The cycle of the Jewish holidays follows the Jewish calendar, which is lunisolar based, with an extra month added every few years to accommodate the difference between the number of days in the lunar vs. the solar year. (354/365). The date of the Jewish holiday never changes, but if may vary as to when it falls on the Gregorian calendar by up to a month. Thus, we may speak of the holidays being “early” one year and “late” the next, though the reality is that the date does not change. In many instances, the holidays are connected with the cycle of the seasons, so celebrations often take place at the new moon or the full moon. For an urban dwelling community, the Jewish calendar is a constant reminder of our agricultural origins as a people.
In the book of Genesis, in the story of creation, we read, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day”, etc. The Jewish day begins at sundown, so many holidays, including the Sabbath, will begin with candle-lighting on the night before the day on which the holiday appears on the calendar.
Ahad Ha-Am wrote that, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” Observance of Shabbat is the focal point of community and family life, a weekly opportunity for physical and spiritual nourishment. The Torah offers two reasons for Shabbat: we rest as a reminder that God rested on the 7th day of creation. We who are formed in the image of God also step back from our frenetic pace of work. Additionally, we recall the Exodus from Egypt, the formative focal point of the Biblical narrative. The essence of slavery is lack of control of one’s own time. By celebrating Shabbat, we express our dominion over our own activities, and actively demonstrate that we are not slaves to our work. For one day a week, we consciously withdraw from the cycle of creation and destruction, allowing the natural world to be at rest.
Shabbat begins in the home with a special meal. This is the ideal time to invite family and friends and to disconnect from the media, which are so much a part of our lives. Many people have the custom of giving tzedaka (setting aside money as a charitable donation) just prior to the onset of the Sabbath. Candles are lit with a traditional blessing, and, if children are present, they are blessed with the words of the priestly blessing. Orthodox practice calls for the husband to read Proverbs 31 in praise of his wife; contemporary Jews may choose to offer thanks for loving partners and all that they do to enhance the quality of home life.
We continue with Kiddush, a prayer over wine, the ritual washing of hands and then blessing the bread. (HaMotzi). Often a special loaf of egg bread, challah, is used for Shabbat. The table atmosphere should be relaxed, and might include singing of traditional songs, study of the weekly Torah portion or other texts, and the offering of thanks for the meal through the Birkat HaMazon, the blessing after the meal. We greet each other with the words, “Shabbat Shalom”, expressing our hope for a day of peace.
Shabbat is concluded on Saturday evening when there are 3 stars present in the sky with the Havdalah ceremony. The word “Havdalah” means “to make a distinction”, and it is the moment of transition from the peaceful rest of Shabbat back into the hustle and bustle of weekday life. We light a candle with multiple wicks, smell fragrant spices and drink from the Kiddush cup. At the time of Havdalah, we invite the presence of the prophet Elijah, expressing our hope that the messianic age might be ushered in at that sacred moment.
Following are three prayers for Shabbat, in both Hebrew (transliterated) and English.
On Lighting Shabbat Candles
Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav vetzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, you make us holy with your mitzvot (commandments) and have given us the mitzvah of lighting Shabbat candles.
Kiddush (Blessing Over the Wine)
The complete Shabbat Kiddush includes a paragraph describing both the completion of creation and a recounting of the Exodus:
Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam, boray p’ri hagafen.
Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.
Hamotzi (Blessing over the Challah)
Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz.
Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
Rosh HaShanah (literally, “Head of the Year”) is the Jewish New Year. It takes place in the fall, and is the time when we review the year that is drawing to a close and set our course for the year ahead. The Hebrew dates of Rosh HaShanah are the 1 and 2 Tishrei, at the time of the new moon. Rosh HaShanah ushers in the “Yamim Noraim- the Days of Awe”, which comprise what is known as the High Holiday season.
In the month prior to the new year, we seek reconciliation with others from whom we may be estranged, hoping to enter the new year with a clean slate. Our prayers at this season help us to focus on repentance, prayer and righteous giving as the means to seek reconciliation with the Holy One. We acknowledge that we cannot ask God to forgive us for pain we have caused to others until we have sought forgiveness from those we may have hurt. The holiday is known as “Yom HaDin”, the Day of Judgment. We judge ourselves and God judges our actions.
