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Holidays and Festivals
Succot (Festival of Tabernacles or Huts)
Timing: This festival occurs five days after Yom Kippur, usually in October of each year.
Historical Significance: Succot is a festival of giving thanks for the fall harvest, as well as a commemoration of the forty years that the Jews spent wandering in the desert after the Torah was given at Sinai and a celebration of how God protected them and led them safely into the Promised Land.
Observance: In observance of this holiday, it is traditional for families to build their own “Succah” (hut) at home. Depending on the climate where they live, many Jews eat their meals and even live in these temporary dwellings throughout the holiday.
Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah
Timing: These festivals occur around October each year. Shemini Atzeret can be translated as "the assembly of the eighth (day)". This holiday is celebrated on the eighth day of Succot. The major custom is the recitation of a special prayer for rain.
Historical Significance: The holiday of Simchat Torah celebrates the completion of the annual reading of the Torah and the beginning of reading it anew.
Observance: In the Synagogue, the Ark is opened on Simchat Torah and all of the Torah scrolls are taken out. Everybody present is invited to dance with the scrolls as we celebrate the central role of the Torah in Jewish life. Orthodox Jews observe these festivals on consecutive days, whereas Liberal Jews observe both festivals concurrently on the last day of Succot.
Chanukah (Festival of Lights)
Timing: This eight-day festival occurs in December of each year.
Chanukah marks the impressive victory of a small group of Jews (the Maccabees) over the Syrian army, the most powerful army of its time.
Historical Significance: the most powerful army of its time. After defeating the massive army, the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem and re-dedicated the Temple. Chanukah is the Hebrew word for “dedication”. In order to rededicate the Temple, the Jews needed to re-ignite the Eternal Flame (ner tamid) that burns before the Ark. However, all they could find among the ruins was a tiny jar containing only enough oil to keep the flame burning for a single day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days.
Observance: To commemorate this “miracle of the oil”, Jews light the Chanukiah (a candelabra with eight same-size branches and a taller ninth branch to hold the Shamash or “servant candle” that is used to light the others). On the first night, we use the shamash to light one candle, on the second night, two candles, and so on, with an additional candle being lit each night until all eight (plus the shamash) candles burn together on the eighth night.
Also to commemorate the miracle of the oil, throughout the eight days of Chanukah, it is customary to eat fried foods, including latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (doughnuts). It is also traditional for family members to give children gifts or Chanukah Gelt (money). Some families give a small present on each of the eight nights. Children and adults also play games with a special spinning top called a dreidel that bears the first letters of each word of the Hebrew phrase for “a great miracle happened there”.
Tu B’Shvat (New Year of the Trees)
Timing: Tu B’Shvat is observed on the fifteenth Tuesday of Shvat. It occurs in January of February of each year.
Historical Significance: Jewish scholars believe that Tu B’Shvat was originally an agricultural festival, marking the arrival of spring, but that after the destruction of the Temple, the holiday provided Jews with a way to symbolically acknowledge their ties to their former homeland by eating foods grown in Israel.
Observance: In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Kabbalists created a ritual for Tu B’Shvat similar to the Passover Seder. Today, Tu B’Shvat has also become a tree planting festival in Israel, on which both Israelis and Jews around the world plant trees in honour or in memory of a loved one or friend.
Timing: Purim is celebrated in February or March of each year.
Historical Significance: Purim commemorates the story of the Persian Jews being saved from extermination by the heroic deeds of a young woman named Esther.
Observance: The main observance of the holiday is the reading of the Scroll of Esther, known in Hebrew as Megillat Esther, which relates the story of Purim. Under the rule of King Achashverosh, Haman, the King's prime minister, plots to exterminate all of the Jews of Persia. His plan is foiled by Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai, who ultimately save the Jews of the land from destruction. The reading of the Megillah is typically a rowdy affair, which is punctuated by booing and noise-making when Haman's name is read aloud.
