Jewish Holidays

Did you ever wonder...

Why do Jewish holidays begin in the evening?

A verse in Genesis states: "And there was evening, and there was morning, one day." From this, we understand that a “day” actually begins the previous sundown. The word "erev" translates to “evening” in Hebrew, which is why you’ll see Erev Rosh Hashanah, which means that the holiday begins that evening. The exceptions are minor fast days, which are from sunrise to sundown on the same day.

Why do the dates of Jewish holidays vary from year to year?

Actually, they are on the same date every year on the Jewish calendar, which is on a lunar/solar cycle, whereas most of the world operates on the solar-only Gregorian calendar (which determines that this year is 2016), named after Pope Gregory XIII.

Why are some holidays observed for two days?

Thanks to email, it takes 2 seconds to get a message halfway across the world today. But ages ago, it was a much more complicated system. Once the rabbis determined that a new Jewish month was starting, they would broadcast the news via bonfires, which would be repeated, one community to the next, to get the word out.

Of course, it could be quite a while until you could be sure that everyone had seen the fire. To make certain that the holiday was not already over by the time news reached everyone, the rabbis decided that each holiday would be observed for two days. (This does not apply to the land of Israel, where Jewish holidays - other than Rosh Hashanah - are observed without the extra day.)

major holidays and observances

Pesach (Passover) **

Pesach celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt and marks the establishment of the Jews as a people.

Pesach is probably the most tradition-filled Jewish holiday, and it’s the perfect time for those who like things very, very clean. Before Pesach begins, Jews are directed to remove all chametz (leavened products) from their possession, recalling how the fleeing Israelites had no time to wait for their dough to rise (i.e. ferment or leaven) before rushing out of Egypt. But many also use this time to do an exhaustive home cleaning, scrubbing floors, vacuuming under every chair cushion and checking clothing pockets for bread crumbs. 

At the center of the holiday are the seders (ritual meals), when families and friends gather to tell the story of the exodus. The table is filled with symbolic foods like horseradish, salt water and vegetables, and charoset (made of apples and nuts). Prompted by the reading of the Pesach Haggadah (or “telling”), everyone is encouraged to talk and ask questions, and discussions often continue long into the night.

Throughout the week of Pesach, meals typically include matzah, which is cracker-like and made only of flour and water, and exclude foods with leavening.

Rosh Hashanah*

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year ("rosh" = "head"; "ha" = "the"; "shanah" = "year"--so literally: "head of the year").

The holiday’s most famous traditions are hearing the shofar (ram’s horn) and eating apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year. Some people like to symbolically cast away their sins in a ceremony called tashlich, which consists of tossing bits of bread into a running stream and reciting verses from Micah and Psalms. Because Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgement, the day includes numerous and lengthy prayers.

Naturally, food is a central part of the holiday. Many Jews celebrate with a round challah (to reflect the circle of life), and some decorate their table with symbolic foods, everything from a fish head (for the head of the new year) to black-eyed peas, a favorite of Egyptian Jews because the Arabic word for the vegetable, lubia, is related to a Hebrew word for “many.” 

The day after Rosh Hashanah is Tzom (“fast” in Hebrew) Gedaliah, a minor fast day that commemorates the assassination of Gedaliah, the Jewish governor of Judah. Because this murder was organized by another Jew, some also use the time to reflect on disunity in the Jewish community today.

Yom Kippur*

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, when the fate of each person for the upcoming year is sealed into the Book of Life. On this day, a 25-hour-fast, Jews pledge to improve their behavior as they seek forgiveness for sins against God and against other humans. Virtually the entire day is spent in prayer, and some wear white clothing, to symbolize purity.


In preparation for one of the most important days on the Jewish calendar, Leviticus directs Jews to count the days starting at the end of Pesach. The 50th day is Shavuot, the day the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai. During this period, the Omer barley offering was brought to the Temple (which is why the days between Pesach and Shavuot are known as Counting the Omer.) Among observant Jews, this is a time of mourning when celebrations are not held. The exception is Lag b'Omer, the 33rd day, a popular day for weddings, which marks the end of a plague that affected students of Rabbi Akiva, and also recalls the life of the second century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the basic work of Kabbalah.

Of course, life gets busy, and you might need a little reminder to count the Omer

Shavuot is traditionally celebrated with dairy meals, and especially cheesecake. Some like to stay up all night studying and learning and, presumably, drinking lots of strong coffee.