Rosh HaShanah, fundamentally, is a reminder that our actions have consequences. We imagine God opening the book of our lives and judging our behavior in the year that is drawing to a close. Rosh HaShanah is also called “Yom HaZikaron”- the Day of Remembrance. It is a solemn time, and we spend many hours in prayer in the synagogue reflecting on our life and legacy. The shofar, ram’s horn, is sounded throughout our services, arousing our souls to repentance.
Rosh HaShanah begins, as do so many holidays, with a festive meal at home, including the lighting of candles and a special Kiddush. Traditional foods such as apples and honey are consumed, expressing our hope for a sweet year. The braided challah of Shabbat may be replaced with a round challah, as we pray for a year that is “well-rounded.” On the first day of the holiday (or the 2nd day if the first day is the Sabbath), we enjoy the tashlich service. The community gathers at a place of flowing water and casts breadcrumbs into the water, symbolizing the casting off of the sins which have accumulated during the year.
On Rosh HaShanah we greet each other with the words, “Shanah Tova- a good year”, or, more expansively, “L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu- may you be inscribed for a good year”, continuing the metaphor of the Book of Life.
Following Rosh HaShanah, we enter the “Aseret Y’mei Teshuva”, the “Ten Days of Repentance.” This is the time when we take the accumulated lessons of our reflections on Rosh HaShanah and demonstrate our commitment to translate them into practice.
Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement”, is the culmination of the High Holiday season. It is the holiest day of the Jewish year. For those who are physically able to do so, it is customary to fast for the entire day, beginning before sundown and for the duration of the holiday. We refrain from food and drink and other physical luxuries, expressing our focus on spiritual values on this day. Together we chant the “Viddui”, the confession of sins, and we specify those sins in the “Al Cheyt” prayer. Much of Jewish prayer is in the plural, as we support each other in the acknowledgement of our many failings.
Yom Kippur takes place on the 10th day of the month of Tishrei. We light the holiday candles and share a final meal before the fast begins. Those who have lost a loved one- parent, child, spouse or sibling, light a memorial candle as well. The synagogue service on Yom Kippur will include special “Yizkor/Memorial” prayers.
Worship begins with the Kol Nidre service. The haunting melody of this prayer is one of the most recognizable in all of Jewish liturgy. The words “Kol Nidrei” are translated as “All Vows.” Through this prayer, we consider the slate wiped clean of any vows to God we may have made in the previous year. On Yom Kippur day we read the story of Jonah, inspired by the people of Ninveh and their immediate responsiveness to the call to repentance.
As the sun sets, the pace of our prayers quickens with the “Neilah” service, as the day of Atonement ends. With one final blast of the shofar, we return to our homes to break the fast, with hearts and spirits renewed and ready to enter the new year.
Four days after Yom Kippur, a day focused essentially on the spiritual, we celebrate the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, the “Feast of Booths”, on 14 Tishrei, the full moon of the fall equinox. Sukkot is one of the 3 Biblical pilgrimage festivals, the “chagim”, or, holidays on which adult males were expected to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Each of these holidays has both an agricultural as well as a historical reference. Sukkot reminds us of the temporary dwellings of our Israelite ancestors as they journeyed in the wilderness for 40 years from Egypt to the Promised Land. Sukkot is said to be the foundation of the American celebration of Thanksgiving.
Traditional Jews construct a “Sukkah”, a harvest booth at their homes. Many will sleep in the Sukkah for the 8 days of the holiday; certainly we should strive to eat as many meals as we can in the sukkah. A temporary dwelling, the sukkah is decorated with fruits and vegetables, with posters and lights. Some people save their Rosh HaShanah cards and use those to adorn the sukkah.
The fragility of the sukkah is a reminder of the fragility of our lives. We reflect on the transience of our possessions and renew our commitment to enduring values. As we live for a week in an insecure dwelling, we think of those who do not enjoy the substantial homes with which we are blessed, as we renew our commitment, as well, to work for a time when all will enjoy secure shelter.
