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Section: Judaism and Jewish life

Festivals

An image portaying the Jewish festival of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for trees. This festival marks the season in which the earliest-blooming trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle.
An image portaying the Jewish festival of Tu B’Shevat, the New Year for trees. This festival marks the season in which the earliest-blooming trees in the Land of Israel emerge from their winter sleep and begin a new fruit-bearing cycle. © 2011 Beit Hatfutsot.

The Jewish religion celebrates many festivals throughout each year.

In this section you will find information about the major Jewish festivals: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Chanukah, Purim, Pesach and Shavuot.

Rosh Hashanah

Hasidic Jews dancing at Rosh Hashanah
Hasidic Jews dancing at Rosh Hashanah © 2011 Beit Hatfutsot.

Rosh Hashanah marks the Jewish New Year. It is the first day of the most solemn period in the Jewish calendar. Jews believe that during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur God judges the deeds of all men and women. During this period, Jews reflect on their conduct over the past year and seek forgiveness for any sins they may have committed against God and fellow human beings. In addition, they make a sincere attempt to right any wrongs they may have caused.

Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of TISHRE in the Jewish calendar (usually during September) and is also celebrated on the following day. Jews don’t work during these two days and only carry out essential activities.

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah people leave work early in order to prepare for the festival. A festive meal is prepared that includes sweet foods such as grapes or honey to show the sweetness of the new year.

Just before nightfall, the woman of the house will light two candles and give the blessing: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has hallowed us by His commandments and commanded us to ‘kindle the festival light.” The candles are then placed on or near the dining table so they can be seen during the festive meal.

The rituals continue, with the head of the household raising a cup of wine and reciting the Kiddush (prayer) of Rosh Hashanah. Before drinking the wine those assembled join in reciting: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has caused us to live, sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.” They then drink wine.

The male head of the house then makes a blessing over two festive loaves of bread: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who causes bread to come forth from the earth.” He then breaks one of the loaves and distributes it to all who are present. Pieces of apple are then dipped in honey and blessed with the words: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, creator of the fruit of the tree.” After eating the apple those present say: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, and God of our fathers, to renew for us a good and sweet year.”

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Shofar

Much of the day of Rosh Hashanah is spent in the synagogue. During the service the Shofar is blown. The sound of the Shofar is a symbolic call to awaken moral conscience and to ensure that we reflect upon our actions.

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. It is the last of the days of repentance. By Yom Kippur each person should have made a personal attempt to right the wrongs they have done. In return, those who have been asked for forgiveness should grant it willingly.

On Yom Kippur Jews must refrain from work and only carry out activities that relate to caring for the elderly, sick or small children.

An hour before nightfall, on the eve of Yom Kippur, a meal is eaten. This meal should include only food that can be easily digested.

Those who have deceased relatives will light a memorial lamp in their memory. This will burn for 24 hours. The woman of the house should then light two candles and say the blessing: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has hallowed us by His commandments and commanded us to kindle the light of the Day of Atonement”.

From sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur until nightfall of the following day it is forbidden to eat or drink. This is called fasting. However, food is permitted for the sick, small children and the elderly.

Male Jews over the age of 13 will wear a Tallit at the evening service.

DID YOU KNOW...

Blowing of the Shofar

During the day of Yom Kippur there will be five services at the synagogue. A memorial service is also included on Yom Kippur. During each of the five services the congregation will make a collective confession of their sins. These sins could have been committed in a number of ways: willingly, through ignorance, folly, openly, secretly, in thought, word or action, knowingly or in error. Even if someone has not committed a sin in any of these ways, they still join in the collective confession, an expression of regret for the actions of others.

The end of Yom Kippur is signalled by a single blowing of the Shofar. Jews can then eat, drink and rejoice in hope that God has granted forgiveness.

Watch the video of the blowing of the Shofar above.

Sukkot

Five days after Yom Kippur, the autumn festival of Sukkot begins. This is also known as the Festival of Ingathering (harvest festival).

Sukkah is the name of a shelter the Israelites built in the wilderness. Sukkot is the plural. Each family or community will build a shelter to mark this festival, and also to demonstrate that all life is fragile and depends on God for protection. The shelter should have a roof that will keep out the sun, but not the rain. At night the stars should be visible through the roof.

Wherever possible, meals are to be taken in the shelter throughout the seven-day festival of Sukkot. Sleeping in the shelter also demonstrates reliance on God.

DID YOU KNOW...