Sukkot recalls the 40 years when the children of Israel were wandering in the desert and lived in temporary shelters, or sukkot. On this fun holiday, Jewish families build outdoor structures (usually consisting of wood or canvas panels) where they reside as much as possible. The sukkot must be topped with s’chach, a roof of sorts (usually made of tree branches or bamboo mats) and offer many opportunities for creativity, so it’s possible to see these little homes filled with lights, decorations, comfy chairs and rugs.

During Sukkot, Jews are commanded to say a blessing using a lulav, which consists of a palm branch with sticks of willow and myrtle, and the etrog, a fragrant, lemon-like fruit.

Coming at the end of Sukkot are Shemini Atzeret, which translates to “the assembly of the eighth (day)” and is noted in Leviticus and Numbers as a “sacred gathering.” It is observed as a day of rest and celebration; and Simchat Torah, or "Rejoicing in the Torah," which marks the end of the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings.

Synagogues are a place of fun and activity on Simchat Torah, when congregants dance and join in processions as they carry Torah scrolls. As many people as possible are given an opportunity to recite a blessing over the Torah reading, and there’s usually plenty of candy for children.

The Three Weeks/Tisha b’Av

The Three Weeks is a time of mourning over the destruction of both the first and second Holy Temples in Jerusalem. The Three Weeks begin with a minor fast (the Fast of Tammuz) and end with Tisha b’Av, which is, along with Yom Kippur, one of only two full (25-hour) fast days on the Jewish calendar.

Jews spend the morning of Tisha b’Av at synagogue, where the Book of Lamentations and numerous elegies are read.

Numerous other disasters befell the Jewish community on this same date, including the Jewish expulsion from England (1290), France (1306) and Spain (1492); SS commander Heinrich Himmler’s receipt of approval for the Final Solution; the start of the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka; and the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, leaving 85 dead and 300 injured.

minor holidays and fast days 

Asara b'Tevet

A fast day, Asara b’Tevet recalls the siege of Jerusalem.


Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after a group of Jewish warriors defeated the occupying Greek armies. Jews kindle menorot, eight-branched candelabras (plus a spot for one candle to light all the others), to recall the miracle of oil in the Temple that burned for eight days, though there had been enough for just one.

On Chanukah, it’s traditional to play dreidel and to eat latkes, fried potato pancakes topped with sour cream, applesauce or sugar, and jelly-filled doughnuts cooked in oil.


Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from the plans of evil Haman in ancient Persia. It is a day of merriment, when children dress in costumes, when everyone can “boo” at the sound of Haman’s name during the reading of Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) and when families send gifts of food, mishloach manot, to friends. The day before Purim is the Fast of Esther, which recalls the heroine of Purim, Queen Esther, who, when she learned that Haman was set on destroying the Jewish people, abstained from food and drink – and asked others to do the same – as part of an appeal to God. Queen Esther called for three full days of not eating and drinking, but fortunately today we observe only a minor fast.

Rosh Chodesh

Rosh Chodesh occurs on the first day of the month, which is observed with special Torah readings and is traditionally regarded as a woman’s holiday.

Tu b’Shevat

“Tu” stands for 15, to mark the 15th of the month of Shevat, the “new year” for trees. This day has its origins in tax appraisal in the time of the Holy Temple, but Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) chose to celebrate it as a holiday, and many today like to mark the day with food, specifically fruit and nuts from trees. In Israel, Tu b’Shevat is celebrated by planting new trees, and some families like to hold a symbolic seder.

modern holidays and observances 

Yom Ha’atzmaot (Israel Independence Day)

Celebrates the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day)

Yom HaShoah recalls the Six Million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Jews living outside Israel observe the day with memorial services. In Israel, flags are lowered to half mast, the chief rabbis recite prayers and, at 10 a.m. sharp, an air raid siren sounds for 2 minutes throughout the country. It is a somber sight when all shopping transactions cease, TV stations and radios offer no broadcasts, business meetings pause and even motorists stop in the middle of busy streets while the siren pierces the silence.

Yom HaZikaron (Israel Memorial Day)

This day recalls Israel Defense Force members who have died, along with murdered victims of terrorism. In Israel, the names of all fallen soldiers are read in chronological order throughout the day.

* Holidays when observant Jews do not do any form of work, drive, write, turn on/off electricity and more.

** Holidays when observant Jews do not do any form of work, drive, write, turn on/off electricity and more on the first two and last two days of the holiday.



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