VIII.    The Holidays

          In addition to Shabbos, there are five major holidays in the Jewish calendar whose observance includes many of the same laws.  They are called “Yom Tov” and each one has its own special mitzvos, mood and focus.


Rosh Hashana

The first holiday, in chronological order, is Rosh Hashana and means “head (beginning) of the year.”  It is the beginning of the Jewish year and inaugurates a ten day period of serious reflection and repentance, culminating with Yom Kippur.

On Rosh Hashana, the entire world is judged by the Almighty and we proclaim Him as our King.  To evoke His mercy, we blow the shofar (ram’s horn).  The mood of the day is somber, yet celebratory, because we believe that G-d is merciful in his judgment and will grant us a good year.


Yom Kippur   (the tenth day from Rosh Hashanah)

On Rosh Hashana we are judged and on Yom Kippur our verdict is sealed.  It is our final chance to show our regret for our past misdeeds and to plead for forgiveness.

Jews are not permitted to eat on this day; we fast for an entire 25 hours. We try to maintain our focus upon spiritual matters exclusively, hence prayer services are the only activity of the day and many spend the entire waking time in the synagogue.  We are taught Yom Kippur is a holy day when G-d is more accessible to receive our true repentance.

The mood of the day is very serious, reflecting our constant awareness of standing before the Almighty judge, confessing our wrongdoings and pleading for His forgiveness; yet the Talmud advises us that Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year precisely because on this day those who truly repent are granted forgiveness.


Succos   (The fifteenth day from Rosh Hashanah)

          Immediately after Yom Kippur, preparation for Succos begins and Jews head outdoors to construct a temporary abode known as a Succah.  We are commanded to “dwell” in it for seven days; which means to both eat and sleep in the Succah.

The purpose of this mitzvo is to recall how G-d provided us with shelter during the 40 years we wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt and to recognize we are always dependent upon His  protection for our survival.

The first day of Succos is a Yom Tov (the first two days in the diaspora), the middle six days (five in the diaspora) are called “chol hamoed” (the intermediate days of the festival), and the final day (two days in the diaspora) is also a Yom Tov.  The days of chol hamoed have some work restrictions and some aspects of the prayer service are similar to Yom Tov.

There is another mitzva specific to the festival of Succos; the taking of the four species: esrog (citron), lulav (palm branch), hadasim (myrtle) and arovos (willow). Rabbinic literature tells us these four species symbolize all different types of Jews and when united with his brethren any Jew may find his place before God, even if individually undeserving.

The esrog, is held in the left hand and the lulav, myrtle and willow are held in the right hand; they are joined together and shaken in six directions (east. south, west, north, up and down).

          After the seven days of Succos, there is a separate, new holiday called Shemine Atzeret This day in Israel is also Simchas Torah, the yearly celebration of completing the reading of the entire  Torah scroll. In the diaspora, because Yom Tov is two days, Shemini Atzeret is celebrated on the eighth day and Simchas Torah is celebrated on the ninth day after the onset of Succos.


Passover   (In middle of the seventh month from Rosh Hashanah)

         Springtime is the season for Passover, in fact, the Jewish calendar is periodically adjusted in order for this to occur. Seven times in every 19 year cycle we have an extra month to synchronize the Jewish (lunar) and secular (solar) years.

Passover is similar to Succos in that it lasts for seven days in Israel and eight in the diaspora.  The days of Yom Tov and Chol Hamoed are the same as Succos: the first and last day(s) being Yom Tov with Chol Hamoed as the intermediate days.

For Passover, the Torah bids us to remove or disown all leavened products in our property. To accomplish this feat, the women of the house do a sort of spring cleaning to make sure they have found every crumb of bread, pasta and cracker. Many jokes have been born to describe the enormous effort required to “make” Passover but the Code of Jewish Law specifically tells us not to make light of all the women’s efforts “because they have a source upon which to rely”.

Once the holiday arrives, the main mitzvos center around the Pesach seder, in which the story of the Jew’s exodus from Egypt is retold through a text called the Haggada, and Matzo, bitter herbs and wine are consumed. The story is told to the children, as a means of continuing the chain of our tradition and informing each generation of our being chosen by G-d.

The restrictions against leavened products remain in effect for all eight days of Passover.

Shavuos   (in the 9th month from Rosh Hashanah)

We are commanded to count 49 days, a complete seven weeks from the second day of Passover until the fiftieth day, which is called Shavuos (weeks).  Shavuos is a Yom Tov commemorating the day the Almighty revealed Himself at Mt. Sinai and gave us (the entire nation of Israel) the Ten Commandments.

The seven weeks counted between Passover, when we were taken out miraculously from Egypt and Shavuos, when G-d selected us to receive his Torah (laws), indicate their connection; the Jews were redeemed from slavery in order to become G-d’s people and to serve Him.

Shavuos is observed as a Yom Tov for one day in Israel and two days in the diaspora.  There are no mitzvos specific to Shavuos, besides the standard work restrictions of Yom Tov,  but there are two very common customs which are observed.   Many Jews stay up all night engaged in Torah study, in order to demonstrate their eagerness to receive the Torah, which G-d gave early in the morning.  The other custom is to eat dairy foods during the holiday.         


Minor Holidays    

          A minor Jewish holiday refers to a celebration that was not mentioned in the Five Books of Moses but was instituted by the Sages after the Torah was given.  These two holidays are known as Chanukah and Purim.  They differ from the major holidays in that they are not considered a Yom Tov and therefore, have no work restrictions, only positive mitzvos which the Rabbis instituted.


Chanukah   (beginning roughly three months after Rosh Hashanah                                                                    and celebrated for eight days)

          This holiday lasts for eight days and commemorates two miracles that occurred during the second temple (approximately 162 B.C.E.).

          The first of the miracles of Chanukah, was the military victory a relatively small band of Jews won against the Syrian-Hellenist army. The second miracle was: upon winning a war against overwhelming odds the Jews returned to the desecrated Temple in order to rededicate it. They found but one vial of oil to kindle the Menorah; only enough to burn for one day. The single vial of oil burned for eight days. The following year, the sages instituted the mitzva of Chanukah: to light candles for eight straight nights. 

There is also a custom to eat foods fried in oil (like latkes or donuts) to remind us of the miracle of the oil. 


PURIM   (occurring in the 6th month after Rosh Hashanah)

       Purim celebrates the Jews’ triumph of survival in the period after the destruction of the First Temple, when the Jews of Persia were threatened with annihilation.  Through a series of miraculous events, the ploy against them was foiled, demonstrating all world events are ultimately controlled by the Almighty.

Purim is a most festive day on which the Sages enacted five mitzvos: to read the Book of Esther (called the Megillah), to give food portions to friends, to give money to the needy, to have a festive meal, and to drink wine in honor of the day.

Purim is the one day a year when religious Jews allow themselves to get a little tipsy.


Last updated on: 01/20/2020
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