Shabbat, (the Sabbath - the weekly day of rest) on Saturday, is marked with most people spending the day together with family and friends. The Biblical origin stems from God having “rested” on the seventh day after completing creation (Genesis 2:2-3).
Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish new year. Its origin is Biblical (Lev. 23:23-25): “a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts [of the shofar, the ram’s horn].” The term Rosh Hashanah, “beginning of the year,” is rabbinical, as are the formidable themes of the festival: repentance, preparation for the day of Divine judgment, and prayer for a fruitful year. The two-day festival falls on 1-2 Tishrei in the Jewish calendar, usually September in the Gregorian calendar, and starts at sundown of the preceding evening, as do all Jewish observances. Major customs of Rosh Hashanah include the sounding of the shofar in the middle of a lengthy synagogue service that focuses on the festival themes, and elaborate meals at home to inaugurate the new year. The prayer liturgy is augmented with prayers of repentance.
Yom Kippur, eight days after Rosh Hashanah, is the day of atonement, of Divine judgment, and of “affliction of souls” (Lev. 23:26-32) so that the individual may be cleansed of sins. The only fast day decreed in the Bible, it is a time to enumerate one’s misdeeds and contemplate one’s faults. The Jew is expected, on this day, to pray for forgiveness for sins between man and God and correct his wrongful actions against his fellow man.Sukkot, described in the Bible (Lev.23:34) as the “Feast of Tabernacles” begins five days after Yom Kippur). Sukkot is one of the three festivals that were celebrated (until 70 CE) with mass pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem and are therefore known as the “pilgrimage festivals.” On Sukkot, Jews commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (c. 13th century BCE) and give thanks for a bountiful harvest. In the five days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, many householders erect sukkot - booths for temporary dwelling, resembling the booths in which the Israelites lived in the desert, after their exodus from Egypt - and acquire the palm frond, citron, myrtle sprigs and willow branches with which the festive prayer rite is augmented.
Shemini Atseret, is the “sacred occasion of the eighth day” (Lev. 23:36) following Sukkot, with which Simhat Torah is combined. Celebration of Shemini Atseret/Simhat Torah focuses on the Torah and is noted for public dancing with a Torah scroll in one’s arms and with recitation of the concluding and beginning chapters of the Torah, renewing the yearly cycle of Torah reading.
Hanukkah, beginning on 25 Kislev (usually in December), commemorates the triumph of the Jews, under the Maccabees, over the Greek rulers (164 BCE) - both the physical victory of the small Jewish nation against mighty Greece and the spiritual victory of the Jewish faith against the Hellenism of the Greeks. Its sanctity derives from this spiritual aspect of the victory, and the miracle of the flask of oil, when a portion of sacramental olive oil meant to keep the Temple candelabrum lit for one day lasted for eight days, the time it took for the Temple to be rededicated. While the victory over the Maccabees is placed in the apocryphal First Book of the Maccabees and not in “our” Bible, it IS mentioned in John 10:22-23 which says, “Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.” (NIV). Hanukkah is observed, as in the Diaspora, for eight days. The central feature of this holiday is the lighting of candles each evening - one on the first night, two on the second, and so on - in commemoration of the miracle at the Temple. TheHanukkah message in Israel focuses strongly on aspects of restored sovereignty; customs widely practiced in the Diaspora, such as giftgiving and thedreidl (spinning top - sevivon in Hebrew), are also in evidence. The dreidl’s sides are marked with Hebrew initials representing the message “A great miracle occurred here”; in the Diaspora, the initials stand for “A great miracle occurred there.”
Purim, another rabbinical festival in early spring, occurs on 14 Adar (15 Adar in walled cities), commemorating the deliverance of beleaguered Jewry in the Persian Empire under Artaxerxes, as recounted in the Book of Esther. This festival compensates for the solemnity of many other Jewish observances by mandating merriment. A festive reading of the Scroll of Esther is marked by noisemakers sounded whenever the villain Haman’s name is recited.
Passover (Pessah), is celebrated in the spring, beginning on 15 Nisan. Passover is the festival celebrating the Exodus from Egypt (c. 13th century BCE) and liberation from bondage. Freedom is, indeed, the festival’s dominant theme. The rites of Passover begin long before the festival, as families cleanse their premises of hametz - leaven and anything containing it - as prescribed in the Bible (Ex. 12:15-20). The day before the festival is devoted to preparatory rituals including ceremonial burning of the forbidden foodstuff. On the holiday evening, the seder is recited: an elaborate retelling of the enslavement and redemption. At this festive meal, the extended family gathers to read the Haggadah and enjoy traditional foods, particularly matza (unleavened bread). The following day’s observances resemble those of the other pilgrimage festivals. Passover is probably second only to Yom Kippur in traditional observance by the generally nonobservant.
Shavuot, the last of the pilgrimage festivals, when enumerated from the beginning of the Jewish year, falls seven weeks after Passover (6 Sivan), at the end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. The Bible (Deut. 16:10) describes this occasion as the festival of weeks (Heb. shavuot), for so is it counted from Passover, and as the occasion on which new grain and new fruits are offered to the priests in the Temple. Its additional definition - the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai - is of rabbinical origin.