The Eve of Sukkot

On Sukkot Jews must refrain from work and only carry out activities that are absolutely necessary.

During Sukkot, the fruit of the citron tree, palm branches, and the branches of myrtle and willows are collected. One palm branch, three myrtle twigs and two willow branches are bound together. The bouquet is held in the right hand and the citron in the left. A blessing is recited before they are waved in six directions: east, south, west, north, up and down. This symbolises God’s sovereignty over all things. This ritual is repeated whenever the Sukkah is entered and also in the synagogue.

Chanukah

First day of Chanukah.
First day of Chanukah. © 2011 Beit Hatfutsot.

Chanukah means dedication. The festival of Chanukah commemorates the rededication of the Temple to God during the second century BCE.

The people of Judea had previously been banned from studying the Torah or practising its rules and customs by their Syrian rulers. Young men were forced to learn and take part in the Greek customs. The temple was turned into a pagan shrine.

Some Jews rebelled and managed to restore the traditions of Israel.  One of the rebels, Judah Ha Maccabi, rededicated the temple to God. He tried to relight the menorah but had oil only for one day. However, by a miracle, it burned for eight days. In that time, fresh supplies of oil were found.

The lighting of candles on eight consecutive evenings during the festival of Chanukah marks the saving of Judaism.

Purim

Purim is a festival of celebration and joy. It commemorates the saving of the Jews from extermination at the hands of the Persians. The story is told in the book of Esther.

Between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE the area that we now called the Middle East was ruled by Persia.

According to the book of Esther, Haman, the prime minister of Persia, plotted to kill all the Jews. Esther, the emperor’s consort, and her cousin Mordechai sought to save the Jews. They went to the emperor and spoke on behalf of all the Jews. Before visiting the emperor, Esther fasted for three days. The emperor welcomed Esther and later she told him of Haman’s plot to kill all the Jews. Haman was arrested and executed.

The Jewish people were saved. The book of Esther does not mention the name God, but refers to the fact that God works in many different ways that are not always apparent.

DID YOU KNOW...

Reading of the Megillah

Purim means ‘lots’ (as in drawing lots) and refers to the lottery Haman used to choose the date for the massacre.

The most important feature of Purim is the reading of the Megillah. As the story is being read, it is a tradition that every time the name of Haman is mentioned everyone boos, hisses, stamps their feet or makes a noise with a rattle. This is to blot out the name of Haman. However, care should be taken that this does not detract from the reading.

Purim is a time of great celebration and lightheartedness.

Pesach

Pesach or Passover is the festival which commemorates the exodus  of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. It is a festival of freedom and celebration. Pesach begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan and is celebrated for eight days. The holiday also marks the beginning of spring and the harvest season in Israel.

In the Pesach story the Pharaoh of Egypt was asked to let the Jewish people go but he refused. It took ten plagues to convince him, but in the end he let the People of Israel leave Egypt. He then sent his army after them. God parted the waters of the sea and the Jews walked across to safety. The army of the Pharaoh was drowned.

DID YOU KNOW...

Removing Chametz

Probably the most significant observance related to Pesach involves the removal of chametz from Jewish homes. This commemorates the fact that the Jews leaving Egypt were in a hurry, and did not have time to let their bread rise. Observant Jews will not eat leavened bread for the duration of the holiday; instead they eat unleavened bread, known as Matzah.

On the first night of Pesach Jews have a special family meal filled with ritual to remind them of the significance of the holiday. This meal is called a seder which is the Hebrew word for ‘order’. This is because the exodus from Egypt must be discussed in a particular order, which is set out in a special book called the Haggadah.

Shavuot

Children celebrating Shavuot
Children celebrating Shavuot © 2011 Beit Hatfutsot.

Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The period from Pesach to Shavuot is a time of great hope. We count each of the days from the second day of Pesach to the day before Shavuot.

This counting reminds Jews of the connection between the two festivals: Pesach freed them physically from slavery, but the giving of the Torah on Shavuot freed them spiritually.

It is customary to stay up the entire first night of Shavuot and study the Torah, then pray as early as possible in the morning. It is also customary to eat a dairy meal and dairy foods, such as cheesecake, at least once during Shavuot. One of the reasons for this is that the Jews had only just received the Torah with its laws of shechita (ritual slaughtering of animals), so had not had time to study them yet. Another reason for eating dairy foods may be a reminder of God’s promise regarding the land of Israel, a land flowing with ‘milk and honey’.

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