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 changing annual dates on the Gregorian calendar. Our holidays are based in 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 include 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 reading of the weekly Torah portion, abbreviation of the Amidah in the three regular daily services to eliminate requests for everyday needs, 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|
|Iyar (29)||April-May||Lag B’Omer|
|Menachem Av (30)||July-August||Tisha B’Av, Tu B’Av|
|Tishrei (30)||September-October||The High Holidays
(Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,
Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret,
and Simchat Torah)
|Heshvan / Marcheshvan (29 or 30)||October-November|
|Kislev (29 or 30)||November-December||Hanukkah|
|Tevet (29)||December-January||Conclusion of Hanukkah|
|Shevat (30)||January-February||Tu B’Shevat|
|Adar (29; 30 in leap years as Adar I)||February-March||Purim|
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 pentitential period including the Ten Days of Repentence 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 teshuva (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
International Holocaust Remembrance Day, set in the Gregorian calendar on 27 January annually, was designated by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005.