As we sit in our sukkah, we invite “Ushpizin” each night, mystical guests, to join the friends and family who share our harvest hut. It is fun to consider which historical Jewish personalities we would like to include if given the opportunity. In the synagogue, we read the book of Ecclesiastes at this holiday.
Sukkot is celebrated for 8 days in traditional communities; for 7 days by many in accordance with the practice in the land of Israel. The first two and last two days are considered full holidays, in which we abstain from work. These restrictions are relaxed on the middle days, known as “Chol Ha’Moed”. The Yizkor/Memorial prayers are included on the final day of the holiday, and we recite “Hallel”, a special series of psalms of praise, on each day of Sukkot.
The Torah instructs us to shake the lulav and etrog as part of our Sukkot experience. Known as the four species, these elements include a palm branch, willow and myrtle fronds, and a citron, or, lemon-like fruit. There are many beautiful interpretations of the lulav and etrog, which are waved in 6 directions as part of our worship, symbolizing God’s presence which surrounds us always. The lulav and etrog represent each person in our community: our community is incomplete without the participation of each Jew. They remind us to serve God with our entire being.
The following is a description of rules and regulations pertaining to the construction of a sukkah:
1) It must be less than 30 feet high. 2) The walls must be strong enough to withstand ordinary gusts of wind. 3) The shade offered by the roof covering of the sukkah must block the rays of sun, yet the stars must be visible through the roof. 4) There must be at least three walls, made of any material. 5) The sukkah must be a temporary structure, so a screened-in porch or a screened house cannot serve as a sukkah. 6) It is a mitzvah (a commandment) to eat meals in the sukkah during the holiday.
Sukkot is known as “He-Chag”, THE holiday, the time of greatest joy in our calendar.
“Hoshanah Rabba”- the great “Hoshanah/”Save Us” takes place on the 7th day of Sukkot. Tradition suggests that it is on this date that the High Holiday season truly concludes, as God seals our Book of Life. We make 7 circuits around the synagogue, each one characterized by a prayer asking for God to save us- hence the name- “The Great Hoshanah.” The lulav and etrog are carried in these processions. In some communities it is customary to hold a tikkun, an all-night study session, in anticipation of Hoshanah Rabbah.
SHEMINI ATZERET and SIMCHAT TORAH
“Shemini Atzeret- the 8th Day of Assembly” and “Simchat Torah- rejoicing with the Torah,” are the conclusion of the fall holiday season. They may be combined as a one-day observance in many non-Orthodox communities.
Shemini Atzeret marks the 8th day of Sukkot. This season marks the beginning of the rainy season in the land of Israel, so, on Shemini Atzeret, we add prayers for rain to our daily liturgy. On Sukkot we offer prayers for each of the nations of the world. On Shemini Atzeret, God invites the Jewish people to linger in the holiday spirit, expressing the unique closeness between the Holy One and the people of Israel.
On Simchat Torah, we celebrate the completion of our cycle of Torah reading, from Genesis through Deuteronomy, and we begin our study for the year ahead. We demonstrate our devotion to learning as we immediately read the first words of Genesis upon completion of Deuteronomy. It is a special honor to be called to recite the blessings for either one of these readings. Simchat Torah is characterized by joyous singing and dancing. In many congregations, the entire Torah scroll will be unfurled.
Hanukkah is one of the best known of the Jewish holidays, though it is, in reality, a minor festival. “Hanukkah” means “Dedication”- we commemorate the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. In the year 168 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes forbade the practice of the Jewish religion. Led by the Maccabees, the Jews fought for 3 years to reclaim the right of freedom of religious expression. In the year 165 BCE, they rededicated the Temple. Legend suggests that they found enough oil to light the menorah, the candelabrum in the Temple for only one night, and that oil miraculously lasted for 8 days. Thus, Hanukkah is celebrated with the kindling of a 9-branched menorah known as a “Hanukkiah”. The shamash, or helper candle, is lit each night, and used to light the other candles. One candle is added each night from right to left; the menorah is lit from left to right, with the newest candle lit first. Hanukkah initially was a belated celebration of Sukkot.
