The Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar. It consists of 12 months except in a leap year which has an additional month. The leap year keeps the months in line with the seasons and occurs seven times in every nineteen years.
The Jewish day begins at sunset. All Jewish holidays begin at sunset and end at nightfall when three stars appear in the sky. These times can be calculated and the stars need not be seen.
Shabat – the Sabbath – is more important than all the other days with the exception of Yom Kippur. When one of the other holidays falls on Shabat, the laws applicable to Shabat apply. Shabat is the seventh day of the week (or Saturday). Shabat begins at Sunset on Friday night and ends at nightfall the following evening. On Shabat no work – or more specifically no creative work – is allowed. However where life is at stake all the laws of Shabat must be ignored in order to save a life.
The High Holy Days begin with Rosh HaShanah. This is the Jewish New Year. Translated literally, it is the Head of the Year. Rosh HaShanah begins a period known as the Ten Days of Awe. It is a time of judgement. A time of reflection, repentence and prayer. Returning to the right way. We resolve to change certain things about ourselves. Before Rosh HaShanah we apologise to anyone that we may have wronged and make restitution. G-d cannot forgive us for wrongs against other people – the wronged must grant forgiveness.
Rosh HaShanah is marked by a family meal where apples dipped in honey are eaten to symbolise a sweet round year. Many hours are spent in the synagogue where the baeutiful liturgy is sung to traditional tunes – often by a cantor and choir. This holy day lasts for two days.
On Rosh HaShanah it is inscribed, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who will live and who will die. Who will prosper and who will fall. Who by fire, who by water …
Yom Kippur falls on the tenth day of the days of awe. It is a full fast. No food or drink, no washing, no marital relations, no leather shoes. Some exceptions are allowed to cater for illnesses. Much of the first evening and most of the following day are spent in the synagogue. The fast lasts for about 25 hours and is followed by a semi-festive meal to break the fast.
The three pilgrim festivals are more joyful and less solemn affairs. No creative work is allowed, but the rules are not as strict as on Shabat.
Following on from Rosh HaShanah is Succoth – known in English as Tabernacles. Succoth are shelters. An outside shelter is built with three to four walls. The main feature of these is that the roof cosists of leaves or branches. Palm leaves are often used for this purpose. It must be possible to see the stars through the leaves, and the roof cannot be waterproofed. While the commandment is to live in the Succah for the seven days, in practice we generally eat all our meals and use the Succah for socialising and learning. The first and last days are non-work days.
Succoth ends with Simchat Torah – a separate festival to celebrate the completion of reading the Torah. Immediately we beign reading again from the beginning. All the Torah scrolls are taken and the congregation dance and sing with the Torah scrolls.
Pesach or Passover is traditionally known as the festival of freedom or the festival of matza or unleavened bread. The exodus from Egypt is commemorated. The first and last days are full holidays. No food with any raising agent is allowed during this time and Pesach is preceded with cleaning, changing to dishes that are only used for this festival. A main feature of Pesach is the Seder – a meal with family and friends that includes the reading of the Haggadah – a book that tells the story of the exodus from Egypt and what has been learnt from it. Many Jews that do not keep kosher all the year round keep the kashrut laws applicable to this festival.
Shavuoth – or Weeks – falls 7 weeks after Pesach. Shavuoth commemorates the giving of the Torah on mount Sinai. The first fruits are brought to the Temple in temple times. Today the children bring the fruits which are donated to those in need. Often the entire night is spent studying Torah. During the synagoue service, the Ten Commandments are read. Traditional foods for the festival are milk products, and cheesecake is a popular choice.
There are a number of holidays that are not derived from the Torah. On these holidays normal weekday activities are allowed though on Shabat all Shabat laws apply.
Purim – which means Lots -commemorates the Jews victory over Hamman in Persia. The full story can be read in the scroll of Esther. The Scroll of Ester is read in the synagoue, a festive meal takes place, gifts of food are given to friends and children dress in fancy dress.
Channukah commemorates a miracle that occured in the Temple when one day’s oil burnt for 8 days. Jerusalem was under siege by Greece but a small victory was won by the Jews against this formidable opponent. Channukah is commemoorated by lighting candles progressively over eight days. One candle on day one to eight on day eight. Spinning tops are the traditional toys used. In the past these were a cover for children studying Torah against Roman law. Fried foods are eaten to commemorate the oil. It is traditional to give Channukah Gelt – or money – to the children. Giving money allows the children to learn to give ten percent to tsedakka or charity.
Other minor festivals include Tu B’Shvat – the fifteenth of the month of Shvat. It is the New Year for trees. Typically, bonfires are lit. Tu B’Shvat provides a window from the semi-mourning period of the counting of the Omer (50 days are counted from Pesach to Shavuoth).
Each of the festivals is marked by its own traditions and laws. This brief overview provides a glimpse of some of the main practices of the Jewish festivals. Most of the festivals emphasise learning. Outside of Israel an extra day is added to the three pilgrim festivals. This was instituted by the Rabbis to ensure that the festival is marked at the correct time whereever in the world you may be.