Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish new year. Its origin is Biblical (Lev. 23:23-25): “a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts [of the shofar, the ram’s horn].” The term Rosh Hashanah, “beginning of the year,” is rabbinical, as are the formidable themes of the festival: repentance, preparation for the day of Divine judgment, and prayer for a fruitful year. The two-day festival falls on 1-2 Tishrei in the Jewish calendar, usually September in the Gregorian calendar, and starts at sundown of the preceding evening, as do all Jewish observances. Major customs of Rosh Hashanah include the sounding of the shofar in the middle of a lengthy synagogue service that focuses on the festival themes, and elaborate meals at home to inaugurate the new year. The prayer liturgy is augmented with prayers of repentance.
In many senses, Israel begins its year on Rosh Hashanah. Government correspondence, newspapers and most broadcasts carry the “Jewish date” first. Felicitations for the new year are generally tendered before Rosh Hashanah.
Yom Kippur, eight days after Rosh Hashanah, is the day of atonement, of Divine judgment, and of “affliction of souls” (Lev. 23:26-32) so that the individual may be cleansed of sins. The only fast day decreed in the Bible, it is a time to enumerate one’s misdeeds and contemplate one’s faults. The Jew is expected, on this day, to pray for forgiveness for sins between man and God and correct his wrongful actions against his fellow man. The major precepts of Yom Kippur - lengthy devotional services and a 25-hour fast - are observed even by much of the otherwise secular population. The level of public solemnity on Yom Kippur surpasses that of any other festival, including Rosh Hashanah. The country comes to a complete halt for 25 hours on this day; places of entertainment are closed, there are no television and radio broadcasts (not even the news), public transport is suspended, and even the roads are completely closed. Yom Kippur in Israel has special meaning due to memories of the 1973 war, a surprise attack launched by Egypt and Syria against Israel on that very day.
Sukkot, described in the Bible (Lev.23:34) as the “Feast of Tabernacles” begins five days after Yom Kippur). Sukkot is one of the three festivals that were celebrated (until 70 CE) with mass pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem and are therefore known as the “pilgrimage festivals.” On Sukkot, Jews commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (c. 13th century BCE) and give thanks for a bountiful harvest. At some kibbutzim, Sukkot is celebrated as Chag Ha’asif (the harvest festival), with the themes of the gathering of the second grain crop and the autumn fruit, the start of the agricultural year, and the first rains.
In the five days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, tens of thousands of householders and businesses erect sukkot - booths for temporary dwelling, resembling the booths in which the Israelites lived in the desert, after their exodus from Egypt - and acquire the palm frond, citron, myrtle sprigs and willow branches with which the festive prayer rite is augmented. All around the country, sukkot line parking lots, balconies, rooftops, lawns, and public spaces. No army base lacks one. Some spend the festival and the next six days literally living in their sukkot, while most observers just eat their meals there.
In Israel, the “holy day” portion of Sukkot (and the other two pilgrimage festivals, Passover and Shavuot) is celebrated for one day. Diaspora communities celebrate it for two days, commemorating the time in antiquity when calendation was performed at the Temple and its results reported to the Diaspora using a tenuous network of signal fires and couriers.
The prayer liturgy is augmented with additional prayers, including the Hallel, a collection of blessings and psalms, recited on Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of each lunar month) and on the pilgrimage festivals.
After the festive day, Sukkot continues at a lesser level of sanctity, as mandated by the Torah (Lev. 23:36). During this intermediate week - half festival, half ordinary - schools are closed and many workplaces shut down or shorten their hours. Most Israelis spend the interim days of Sukkot and Passover at recreation sites throughout the country.
The intermediate week and the holiday season end on Shemini Atseret, the “sacred occasion of the eighth day” (Lev. 23:36), with which Simhat Torah is combined. Celebration of Shemini Atseret/Simhat Torah focuses on the Torah and is noted for public dancing with a Torah scroll in one’s arms and with recitation of the concluding and beginning chapters of the Torah, renewing the yearly cycle of Torah reading. After dark, many communities sponsor further festivities, often outdoors, that are not limited by the ritual restrictions that apply on the holy day itself.