As we recall the miracle of the oil, it is customary to eat foods cooked in oil- primarily latkes/fried potato pancakes and sufganiyot/jelly donuts. The themes of Hanukkah- the victory of the few against the many, light in the face of darkness, martyrdom and miracles, religious freedom- have resonated with Jews throughout the centuries. Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that celebrates a military victory. The Rabbis tempered this emphasis by including as the reading from the prophets the text from Zechariah, “Not by might, not by power, but by My spirit, says God.”
Two blessings are said each night. A third, the Shehecheyanu (a blessing recited at joyful occasions throughout the year), is said on the first night only. Following is the transliteration for the Hebrew, with English translation:
Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigiyanu lazman hazeh.
Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this holy moment.
The following are said each night:
Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.
Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who makes us holy with your mitzvot and has given us the mitzvah of lighting the Hanukkah candles.
Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu melech ha’olam she’asah nissim la’avotenu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh.
Blessed are you, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time.
Tu B’Shevat- the name of this holiday is synonymous with its date- the 15th day of the month of Shevat. Tu B’Shevat is the Jewish New Year of the Trees. There are many Biblical precepts which require us to know the age of trees. Tu B’Shevat is their birthday celebration.
With the renewed emphasis in the contemporary world on the importance of protecting the natural world has come a renewed emphasis on this holiday. Within the Jewish mystical tradition, a custom evolved of a Tu B’Shevat seder, a ritual meal where 15 types of fruits and nuts are consumed, 4 cups of wine or juice are blessed, readings about trees are shared and prayers are said on behalf of our fragile ecology. Many people donate money to plant trees in Israel at the time of Tu B’Shevat.
The holiday of Purim, or “Lots”, comes at the time of the last full moon of winter. Based on the Biblical megilla, or scroll of Esther, we rejoice as, once again, the Jewish people were saved from the forces of destruction. We read the story of how the wicked Haman conspired with King Achashverosh to kill all of the Jews, and how the brave Esther, working with her relative Mordecai, saved the day. As the megilla is read, graggers/ra-ashanim/noise-makers are used to drown out the name of the villain each time it is mentioned.
Purim begins with a festive meal at home and many people wear costumes to the reading of the megilla in synagogue. It is a mitzvah to hear the megillah and to give money to the poor to ensure that they have the means to celebrate (matanot l’evyonim.) We are also to send gifts of food to at least two other individuals- mishloach manot or shalachmones. Among the traditional foods are hamantaschen/oznei Haman- 3-cornered cookies which are said to resemble Haman’s hat.
The holiday of Pesach/Passover is one of the most beloved holidays of the Jewish calendar. Passover is observed each year on the 14th of Nisan, the full moon of the spring equinox. It is the 2nd of the 3 Biblical pilgrimage festivals and commemorates the exodus from Egyptian slavery.
The Torah tells us that our ancestors fled from Egypt in haste, with no time for their dough to rise. Therefore, we are commanded to eat unleavened bread, matzah, throughout the 7 or 8 days of our observance. Traditional Jews will remove all chametz, leavened products, from their possession in the weeks prior to Passover. This culminates in the bedikat chametz, the search for chametz, on the night before the onset of the holiday. The next morning, any remaining chametz is ritually burned.
Services are held in the synagogue on each day of the holiday, with the first two and last two days having special religious emphasis. The Hallel service of praise is included each day, though the Hallel is abbreviated after the first two- our rejoicing is diminished as we reflect on the suffering of the Egyptians through the ten plagues which were a necessary part of the process of our liberation. Yizkor takes place on the final day and we read the Biblical text, Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs.
The highlight of Pesach is the seder, a ritual meal in which symbolic foods are used to tell the story of the exodus. There are hundreds of versions of the Haggadah, the text for the seder meal. Bitter herbs remind us of the bitterness of slavery, charoset suggests the bricks our ancestors built as slaves, parsley dipped in salt water recalls the spring time origin of the holiday and the tears of the captive Israelites. Four cups of wine are consumed and the youngest child present poses four questions. The seder is characterized by much singing and leisurely celebration. Seders are held on each of the first two nights of Pesach.
