The Hebrew or Jewish calendar is a lunisolar calendar used today predominantly for Jewish religious observances. It determines the dates for Jewish holidays and the appropriate public reading of Torah portions, yahrzeits (dates to commemorate the death of a relative), and daily Psalm readings, among many ceremonial uses. Observances begin at sundown on the evening before the date specified.
Rosh Hashanah (“head of the year”) is the autumnal festival marking the start of the Jewish New Year. Falling on the first and second days of Tishri (typically September or October), it is one of the holiest days in the Jewish year. While the Jewish New Year is very different from the Western, secular interpretation of New Year’s, an important similarity is that many people also view Rosh Hashanah as a time to begin looking inward, reflect on the past year and make resolutions for change in the new year. This period of introspection, called the Days of Awe, lasts for 10 days, until Yom Kippur.
No work is allowed on Rosh Hashanah. Popular customs include eating apples and challah bread dipped in honey, a symbol of the wish for a sweet new year. The round challah symbolizes the cycle of life and of a new year, as well as a crown, representing God’s royalty.
Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) falls ten days after Rosh Hashanah. It is the year’s holiest day and a day of fasting. To re-establish oneness with God, Jews ask forgiveness and forgive others. Then can they confess their sins and ask God’s forgiveness.
The purpose of Yom Kippur is to bring about reconciliation between people and between individuals and God. According to Jewish tradition, it is also the day when God decides the fate of each human being.
Although Yom Kippur is an intense holiday it is nevertheless viewed as a happy day, because if one has observed the holiday properly by the end of Yom Kippur they will have made peace with others and with God.
Sukkot is a seven-day pilgrimage feast and time of thanksgiving that begins on the 15th of Tishrei, five days after Yom Kippur. Also called the Feast of Tabernacles or Feast of Booths, Sukkot is named for the sukkah (booths or huts) traditionally built for the occasion. These represent the temporary huts in which Israelites lived for 40 years after escaping from Egypt.
The celebration originated as an ancient harvest festival and includes many customs of gratitude to God for the autumn harvest. Sukkahs are built with roofs made of thatch or branches, providing daytime shade and a view of the stars at night. Rituals include decorating the sukkah and shaking palm, myrtle, willow and citron branches in remembrance of the Holy Land’s bounty. Families symbolically invite ancestors to share in meals in the sukkah, and spend as much time as possible there throughout the week.
Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah take place on consecutive days starting the eighth day of Sukkot, and together form a major holiday in most Jewish communities. (Israel and some Reform congregations celebrate them on one day.) On the eves of both days, women and girls light candles. Families recite special blessings, attend services and enjoy nightly and daily feasts. Most forms of work are not allowed.
On the eve of Shmini Atzeret (“eighth” and “solemn gathering”), celebrants hold a feast in the sukkah with challah (bread) dipped in salt. The next day before sundown, families have a final meal and “farewell” in the sukkah.
The highlight of Simchat Torah (“Joy of the Torah”) is the hakafot—lively singing and marching with the Torah scrolls around the synagogue reading table on the eve and morning of the holiday. Many synagogues also hold hakafot on the eve of Shmini Atzeret.
Chanukah (meaning “dedication,” also spelled Hanukkah) is an eight-day festival also known as the Festival of Lights. It begins on the eve of 25 Kislev, generally December of the Gregorian calendar. The festival commemorates Judah the Maccabee’s unlikely victory over the ruling Seleucids and his rededication of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple in 165 BCE.
When Judah reclaimed the Temple and tried to light the menorah, a candelabra with seven flames, he could only find a day’s worth of uncontaminated olive oil. But when the menorah was lit, the oil miraculously lasted eight days, until new oil could be ritually purified.
Chanukah centers around the nightly lighting of the menorah with nine flames. Households and synagogues place the menorah in a doorway or window and recite special prayers before using the shamash (“attendant”) flame to light the other eight candles. On the first night one flame is lit, on the second night two are lit, and so on until all are lit on the eighth night. Traditional songs are sung afterward. To commemorate the miracle of the Temple oil, fried foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) or sufganya (jelly doughnuts) are eaten.
Tu B’Shvat, the 15th of Shevat on the Jewish calendar, is also known as Rosh Hashanah La’Ilanot (“New Year of the Trees”). Usually falling in January or February, it marks the end of the rainy season (which starts with Sukkot) and beginning of a new life cycle for the earliest-blooming trees in Israel.
Legally, the “new year” for trees is important in determining the annual tithes of produce grown in the Holy Land. If fruit blossoms before the 15th of Shevat, it belongs to the previous year; if afterward, it is of the new year. The day is traditionally marked by eating dates, figs, grapes, olives and pomegranates, which are praised in Deuteronomy 8:8 as the bounty of the Holy Land. A special blessing is said when tasting any of these fruits for the first time in the season.
Purim is a festive Jewish holiday that celebrates the Jewish peoples’ deliverance from Haman, the evil prime minister of ancient Persia, as told in the Book of Esther. It falls on the 14th of Adar (usually February or March on the Gregorian calendar).
Customs include exchanging gifts of food and drink (mishloach manot); public readings (keriat ha-megillah) of the Purim story, plays, and festivals; giving charity (mattanot la-evyonim); and a celebratory meal (se’udat Purim). Celebrants wear masks and costumes, following the theme of Purim as an occasion for disguise, and enjoy hamantaschen, triangular cookies named for Haman.
Passover is a festival commemorating the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. One of the most beloved Jewish holidays, Passover begins on the 15th of Nisan (usually March or April) and lasts either seven days (in Israel and for Reform Jews) or eight days, for Orthodox and most conservative communities.
The evenings of the first and second days begin with Seders, ritual meals that include the telling of the Passover story with symbolic foods. In the book of Exodus, God inflicted 10 plagues on the Egyptians to persuade Pharaoh to release the Israelites. Before the final, worst plague—the death of all firstborn males in Egyptian households—God told the Israelites to mark their doorposts with the blood of a slaughtered lamb so their homes would be passed over. After this plague, Pharaoh finally relented and told Moses and Aaron to leave Egypt immediately.
Yom HaShoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, occurs on the 27th of Nisan, a week after the seventh day of Passover. Shoah, which means catastrophe or utter destruction in Hebrew, refers to the atrocities that were committed against the Jewish people during World War II. This day memorializes the millions who died in the Shoah.
Shavuot (Hebrew “weeks”) is a festival commemorating God’s giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It occurs seven weeks after Passover, usually in May or June. Like other Jewish holidays, Shavuot began as an ancient agricultural festival that marked the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest.
In ancient times, Shavuot was a pilgrimage festival during which Israelites brought crop offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, it is a celebration of Torah, education, and actively choosing to participate in Jewish life.
Tisha B’Av, “the ninth (day) of Av,” is a day of mourning to remember the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, many of which have occurred on this day through history. It falls in July or August on the Gregorian calendar.
Tisha B’Av primarily commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, both of which were destroyed on the ninth of Av (the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the second by the Romans in 70 CE). Other notable tragedies that occurred on this day include the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492.