Judaism and Jewish Holidays

Judaism as a Religion and Jewish Culture

Judaism is more concerned with actions than it is with beliefs, it focuses on relationships: the relationship between G-d and mankind [sic], the relationship between G-d and Jewish people, the relationship between Jewish people and the land of Israel, and the relationship between Jewish people. The Torah, the entire body of Jewish teachings, and the first five books of the Bible, iterate the development of these relationships. Specific scriptures also discuss the relationship between G-d and Abraham, as well as the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people past, present, and forward. These scriptures also discuss the mutual obligations created by these relationships. There are differing understandings of these relationships within Judaism and among Jews. Orthodox Jews believe that there are absolute unchanging laws from G-d. Conservative Jews believe that there are laws from G-d, but that these laws can evolve over time. Reform or Reconstructionist Jews believe that G-d has provided guidelines — that individuals negotiate, through their faith, how to follow (or not) — characterized by dynamic tensions that include continuity versus reform, authority versus autonomy, and universalism versus particularism.

Not all Jews practice Judaism. Many Jews are non-religious, secular, and/or identify with Jewish culture and history rather than the religion. Jewish culture encompasses the history Jewish people have lived in many parts of the world and through which they have developed many different traditions.

Major Jewish Observances

Jewish holidays are observed from sundown the day before to sundown the day of the holiday.

Shabbat: "Sabbath"

The Sabbath begins every Friday at sundown and includes 25 hours without work as a day of rest.

Purim: "Festival of Lots"

April 8-16, 2009

Pesach (Passover) commemorates the liberation of enslaved Israelites from Egypt after 400 years of enslavement. In "Exodus," the Bible tells that G-d inflicted ten plagues upon the Egyptians before Pharaoh would release enslaved Israelites. The tenth plague was the killing of firstborn sons. To protect Israelites from the tenth plague, they were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a spring lamb so that, upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord would "pass over" their homes, hence the name of the holiday, "Passover." When Pharaoh finally freed the Israelites, it is said that they left in such a hurry that their bread had not yet risen. Thus, for the duration of Pesach, Matza (unleavened bread) is eaten in lieu of leaven bread, both to commemorate this history, to symbolically remove arrogance and pride from the soul, and to mark the beginning of the harvest season in Israel. Pesach, begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, the full moon of that month and the first month of the Hebrew calendar's festival year.

Shavuot: "Feast of Weeks," "Festival of Reaping," or "Day of the First Fruits"

May 28-30, 2009

Shavuot marks the end of the counting of Omer, the seven-week (50 day) period between Pesach and Shavuot. Counting begins the second day of Pesach and ends the first day of Shavuot. Where Pesach signifies freedom from physical bondage (enslavement in Egypt), Shavuot signifies spiritual redemption from idolatry and immorality through the giving of the Torah (by G-d). Shavuot occurs on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan (late May or early June).

Rosh Hashana: "New Year" or "Day of Judgment"

Sept. 18-20, 2009

According to Jewish oral tradition, the creation of the earth was completed on Rosh Hashana. Resultantly, the entire Jewish calendar year is calculated based on Rosh Hashana. During the holiday, each person is judged based on their deeds. Traditionally, two days of Rosh Hashana are celebrated as yoma arichta (a single long day), but many in Reform Judaism celebrate the first day alone. Rosh Hashana begins/occurs on the 1st day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, as ordained in the Torah. Rosh Hashanah is the first of the High Holidays or Yamim Noraim ("Days of Awe") or Asseret Yemei Teshuva (The Ten Days of Repentance) specifically set aside for repentance; these days culminate on Yom Kippur. Vegetables and trees are planted during the holiday.

Yom Kippur: "Day of Atonement"

Sept. 27-28, 2009

Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn and important of the Jewish holidays. Its central themes are atonement and reconciliation. Jews traditionally observe this holy day with a 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, beginning the day before at sundown and continuing until sundown the night of Yom Kippur. Pleasurable activities are suspended so that the day can be spent in contemplation and prayer.

Yom Kippur is the 10th and final day of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashanah. According to Jewish tradition, G-d inscribes each person's fate for the coming year into a "book" on Rosh Hashanah and waits until Yom Kippur to "seal" the verdict. During the Ten Days of Repentance, Jews work to amend behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done.

Sukkot: "Feast of Booths," "Feast of Tabernacles," or "Tabernacles"

Oct. 2-10, 2009

Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah: "Rejoicing with the Torah"

Oct. 10-11, 1009

During Sukkot, observant Jews are instructed to leave their homes, daily comforts, and possessions and move into a small thatched hut, which they build, and through which we they can see the sky. Simple branches make up the roof. People sleep, eat, and live (e.g., study, receive guests, etc.) in the sukkot for a week — as a way to remember that, like the simple hut that can blow away in the wind, human bodies and lives are fragile and temporary as well. During the Hebrew month of Tishrei, Jews celebrate Rosh Hashana, followed, ten days later, by Yom Kippur, followed five days later by Sukkot.

Shemini Atzeret — "the Eighth [day] of Assembly"

is celebrated on the 22nd day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. In the Diaspora, an additional day is celebrated, the second day being separately referred to as Simchat Torah. In Israel and Reform Judaism, the holidays of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are combined into a single day and the names are used interchangeably. Shemini Atzeret is mistakenly referred to as the eighth day of the Festival of Sukkot, which occupies the seven preceding days. In fact, Shemini Atzeret is a holiday unto itself. On Shemini Atzeret, G-d says to the Jewish people, "Your departure is difficult for me. Stay with me one more day." Thus, Simchat Torah is celebrated the day following Shemini Atzeret. On Simchat Torah observant Jews celebrate the completion of the yearly cycle of Torah reading and begin it anew.

Hanukkah: "Festival of Lights"

Dec. 11-18, 2009

Hanukkah (or Chanukah) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt in 200 B.C.E. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, and may occur from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar.

From the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration," Hanukkah marks the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of Antiochus IV and commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil." According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.