It is customary to hold carnival-like celebrations on Purim and to perform plays and parodies. Children often dress up as the characters found in the Book of Esther, including King Achashverosh, Vashti, Queen Esther, Mordechai and Haman. We also enjoy hamentashen, triangular shaped, fruit filled cookies said to resemble the villainous Haman’s pointed ears and deliver baskets of fruit and sweets called “Mishloach Manot” to friends and family members.
Timing: Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is a major Jewish festival celebrated each spring, in March or April of each year.
Historical Significance: It is one of the most important religious festivals in the Jewish calendar, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. About 3000 years ago, the Israelites were enslaved by the Egyptian Pharaoh, Ramses II. According to the Book of Exodus, Moses, a simple Jewish shepherd, was instructed by God to go to the Pharaoh and demand that he free the Jews. But Pharaoh refused, so God sent ten plagues to convince him. They were: blood, frogs, lice (vermin), wild beasts (flies), blight (cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the slaying of the first born. The holiday is called “Passover” because God instructed the Jews to paint blood on their door posts so that God would “pass over” their homes and kill only Egyptian firstborns.
It was only after the tenth plague that Pharaoh agreed to free the Jewish slaves. When he finally agreed, the Israelites had to flee so quickly that they had no time to allow the dough for their bread to rise. That is why Jews traditionally eat matzah, a thin, unleavened cracker, rather than bread and other leavened products, during this holiday.
Once the Jews began leaving Egypt, Pharaoh tried to change his mind and sent his men after them. The Jews became trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea. But God performed a miracle and parted the sea just long enough for the Jews to pass through, then closed it again, drowning Pharoah’s men and finally freeing the Jews.
Observance: The observance of Passover centers around a festive meal called a seder (meaning "order") where the story of Passover is told by reading it from a special book called the hagaddah, which means "telling" and eating a series of ritual food items symbolizing various aspects of the story. Throughout the eight-day holiday, it is forbidden to eat chametz, leavened food items such as bread. Instead, Jews eat matzah, a flat, cracker like type of unleavened bread.
Yom Ha’Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)
Timing: Yom HaShoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day, occurs on the 27th of Nissan.
Historical Significance: Shoah, which means catastrophe or utter destruction in Hebrew, refers to the atrocities that were committed against the Jewish people during World War II. This is a memorial day for those who died in the Holocaust.
Observance: Yom Ha’Shoah is usually marked by solemn ceremonies of remembrance, the lighting of memorial candles and events aimed at educating the world about the events of the Holocaust to help prevent future atrocities.
Yom Ha’Zikaron (Remembrance Day)
Yom Ha'Atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day)
Timing: Yom Ha'atzmaut is observed on the 5th of Iyar in the Hebrew calendar, which usually falls in April.
Historical Significance: It marks the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948.
Observance: Yom Ha’Atzmaut is generally marked with Israeli festivals (food, film, music), as well as parades and rallies in support of Israel.
Timing: This festival occurs around May each year, thirty three days following the first day of Passover.
Historical Significance: This holiday commemorates the day a plague ended during which thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva, a Talmudic scholar, died during the Counting of the Omer.
Observance: The period of counting is traditionally observed as a period of mourning. The mourning, however, is set aside on Lag B'Omer, making it a day of special joy and festivity. Families often celebrate by going on picnics and outings and enjoying bonfires.
Timing: Shavuot occurs 50 days after the first day of Passover, around June of each year.
Historical Significance: Shavuot (Hebrew for "weeks"), is the Jewish festival marking the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Like several other Jewish holidays, it began as an ancient agricultural festival, marking the end of the spring barley harvest and the beginning of the summer wheat harvest.
Observance: Prayers are said during this holiday to thank God for the Torah and special Shavuot customs include staying up all night to study Torah, a custom called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which symbolizes our commitment to the Torah. It is also traditional to eat dairy dishes on this holiday, symbolizing the sweetness of the Torah and the "land of milk and honey".
Tisha B'Av (Ninth of the month of Av)
Timing: Tisha B’Av occurs around July or August each year.
Historical Significance: Tisha B’Av is a solemn occasion because it commemorates a series of tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people over the years, many of which have coincidentally occurred on this date, including the destruction of both the first and second Temples.
Observance: Tisha B'Av is observed with a day of prayers and fasting.