Hanukkah, beginning on 25 Kislev (usually in December), commemorates the triumph of the Jews, under the Maccabees, over the Greek rulers (164 BCE) - both the physical victory of the small Jewish nation against mighty Greece and the spiritual victory of the Jewish faith against the Hellenism of the Greeks. Its sanctity derives from this spiritual aspect of the victory, and the miracle of the flask of oil, when a portion of sacramental olive oil meant to keep the Temple candelabrum lit for one day lasted for eight days, the time it took for the Temple to be rededicated.
Hanukkah is observed in Israel, as in the Diaspora, for eight days. The central feature of this holiday is the lighting of candles each evening - one on the first night, two on the second, and so on - in commemoration of the miracle at the Temple. The Hanukkah message in Israel focuses strongly on aspects of restored sovereignty; customs widely practiced in the Diaspora, such as giftgiving and the dreidl (spinning top - sevivon in Hebrew), are also in evidence. The dreidl’s sides are marked with Hebrew initials representing the message “A great miracle occurred here”; in the Diaspora, the initials stand for “A great miracle occurred there.” Schools are closed during this week; workplaces are not.
Tu B'Shevat, the fifteenth of Shevat (January-February), cited in rabbinical sources as the new year of fruit trees for sabbatical, tithing, and other purposes, has almost no ritual impact. But it has acquired secular connotations as a day when trees are planted by individuals, especially by schoolchildren and it serves as the time when intensive afforestation is undertaken by the Jewish National Fund and local authorities. During this month, although it is still cold, the fruit trees begin to flower, starting with the almond tree.
Purim, another rabbinical festival in early spring, occurs on 14 Adar (15 Adar in walled cities), commemorating the deliverance of beleaguered Jewry in the Persian Empire under Artaxerxes, as recounted in the Scroll of Esther. This festival compensates for the solemnity of many other Jewish observances by mandating merriment. Schools are closed, public festivities abound, newspapers run hoax items reminiscent of April Fools’ Day, children (and adults) don costumes, and a festive reading of the Scroll of Esther is marked by noisemakers sounded whenever the villain Haman’s name is recited. The Orthodox indulge in inebriation, within limits, and carry out an exacting list of duties: giving of alms, evening and morning readings of the Scroll of Esther, exchange of delicacies and a full-fledged holiday feast.
Passover (Pessah), is celebrated in the spring, beginning on 15 Nisan. Passover is the festival celebrating the Exodus from Egypt (c. 13th century BCE) and liberation from bondage. Freedom is, indeed, the festival’s dominant theme. The rites of Passover begin long before the festival, as families and businesses cleanse their premises of hametz - leaven and anything containing it - as prescribed in the Bible (Ex. 12:15-20). The day before the festival is devoted to preparatory rituals including ceremonial burning of the forbidden foodstuff. On the holiday evening, the seder is recited: an elaborate retelling of the enslavement and redemption. At this festive meal, the extended family gathers to read the Haggadah and enjoy traditional foods, particularly matza (unleavened bread). The following day’s observances resemble those of the other pilgrimage festivals.
Passover is probably second only to Yom Kippur in traditional observance by the generally nonobservant. In addition, a secular Passover rite based on the festival’s agricultural connotations is practiced in some kibbutzim. It serves as a spring festival, a festival of freedom, and the date of the harvesting of the first ripe grain. Passover also includes the second “intermediate” week - five half-sacred, half-ordinary days devoted to extended prayer and leisure - and it concludes with another festival day.
On Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day, less than a week after Passover, the people of Israel commune with the memory of the six million martyrs of the Jewish people who perished at the hands of the Nazis in the Holocaust. Modern rites of public bereavement and special ceremonies are held. On this day a siren is sounded at 10 a.m., as the nation observes two minutes of silence, pledging “to remember, and to remind others never to forget."
Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars is commemorated a week later, as a day honoring those who fell in the struggle for the establishment of the State of Israel and in its defense. At 8 p.m. on the eve of Remembrance Day and at 11 a.m. on the following morning, two minutes of silence, as a siren sounds, give the entire nation the opportunity to remember its debt and express its eternal gratitude to its sons and daughters who gave their lives for the achievement of the country’s independence and its continued existence.
Independence Day (5 Iyar) directly follows Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars
and is held on the anniversary of the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel (May 14, 1948). While this is not a centuries-old celebration, it is a day that means a lot to many citizens who have physically and actively participated in the creation of a new state and its struggle for survival, and have witnessed the enormous changes that have taken place since 1948. On the eve of Independence Day municipalities sponsor public celebrations, loud-speakers broadcast popular music and multitudes go “downtown” to participate in the holiday spirit.
Many synagogues also hold special services of thanksgiving, where Hallel is recited marking Israel’s national deliverance.
On Independence Day, many citizens get to know the countryside by travelling to battlefields of the War of Independence, visit the memorials to the fallen, go on nature hikes and, in general, spend the day outdoors picnicking and having barbecues.
Israel Prizes for distinction in literary, artistic and scientific endeavor are presented and the International Bible Contest for Jewish Youth is held. Army bases are opened to the public and air force fly-bys, as well as naval displays, take place.
Lag B'Omer (18 Iyar), the thirty-third day in the counting of the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, has become a children’s celebration featuring massive bonfires. It commemorates events at the time of the Bar-Kochba uprising against Rome (132-135 CE).
Jerusalem Day is celebrated on 28 Iyar, about a week before Shavuot, and commemorates the 1967 reunification of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, after it had been divided by concrete walls and barbed wire for 19 years. On this day, we are reminded that Jerusalem is “the focal point of Jewish history, the symbol of ancient glory, spiritual fulfillment and modern renewal.” Hallel is recited in some synagogues.
Shavuot, the last of the pilgrimage festivals, when enumerated from the beginning of the Jewish year, falls seven weeks after Passover (6 Sivan), at the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. The Bible (Deut. 16:10) describes this occasion as the festival of weeks (Heb. shavuot), for so is it counted from Passover, and as the occasion on which new grain and new fruits are offered to the priests in the Temple. Its additional definition - the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai - is of rabbinical origin. Shavuot is observed among the Orthodox with marathon religious study and, in Jerusalem, with a mass convocation of festive worship at the Western Wall. In the kibbutzim, it marks the peak of the new grain harvest and the ripening of the first fruits, including the seven species mentioned in the Bible (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates).
The Ninth of Av (Tisha B’Av, falling in July or early August), commemorates the anniversary of the destruction of the First and Second Temples. On the day itself, numerous rules of bereavement and the Yom Kippur measures of “self-denial,” including a full-day fast, are in effect.
Ethnic communities observe additional rites and celebrations of their own. Some better-known celebrations include the Mimouna, unique to Moroccan Jewry, on the day after Passover, celebrating the renewal of nature and its blessings; and the Saharana of Kurdish Jewry, after Sukkot, which was the national holiday of the Jews in Kurdistan. Another event is the Sigd holiday of the Ethiopian Jewish community, in mid-November, a celebration which began in Ethiopia, expressing their yearning for Zion, and continues in Israel today as an expression of their thankfulness.
Thus, with its diverse population and multiple lifestyles and attitudes, Israel celebrates the cycle of Jewish festivals and observances in a public manner that underscores the country’s Jewishness and its centrality to Judaism.
|Calendar of Jewish holidays|
|Name of Festival
|Fast of Gedaliah
|Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah
||25 Kislev - 2 Tevet
|Fast of Esther
recalling Queen Esther's three-day fast in her efforts to persuade Artaxerxes to rescind the genocidal designs of his advisor, the evil Haman (6th century BCE)
||14 or 15 Adar B
|Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Day
|17th of Tammuz
designating the occasion when the Babylonian army (586 BCE) and later Roman forces (70 CE) breached the walls of Jerusalem, in preparation for the destruction of the First and later the Second Temple
|Ninth of Av
|Fast of Gedaliah
|Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah
||25 Kislev - 2 Tevet