Holiday Guide



Although not often thought of as such, Shabbat is the most important Jewish holiday.  Shabbat, the Sabbath, takes place every week on Saturday.  As with all dates on the Jewish calendar, Shabbat starts the preceding evening, Friday, at sundown and continues through nightfall Saturday.

Jews observe Shabbat in commemoration of God’s creation of the world (Gen. 2:1-3) as well as God’s liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Ex. 20:8-11).  These two themes appear throughout the special liturgy for Shabbat and also guide Jews in modifying their behavior for the day; Jews rest from creative acts, “work”, including such things as cooking, making a fire, and other related activities.

Shabbat is meant to be a time for family and community.  Services on Friday evening, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon tend to be among the most frequently attended services of the week.  Families gather for a festive dinner on Friday accompanied by a blessing, kiddush, made over wine, and the usual motzi, blessing over bread is made over challah loaves.  Lunch on Saturday is similarly a special meal.  And to “add” to one’s enjoyment of the day, another meal, seudah shlishit (literally, “third meal”) is added Saturday afternoon.

Shabbat is a day to enjoy the blessings we work so hard for the rest of the week and acknowledge God’s role in our lives.


Rosh Chodesh

The Jewish calendar counts from the traditional date assigned to the creation of the world.  It is a lunar calendar that is adjusted to remain in relationship to the seasons of the solar year.  As such the monthly calendar more or less lines up with the phases of the moon, with those Jewish holidays falling on or about the 15th of a Jewish month taking place when there is a full moon, and the beginning of a new month corresponding to the appearance of a new moon (Ex. 12:1-2).

Rosh Chodesh, or “head of the month” is the name of the minor holiday that takes place at the start of each Jewish month.  It can last for either one or two days as determined by the calendar.  While there are some liturgical changes that mark Rosh Chodesh, there are no mandatory restrictions in behavior.  It had been a custom for women to rest from their historical roles as homemakers, and in some communities this is still observed.  In some contemporary Jewish communities this old custom informs the introduction of new rituals and practices which make Rosh Chodesh a special day for Jewish women.

Like the phases of the moon, the Jewish people’s fate throughout history has waxed and waned.  Rosh Chodesh reminds us to remain hopeful that it is often darkest before the dawn.


Rosh Hashanah

The Jewish New Year.  The Jewish calendar counts from the traditional date for the creation of the world.  It is described in the Torah in Leviticus 23 where it is part of the purification process leading up to the first Pilgrimage Festival of the year, Sukkot.  The familiar practice of blowing the shofar, the ram’s horn, is introduced in this passage, but little else about the holiday is described in the Torah.

Over time, Rosh Hashanah has become a holiday more of personal introspection, reflection, and improvement.  Jews are to make teshuvah, “repentance”, for the things they have failed to do properly in the past year and strive to be better.  Teshuvah needs to be made both to other people as well as to God.

Rosh Hashanah is “the big show” on the synagogue calendar.  Those who might not go to synagogue during the rest of the year, will often make some time for services over Rosh Hashanah.

It is an important time to gather with family.  Big meals are served throughout the two-day holiday.  One traditional food to enjoy is apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year.  And all will greet each other with l’shanah tovah, “for a good new year”.



Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement.  The most solemn day of the year, Yom Kippur is a fast-day lasting slightly longer than one day, from evening until night-fall the next day. The period of focusing on teshuvah comes to an end.  Jews assemble in synagogue to hear the haunting Kol Nidre, “All Vows” prayer on the Eve of Yom Kippur. They return the next day for services during which Yizkor, the Memorial Prayers for departed loved ones are recited.  While Yizkor prayers are said on the Pilgrimage Festivals also, Yom Kippur has special meaning as a day to connect to one’s departed loved ones and at the same time to strengthen one’s resolve to improve and live a better life.

The holiday come to a conclusion with the Neilah service, culminating at nightfall with a final blowing of the shofar.  Following the holiday it is customary to enjoy a large break-the-fast meal and invite or be invited to join with family and friends.


Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah

Sukkot is the first Pilgrimage Festival of the year.  Described in the Torah in Leviticus 23 and Numbers 29, it was a time for Jews to come from wherever they lived to prayer and make offerings in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Torah describes two other rituals to be performed during Sukkot, to build a special hut called a sukkah and to assemble a special bouquet of a lulav, palm branch, hadassim, myrtle branches, aravot, willow branches, and an etrog, or citron fruit.  These are held together and waved and carried during services throughout the week of Sukkot.

Sukkot was part of the inspiration for the American Thanksgiving holiday and the “feel” of the two holidays is similar.  Sukkot is a time to gather with family and friends and give thanks for God’s many blessings.

The eighth day of Sukkot is described in the Torah as being a special day of Assembly somewhat separate from the rest.  It is called, Shemini Atzeret, The Eighth Day of Assembly, for this reason.  A special prayer for rain is offered during services on this day as are the Yizkor (Memorial) Prayers recited.

Simchat Torah, a ninth day of Sukkot as observed in the Diaspora follows Shemini Atzeret.  It is a festive and happy day celebrating the conclusion of the annual cycle of weekly Torah readings and the beginning of the next year’s cycle.  The Torahs are paraded around the synagogue to much singing and dancing and a special liturgy is observed for the reading of the Torah on this day.



Perhaps the best known holiday unique to Judaism, Chanukkah is actually a rather minor one.  It is post-biblical in nature, and as such does not share the same level of religious significance as those mentioned in the Torah or stemming from elsewhere in the Tanakh (Bible). 

Nevertheless the theme of Chanukkah is of significance as are its many customs that bring families and particularly children together in celebration. 

Chanukkah commemorates the victory of the Jews lead by the Maccabee family over the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire in 167-160BCE.


Tu b’Shevat

The New Year for Trees is inferred from the Torah’s requirements regarding counting the years from when crops have been planted until they may be harvested for food or offered as sacrifices.  All fruit trees in Israel “age” one year on Tu b’Shevat, the 15th of the month of Shevat.

Tu b’Shevat has become in modern times a Jewish Earth Day.  It is customary to plant trees, plan activities to learn about and encourage good stewardship of the natural world, and many will celebrate a special Tu b’Shevat seder, meal.






Yom ha-Shoah


Yom ha-Atzma’ut


Lag b’Omer




Tisha b’Av & Fast Days