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Jewish holiday

The Jewish calendar has a number of festival, fast days and days of remembrance collectively known as holidays.

The denominations of Reconstructionist Judaism and Reform Judaism generally regard Jewish law relating to all these holidays as important, but no longer binding. Orthodox Judaism and Conservative Judaism hold that Jewish law relating to these days are still normative (i.e. to be accepted as binding.)

There are a number of differences in religious practices between Orthodox and Conservative Jews because these denominations have distinct ways of understanding the process of how Jewish law has historically developed, and thus how it can still develop. Nonetheless, both of these groups have nearly identical teachings about how to observe these holidays.

Table of contents
1 Rosh Hashanah
2 Yom Kippur
3 Sukkot
4 Simchat Torah
5 Chanukah
6 Tu B'shevat
7 Purim
8 New Year for Kings
9 Pesach (Passover)
10 Sefirah
11 Yom Ha'Shoah
12 Yom Hazikaron
13 Yom Ha'atzma'ut
14 Yom Yerushalayim
15 Shavuot
16 The Three Weeks and the Nine Days
17 Tisha B'av
18 New Year for Animal Tithes
19 Shabbat (the Sabbath)

Rosh Hashanah

The Jewish spiritual New Year. The Mishna sets this day aside as the new year for calculating calendar years, sabbatical and jubilee years, vegetable tithes, and tree-planting (determining the age of a tree). According to Jewish legend, the creation of the world was finished on Tishri 1. This holiday is characterized by the blowing of the shofar, a trumpet made from a ram's horn. During the afternoon of the first day occurs the practice of tashlikh, the symbolic casting away of sins by throwing either stones or bread crumbs into the waters. Rosh Hashanah is always observed as a two day holiday, both inside and outside the boundaries of Israel.

Yom Kippur

The day of repentance, considered by Jews to be the holiest and most solemn day of the year. Its central theme is atonement and reconciliation. Eating, drinking, bathing, and conjugal relations are prohibited. Fasting begins at sundown, and ends after nightfall the following day. Yom Kippur services begin with the prayer known as "Kol Nidrei", which must be recited before sunset. (Kol Nidrei, Aramaic for "all vows," is a public annullment of religious vows made by Jews during the preceding year. It only concerns unfilled vows made between a person and God, and does not cancel or nullify any vows made between people.)

A Tallit (four-cornered prayer shawl) is donned for evening prayers - the only evening service of the year in which this is done. The Ne'ilah service is a special service held only on the day of Yom Kippur, and deals with the closing of the holiday. Yom Kippur comes to an end with the blowing of the shofar, which marks the conclusion of the fast. It is always observed as a one day holiday, both inside and outside the boundaries of the land of Israel.

Contrary to popular belief, Yom Kippur is not a sad day. Sephardic Jews (Jews of Spanish, Portuguese and North African descent) refer to this holiday as "the White Fast".


Sukkot is an eight day Biblical pilgrimage festival, also known as The Feast of Booths (Tabernacles). The first two days are celebrated as full holidays. The following five days are known as Hol Hamo'ed - weekdays that retain some aspects of the festival. The seventh day (fifth of the intermediate days) is called Hoshanah Rabbah and has a special observance of its own. The last day, the eighth, is celebrated as separate holiday, with its own special prayers and customs (see below).

Sukkot commemorates the life of the Israelites in the desert during their journey to the promised land of Cannan. During their wandering in the desert they lived in booths (Sukkot). The Torah directs Jews to use four species of plants to celebrate the holiday: the lulav (palm branch), etrog (lemon-like citron), myrtle, and willow. The etrog is handled separately, while the other three species are bound together, and are collectively referred to as the lulav.

In Israel, Sukkot is eight days long, including Shemini Atzeret. Outside Israel (the Diaspora), Sukkot is nine days long. Thus the eighth day is Shemini Atzeret, and the extra (ninth) day is Simchat Torah. In Israel, the festivities and customs associated with Simchat Torah are celebrated on Shemini Atzeret.

The last portion of the Torah is read on this day. The following Shabbat Jews start reading the Torah again at the beginning of Genesis. Services are unconventionally joyous, and humorous deviations from the standard service are allowed, and even expected.

Simchat Torah

See the article for more details on Simchat Torah.


The story of Chanukah is preserved in the books of the First and Second Maccabees. These books are not part of the Tanakh (Bible); they are part of the Apocrypha. The miracle of the one-day supply of oil miraculously lasting eight days is first described in the Talmud.

