, Yom tov (Ashkenazi pronunciation from Yiddish, “yontif,” literally meaning “good day,”) is sometimes referred to as a “festival day,” and includes six biblically-mandated festival dates on which all activities prohibited on Shabbat are also prohibited. Moed (“festive season,” plural “moadim,”) refers to any of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (shlosha regalim) of Passover (Pesach), Shavuot, and Sukkot. When used in comparison to Yom Tov, it refers to Chol HaMoed, the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot. Hag or chag (“festival,” plural “chagim,”) can be used whenever yom tov or moed is used. It is also used to describe Hanukkah and Purim, as well as Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. Ta’anit, or less commonly, tzom, refers to a fast. These terms are generally used to describe the rabbinic fasts, although tzom is used liturgically to refer to Yom Kippur as well.
Shabbat begins just before sundown each Friday night, every seven days. Shabbat is not set on the calendar as it is set in the interval of seven days. Its start is marked by the lighting of Shabbat candles and the recitation of Kiddush over a cup of wine. Shabbat ends at nightfall Saturday night. Its conclusion is marked by the Havdalah prayer.
Fundamental rituals and observances of Shabbat include the reading of the weekly Torah portion, an abbreviation of the Amidah in the three regular daily services to eliminate requests for everyday needs, the addition of a Musaf service to the daily prayer service, enjoyment of three meals, often elaborate or ritualized, through the course of the day, and restraint from performing melacha, or work activities.
In many ways, halakha (Jewish law) sees Shabbat as the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar. It is the first holiday mentioned in the Tanakh and God was the first one to observe it, as mentioned in the Book of Genesis. The Torah reading on Shabbat has more sections of parshiot (Torah readings) than on Yom Kippur or any other Jewish holiday.
Rosh Hodesh is a minor holiday or observance occurring on the first day of each month of the Jewish calendar, as well as the last day of the preceding month if it has 30 days. Fasting is normally prohibited on Rosh Hodesh. In the month of Tishrei, this observance is superseded by the observance of Rosh Hashanah, a major holiday. The date of forthcoming Rosh Hodesh is announced in synagogue on the preceding Shabbat. The months of the Hebrew calendar are:
|Jewish Month (days in month)
|Approximate Secular Month
|Special Dates This Month
|Menachem Av (30)
|Tisha B’Av, Tu B’Av
|The High Holidays
(Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,
Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret,
and Simchat Torah)
|Heshvan / Marcheshvan (29 or 30)
|Kislev (29 or 30)
|Conclusion of Hanukkah
|Adar (29; 30 in leap years as Adar I)
High Holy Days or High Holidays include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yamim Nora’im, or Days of Awe, may refer to those holidays specifically or the entire penitential period including the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah, 1 Tishrei, to Yom Kippur, 10 Tishrei.
The month of Elul that precedes Rosh Hashanah is considered to be a propitious time for repentance. For this reason, additional penitential prayers called Selichot are added to the daily prayers, except on Shabbat. We recite them from the last Sunday, or Saturday night, preceding Rosh Hashanah that allows at least four days of recitations.
According to oral tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Memorial or Remembrance (Yom HaZikaron) and the Day of Judgment (Yom HaDin), in which God appears in the role of King, remembering and judging each person individually according to his or her deeds and making a decree for each person for the following year.
The holiday is characterized by one specific mitzvah: blowing the shofar. According to the Torah, this is the first day of the seventh month of the calendar year and marks the beginning of a ten-day period leading up to Yom Kippur. According to one of two Talmudic opinions, the creation of the world was completed on Rosh Hashanah. Morning prayer services are lengthy on Rosh Hashanah and focus on the themes described above: majesty and judgment, remembrance, the birth of the world, and the blowing of the shofar. We also recite the brief Tashlich prayer, a symbolic casting off of the previous year’s sins, during the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah on 1 Tishrei.
The first ten days of Tishrei, from the beginning of Rosh Hashanah until the end of Yom Kippur, are known as the Ten Days of Repentance, or Aseret Yemei Teshuva. During this time, in anticipation of Yom Kippur, it is exceedingly appropriate for Jews to practice teshuvah (literally “return”), an examination of one’s deeds and repentance for sins one has committed against other people and God. This repentance can take the form of additional supplications, confessing one’s deeds before God, fasting, self-reflection, and an increase of involvement with, or donations to, charity.