Yom Hashoah is the day established by the State of Israel in remembrance of the devastation of the Nazi era, the Holocaust. It is a somber reminder of this darkest moment in our history. Most communities will hold services and ceremonies to recall the 6 million Jews and 5 million other children of God killed during the Shoah. We give thanks for the righteous individuals who risked their lives to save our people, and we reflect on the human capacity for evil. We remind the world that “never again” can genocide be tolerated.
In Israel, Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for the Fallen and Victims of Terror, takes place on the fourth day of Iyar, the day before Yom Ha’atzmaut. On Yom Hazikaron a siren is sounded twice throughout the country (at 8 p.m. and 11 a.m.) and all traffic and daily activity stops as the entire nation observes two minutes of silence. Outside of Israel, Yom Hazikaron is often commemorated as part of the Yom Ha’atzmaut observance.
Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s independence day, is celebrated on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar, the date the nation was founded. While there is no particular liturgy for this day, it is an emerging practice to recite Hallel, psalms of praise, as we give thanks for the establishment of the Jewish state. The words of “HaTikvah- The Hope”, Israel’s national anthem, remind us that contemporary Israel is the fulfillment of 2,000 years of the Jewish yearning to return to our homeland.
Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the omer. Beginning on the second night of Passover, we count each night until the next major festival of Shavuot. The omer was a measure of grain, and the time of sefirat ha-omer, counting the omer, is a solemn period of 7 weeks as we work for a successful harvest. This time period was also characterized by Roman oppression Through this counting, we connect the season of our liberation with the giving of the Torah which provides structure and meaning to that freedom.The Jewish mystical tradition suggests that each day of the counting of the omer expresses a unique combination of Sefirot, aspects of the Divine. As we count each day, we focus on the attributes of God associated with that day.
On Lag B’Omer, we enjoy a one-day reprieve within this subdued time period. Lag B’Omer is celebrated with picnics and other outdoor activities. In Israel, picnickers light bonfires. Traditional Jews mark the holiday by giving the first haircut to 3-year-old boys. Lag B’Omer sometimes is known as the “scholars’ holiday,” because of its association with Rabbi Akiva, who died a martyr to freedom, and Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai, who taught in a cave when the Romans forbade him to study Torah. When Bar Yochai died, he asked his followers not to mourn but rather to celebrate his death.
In traditional communities, weddings are not held during sefirat ha-Omer. This prohibition is lifted on the 33rd day, so Lag B’Omer is often a day for weddings and other personal celebrations.
Yom Yerushalayim, a relatively new holiday, honors the city of Jerusalem. It celebrates the unification of the city after the Six-Day War in June 1967.
Shavuot, the feast of weeks, is the third of the 3 pilgrimage festivals. We celebrate God’s giving the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai; the harvest in Israel; the end of the counting of the omer; and the beginning of a new agricultural season.
Reform Jews usually observe only the first day of the holiday. Traditions of Shavuot include decorating the home and synagogue with green plants and branches to celebrate the season, eating dairy foods because the Torah has been compared to “milk and honey”, and reading the Book of Ruth. The story of Ruth is set at the time of the harvest, and her devotion to her mother in law Naomi and dedication to the Jewish way of life inspire us a role model in our own religious lives.
Legend has it that the Israelites fell asleep while waiting for Moses to return from the mountain. We demonstrate our commitment to receiving the Torah through a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, an all night study session in anticipation of the morning service. The synagogue services follow a regular festival liturgy, including Hallel and Yizkor.
Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av, is the second most significant fast day in the Jewish calendar, second only to Yom Kippur. We fast from sundown to sundown as we recall the destruction of the First (586 BCE) and Second (70 CE) Temples in Jerusalem. Tisha B’Av is also associated with many other tragedies in the Jewish calendar. We sit on the floor and chant in a mournful key the Biblical text of Eicha/Lamentations, which describes the horrendous history of destruction.