This holiday marks the defeat of Assyrian forces who 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 with a special Menorah, called a Chanukiah.

Before the 20th century, this holiday was considered be a relatively minor one. However, with the rise of Christmas as the biggest holiday in the Western world and the establishment of the modern state of Israel, this holiday began to increasingly served both as a celebration of Israel's struggle for survival and more importantly, as a December family gift giving holiday which could be a Jewish substitute for the Christian one.

Tu B'shevat

The new year for trees. This day was set aside in the Mishnah on which to bring fruit tithes. It is still celebrated in modern times. In the 1600's Land of Israel, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed (also: Tzefat) and his disciples created a short sedar, reminiscent of the sedar that Jews observe on Pesach, that explores the holiday's Kabbalistic themes.


Purim commemorates the events found in the Book of Esther. It is celebrated by reading or acting out Esther, making noises at every mention of Haman's name.

New Year for Kings

This holiday is no longer celebrated. Nisan is the first month of the Hebrew calendar. In Mishnaic times this holiday was celebrated as the New Year for Kings and months. In addition to this new year, the Mishna sets up three other New Year's: Elul 1, for animal tithes, Tishrei 1 (Rosh HaShanah), and Shevat 15, the New Year for Trees/fruit tithes. Ever since the Babylonian diaspora, only the Rosh HaShanah and Tu B'Shevat are still celebrated.

Pesach (Passover)

Pesach commemorates the liberation of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. The first seder is on the 14th. On the night of the 15th, the second seder is held. On that night Jews start counting the omer. The omer is a counting down of the days from the time they left Egypt. until the time they arrived at Mount Sinai. For a week nothing leavened is eaten.

Karaites start the omer count on the Sunday of Passover week.


This 49 day period between Pesach and Shavuot is defined by the Torah as the period to bring special offerings to the Temple In Jerusalem. Judaism teaches that this makes physical the spiritual connection between Pesach and Shavuot.

Yom Ha'Shoah

Holocaust remembrance day.

Yom Hazikaron

Day of remembrance. In honor of Israeli veterans of the War of Independence.

Yom Ha'atzma'ut

Israel Independence Day.

Yom Yerushalayim

Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) marks the reunification of Jerusalem and The Temple Mount under Jewish rule almost 1900 years after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.


The Feast of Weeks, sometimes known by the Greek name "Pentecost." One of the three pilgrimage festivals ordained in the Torah, Shavuot marks the end of the counting of the Omer, the period between Passover and Shavuot. According to Rabbinic tradition, the Ten Commandments were given on this day. 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.

Karaites always celebrate Shavuot on a Sunday.

The Three Weeks and the Nine Days

The days between the 17th of Tamuz and the 9th of Av are days of mourning, for during this time the collapse of Jerusalem during the Roman occupation occurred. Weddings and other joyful occasions are traditionally not held in this period. A further element is added within the three weeks, during the nine days between the 1st and 9th day of Av. During this period the pious refrain from eating meat and drinking wine, except of course on Shabbat or at a Seudat Mitzvah (such as a Pidyon Haben or completing the study of a religious text.) In addition, one's hair is not cut during this period.

In Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has issued several responsa (legal rulings) which hold that the prohibitions against weddings in this timeframe are deeply held traditions, but should not be construed as binding law. Thus, Conservative Jewish practice would allow weddings during this time, except on the 9th of Av itself. Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism hold that halakha (Jewish law) is no longer binding, so weddings may be held on any of these days. Orthodox Judaism maintains the traditional prohibitions.

Tisha B'av

On this day both the First and Second Temples were destroyed (587 BC and AD 70). On this day in 1290, King Edward I signed the edict compelling the Jews to leave England. The Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492 also occurred on this day.

New Year for Animal Tithes

No longer observed. This day is set up by the Mishna as the New Year for animal tithes, which roughly corresponds to a new year for taxes. This is similar to the tax deadline in the United States of America, on April 15.

Shabbat (the Sabbath)

While the Sabbath is not considered a holiday as such by some other cultures and religions, Jewish law accords Shabbat the status of a holiday. Jewish people celebrate a Shabbat, a day of rest, on the seventh day of the week. Jewish law defines one day ending at nightfall, which is when the next day then begins. Thus, Shabbat begins at sundown Friday night, and ends at nightfall Saturday night.

In many ways, halakha (Jewish law) gives Shabbat the status of being the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar.

See: Religious Festivals