The Fast of Gedaliah is a minor Jewish fast day. It commemorates the assassination of the governor of Judah, Gedaliah, which ended any level of Jewish rule following the destruction of the First Temple. As on all minor fast days, fasting from dawn to dusk is required, but other laws of mourning are not normally observed. A Torah reading is included in both the Shacharit and Mincha prayers, and a Haftarah is also included at Mincha. There are also a number of additions to the liturgy of both services.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. Its central theme is atonement and reconciliation. This is accomplished through prayer and complete fasting–including abstinence from all food and drink, including water–by all healthy adults. Bathing, wearing of perfume or cologne, wearing of leather shoes, and sexual relations are some of the other prohibitions on Yom Kippur–all designed to ensure one’s attention is completely and absolutely focused on the quest for atonement with God. Yom Kippur is also unique among holidays as having work-related restrictions identical to those of Shabbat. The fast and other prohibitions commence on 10 Tishrei at sunset–sunset being the beginning of the day in Jewish tradition.
A traditional prayer in Aramaic called Kol Nidre (“All Vows”) is traditionally recited just before sunset. Although often regarded as the start of the Yom Kippur evening service–to such a degree that Erev Yom Kippur (“Yom Kippur Evening”) is often called “Kol Nidre“–it is technically a separate tradition. This is especially so because, being recited before sunset, it is actually recited on 9 Tishrei, which is the day before Yom Kippur, it is not recited on Yom Kippur itself (10 Tishrei, which begins after the sun sets).
A tallit is donned for evening and afternoon prayers–the only day of the year in which this is done. The prayers on Yom Kippur evening are lengthier than on any other night of the year. Once services reconvene in the morning, the services are the longest of the year.
Two highlights of the morning prayers are the recitation of the Yizkor prayer of remembrance and of liturgical poems (piyyutim), describing the Temple service of Yom Kippur. During the Mincha prayer, the haftarah reading features the entire Book of Jonah. The day concludes with Ne’ilah, a special service recited only on the day of Yom Kippur
Sukkot is a seven-day festival also known as the Feast of Booths, the Feast of Tabernacles, or just Tabernacles. It is one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals mentioned in the Bible. Sukkot commemorates the years that the Jews spent in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, and celebrates the way in which God protected them under difficult desert conditions. The word sukkot is the plural of the Hebrew word sukkah, meaning booth. Jews are commanded to “dwell” in booths during the holiday. This generally means taking meals, but some sleep in the sukkah as well, particularly in Israel. There are specific rules for constructing a sukkah.
Along with dwelling in a sukkah, the principal ritual unique to this holiday is the use of the Four Species: lulav (palm), hadass (myrtle), aravah (willow), and etrog (citron). On each day of the holiday other than Shabbat, these are waved in association with the recitation of Hallel in the synagogue, then walked in a procession around the synagogue called the Hoshanot.
The seventh day of the Sukkot is called Hoshanah Rabbah, the “Great Hoshanah” (singular of Hoshanot and the source of the English word hosanna. The climax of the day’s prayers includes seven processions of Hoshanot around the synagogue. This tradition mimics practices from the Temple in Jerusalem. Many aspects of the day’s customs also resemble those of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Hoshanah Rabbah is traditionally taken to be the day of the “delivery” of the final judgment of Yom Kippur and offers the last opportunity for pleas of repentance before the holiday season closes.
The holiday of Shemini Atzeret immediately follows the conclusion of the holiday of Sukkot. The Hebrew word Shemini means “eighth” and refers to its position on “the eighth day” of Sukkot, actually a seven-day holiday. This name reflects the fact that while in many respects Shemini Atzeret is a separate holiday in its own right, in certain respects its celebration is linked to that of Sukkot.
The main notable custom of this holiday is the celebration of Simchat Torah, meaning “rejoicing with the Torah”. This name originally referred to a special “ceremony”: the last weekly Torah portion is read from Deuteronomy, completing the annual cycle, and is followed immediately by the reading of the first chapter of Genesis, beginning the new annual cycle. Services are especially joyous, and all attendees, young and old, are involved.
This ceremony so dominates the holiday that in Israel, where the holiday is one day long, the whole holiday is often referred to as Simchat Torah. Outside Israel, the holiday is two days long; the name Shemini Atzeret is used for the first day, while the second is normally called Simchat Torah.
The story of Hanukkah is preserved in the books of the First and Second Maccabees. These books are not part of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), they are apocryphal books instead. The miracle of the one-day supply of oil miraculously lasting eight days is first described in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b), written about 600 years after the events described in the books of Maccabees.
Hanukkah marks the defeat of Seleucid Empire forces that had tried to prevent the people of Israel from practicing Judaism. Judah Maccabee and his brothers destroyed overwhelming forces and rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem. The eight-day festival is marked by the kindling of lights—one on the first night, two on the second, and so on—using a special candleholder called a Hanukkiah, or a Hanukkah menorah.
Religiously, Hanukkah is a minor holiday. Except for Shabbat, restrictions on work do not apply. Aside from the kindling of lights, formal religious observance is restricted to changes in the liturgy. Hanukkah celebration tends to be informal and based on custom rather than law. Three widely practiced customs include:
Tu Bishvat is the new year for trees. It is also known as the Festival of Trees, (Rosh ha-Shanah la-Ilanot, New Year for Trees). According to the Mishnah, it marks the day from which fruit tithes are counted each year. Starting on this date, the biblical prohibition on eating the first three years of fruit and the requirement to bring the fourth year fruit to the Temple in Jerusalem were counted. Tu Bishvat is celebrated by eating various fruits and nuts associated with the Land of Israel. Traditionally, trees are planted on this day. Many children collect funds leading up to this day to plant trees in Israel. Trees are usually planted locally as well.
Purim commemorates the events that took place in the Book of Esther. It commemorates the day Esther, Queen of Persia, saved the Jewish people from execution by Haman, the advisor to the Persian king. Esther bravely exposed her previously hidden Jewish heritage to her husband the king and asked him to save her people, which he did.
Many Jewish holidays incorporate stricter rules, which could include mandatory fasting, but Purim is much more relaxed. There is only a minor fast the day before Purim, which commemorates the three days Esther fasted before approaching the king. Then, the holiday itself is known for a party atmosphere, with big feasts where you can eat and get drunk (within reason, but it is encouraged).
One of the best treats for Purim is hamantaschen: triangle-shaped cookie pastries with fruit or savory filling. The treat is said to look like Haman’s tri-cornered hat or his ears (“oznei Haman“). Sweet hamantaschen are most popular, with poppy seed, chocolate, date, apricot, or apple filling. The principal celebrations or commemorations include:
Several customs have evolved from these principal commemorations. One widespread custom is to act out the story of Purim. The wearing of costumes and masks is also very common. Purim carnivals of various types have also become customary. In Israel, there are festive parades, known as Ad-D’lo-Yada, in the town’s main street. The largest and most renowned is in Holon.
The day before Passover (Erev Pesach, “Passover eve”) is significant for three reasons:
When Passover starts on Sunday, and the eve of Passover is, therefore, Shabbat, the above schedule is altered.
Passover (Pesach), also known liturgically as (“Ḥag haMatzot”, the “Festival of Unleavened Bread”), is one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (shalosh regalim) mentioned in the Torah. Passover commemorates the Exodus, the liberation of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. No chametz (leavened food) is eaten or even owned, during the week of Passover, in commemoration of the biblical narrative in which the Israelites left Egypt so quickly that their bread did not have enough time to rise. Observant Jews go to great lengths to remove all chametz from their homes and offices in the run-up to Passover.
Along with the avoidance of chametz, the principal ritual unique to this holiday is the seder. The seder, meaning “order”, is an ordered ritual meal eaten on the first night of Passover, and outside Israel also on the second night. This meal is known for its distinctive ritual foods—matzo (unleavened bread), maror (bitter herbs), and four cups of wine—as well as its prayer text/handbook/study guide, the Haggadah. Participation in a Passover seder is one of the most widely observed Jewish rituals, even among less affiliated or less observant Jews.
Passover lasts seven days in Israel, and eight days outside Israel. The holiday of the last day of Passover (outside Israel, last two days) commemorates the Splitting of the Red Sea; according to tradition, this occurred on the seventh day of Passover.
Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, is one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Shalosh regalim) ordained in the Torah. Different from other biblical holidays, the date for Shavuot is not explicitly fixed in the Torah. Instead, it is observed on the day following the 49th and final day in the counting of the Omer.
According to Rabbinic tradition, codified in the Talmud at Shabbat 87b, the Ten Commandments were given on this day. In the era of the Temple, there were certain specific offerings mandated for Shavuot, and Shavuot was the first day for bringing the first fruits (Bikkurim) to the Temple. Other than those, there are no explicit mitzvot unique to Shavuot given in the Torah (parallel to matzo on Passover or Sukkah on Sukkot).
Nevertheless, there are a number of widespread customs observed on Shavuot. During this holiday the Torah portion containing the Ten Commandments is read in the synagogue, and the biblical Book of Ruth is read as well. It is traditional to eat dairy meals during Shavuot. In observant circles, all-night Torah study is common on the first night of Shavuot, while in Reform Judaism, Shavuot is the customary date for Confirmation ceremonies.
Tisha B’Av ) is a major fast day and day of mourning. A Midrashic tradition states that the spies’ negative report concerning the Land of Israel was delivered on Tisha B’Av. Consequently, the day became auspicious for negative events in Jewish history. Most notably, both the First Temple, originally built by King Solomon and the Second Temple of Roman times were destroyed on Tisha B’Av. Other calamities throughout Jewish history are said to have taken place on Tisha B’Av, including King Edward I’s edict compelling the Jews to leave England (1290) and the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492.
Tisha B’Av is a major fast. It is a 25-hour fast, running from sundown to nightfall. As on Yom Kippur, not only are eating and drinking prohibited, but also bathing, anointing, marital relations, and the wearing of leather shoes. Work is not prohibited, as on biblical holidays, but is discouraged. In the evening, the Book of Lamentations is read in the synagogue, while in the morning lengthy kinot, poems of elegy, are recited. From evening until noon mourning rituals resembling those of shiva are observed, including sitting on low stools or the floor; after noon those restrictions are somewhat lightened, in keeping with the tradition that Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av.
While the fast ends at nightfall of 9-10 Av, the restrictions of the Three Weeks and Nine Days continue through noon on 10 Av because the Second Temple continued to burn through most of that day. When 9 Av falls on Shabbat, when fasting is prohibited, the fast is postponed until 10 Av. In that case, the restrictions of the Three Weeks and Nine Days end with the fast, except for the prohibition against eating meat and drinking wine, which extends until the morning of 10 Av.
Tu B’av, “15th of Av”, is a day mentioned in the Talmud alongside Yom Kippur as “happiest of the year”. It was a day celebrating the bringing of wood used for the Temple Service, as well as a day when marriages were arranged. Today, it is marked by a small change in liturgy. In modern Israel, the day has become somewhat of an analog to Valentine’s Day.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day, was designated by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005. Yom HaShoah, also known as Yom Hashoah VeHagevurah, literally means the “day of remembrance of the Catastrophe and the Heroism.” The observance is held one week after the seventh day of Passover. It also falls one week before Yom Hazikaron, the memorial day for Israel’s fallen soldiers. The day is also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, for those who died in the Shoah. The word holocaust comes from a Greek word meaning “sacrifice by fire.”
Yom HaZikaron is the national remembrance day observed in Israel for all Israeli military personnel who lost their lives in the struggle that led to the establishment of the State of Israel and for those who have been killed subsequently while on active duty in Israel’s armed forces.
Yom Ha’atzmaut is a modern holiday celebrating Israel’s independence in 1948. Israeli Independence Day is always immediately preceded by Yom Hazikaron – Memorial Day for the Fallen Israeli Soldiers. The message of linking these two days is clear: Israelis owe their independence -the very existence of the state – to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for it.
Yom Yerushalayim is an Israeli national holiday commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City in the aftermath of the June 1967 Six-Day War. The day is officially marked by state ceremonies and memorial services.
Yom HaAliyah, or Aliyah Day, is an Israeli national holiday celebrated annually to commemorate the Jewish people entering the Land of Israel as written in the Hebrew Bible. The holiday was also established to acknowledge Aliyah, immigration of Jews to the Jewish state, as a core value of the State of Israel, and honor the ongoing contributions of Olim, Jewish immigrants, to Israeli society.