Useful Notes: Jewish Holidays

Please try not to add natter or unnecessary information. This is not a treatise or lecture on Jewish Holidays; it is Useful Notes.

"We have holidays up the ass! Sometimes I stay home, and I don't even know why!"

Most Jewish holidays, as the saying goes, can be described in nine words: "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat." With the exception of fasts, when it goes: "They tried to kill us. They managed it. Let's not eat."

Having said that, there are quite a few fast days as well. And because there's so much variety in Jewish practice, there is necessarily some Fan Myopia in these descriptions. Unless otherwise stated, the practices described here correspond to Ashkenazi Orthodoxy, which can be seen as a sort of "template" for the others. Since All Jews Are Ashkenazi this is often a default in people's minds. Many Jews are less observant or non-observant and won't strictly follow, or even be aware of, all of these holidays; the ones they are most likely to observe would include Yom Kippur, Passover, and Chanukah.

A Jewish holiday is known as a yom tov (literally, "good day"). On any yom tov, one greets a fellow Jew with "Gut Yom Tov" (for those of a European background) or "Chag Same'ach" (for those more Eastern in extraction); the first is Yiddish and the second is Hebrew.

There are three kinds of holidays:
  • "Major holidays": Holidays which originated in the Torah. On these days, "work" is forbidden in mostly the same way it is on the Sabbath (cooking is allowed on these holidays, as is transferring flame from one already-burning fuel source to another. Starting a new fire is not allowed). This includes operating electrical devices like light switches, riding buses, conducting business, and a myriad other laws. To confuse you further, this is known as a yom tov when compared against chol hamo'ed (below) - but the full holiday is also known as yom tov, so context matters.
    • Chol Hamo'ed (literally "the mundane part of the holiday"): On Passover, which is 7 or 8 days long, and Sukkot, which is 8 or 9 days long, only the first one or two and last one or two days are full holidays. The ones in between are more minor, and many different kinds of "work" are permitted. Just how much is permitted depends on how lenient your views are.
  • "Minor Holidays": Holidays that originated later than the Torah (that is, in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud). Unlike the major holidays, work during these days is allowed.
  • Fast days. No work is forbidden on these, for the most part (except on Yom Kippur), but eating and drinking is forbidden. Unlike most holidays, the minor fast days start from sunrise, not sunset of the previous day (this incidentally makes their rules more or less identical to the fast in Islam). The major ones (Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av) do start from sunset.

Jewish Calendar

The Jewish calendar is lunar/solar. Each of the 12 months are 29 or 30 days. However, this results in a year of only 353-355 days (depending on how many there are of each month length), 10-12 days shorter than the solar year. To make sure that the holidays fall out in roughly the same time every year, an extra month is added on every so often (7 out of every 19 years). The month names (which ironically are Babylonian, not Hebrew), are as follows (with the holidays in that month indicated):

  • Nisan (Passover)
  • Iyar (Lag Ba'Omer)
  • Sivan (Shavuot)
  • Tammuz (17 Tammuz)
  • Av (Tisha B'Av, Tu B'Av)
  • Elul
  • Tishrei (Rosh Hashana, Tzom Gedaliah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, Simchat Torah)
  • Marcheshvan, more commonly known as Cheshvan
  • Kislev (the first few days of Chanukah)
  • Tevet (the last few days of Chanukah, Asara B'Tevet)
  • Shvat (Tu Bi'Shvat)
  • Adar I (added during leap years)
  • Adar or Adar II (Fast of Esther, Purim)

Nisan is usually in March/April, so the other months continue from there. By the way, if you've played Xenogears, you may recognize the month names or mistranslations of them.

All days technically begin the sunset of the day prior, so on a "major holiday" (where "work" is forbidden, like using electrical devices or conducting business) the restrictions begin on sunset the day before and last until after dark on the next day.

In Israel, most of the "major holidays" are all only one day long. Outside of Israel, though, all major holidays are two days long. This is historical: back before telephones, the appearance of the new moon, which signals the beginning of a new month, was "announced" via messenger. To those places far outside Jerusalem, by the time the holiday was due to come around they still didn't know how long the previous month had been (29 or 30 days), and thus to be safe they kept both possible days.

Rosh Hashana - 1-2 Tishrei

Literally "head of the year", and one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar. It is also the exception that proves the rule: a holiday that is two days both in and out of Israel. Rosh Hashanah together with Yom Kippur, are known as the yamim nora'im or "Days of Awe", also known as the "High Holidays". During this time of year, Jews are exhorted to examine their sins and repent of them. It is believed that we are judged on Rosh Hashana for our actions, and our fates are sealed for the next year on Yom Kippur.

Prayers on Rosh Hashana are much more liturgical and much longer than during a normal holiday. Some of this is taken up by the shofar, a horn (usually that of a ram or Greater Kudu, a type of antelope) which is sounded 100 times in order to "awaken" Jews to repent.

Rosh Hashana is the only "major holiday" which lasts two days even in Israel, possibly because it's the only one to fall on the first of a month, so even those nearby wouldn't know which day to observe.

While Rosh Hashana has many joyous aspects, it is not a celebratory occasion. Because of this, "Happy New Year" is often seen as an inapropriate greeting (although "a sweet new year" is mentioned in several customs). The traditional greeting is "L'shana tova tikatev v'techatem", which translates as "May you be written and sealed for a good year", or simply "Shana Tova", "Have a good year".

There are technically several different starts of the year for different purposes. The "first month" in the Jewish calendar is Nisan, the month that Passover falls on; the calendar year, however, starts with Rosh Hashana. This means that you go from e.g. 6/5700 to 7/5701, then from 12/5701 to 1/5701 until 6/5701, followed by 7/5702. Confusing, yes.

Food! Starting from Rosh Hashana, the challah (a kind of braided bread) eaten every Shabbat are dipped in honey to symbolize the desire for a "sweet new year". Some communities also eat round/circular challah during Tishrei. On Rosh Hashana itself it's common practice to dip an apple in the honey as well. It is also customary to eat the head of a fish (symbolizing the "head" of the new year). This may be substituted for Gefilte Fish, but then again many Ashkenazi families will eat Gefilte Fish at any festive opportunity. There are a great many other simanim (literally "signs") that various groups of Jews eat on Rosh Hashana, including the fish head (or, more commonly for Sephardim and Mizrahim, cow tongue) and honey. All of them have some kind of linguistic justification or pun associated with them as well as a short blessing, many of which refer to our enemies being vanquished.

Yom Kippur - 10 Tishrei

Occurs ten days after Rosh Hashana, and is the most serious day in the calendar. The ten days are known as aseret y'mei teshuvah, "Ten Days of Repentance". The day immediately after Rosh Hashana is a fast day, called Tzom Gedaliah (Fast of Gedaliah), which mourns the assassination of Gedaliah Ben Achikam, the governor of Israel during the days of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia, about 500 years BCE.

Yom Kippur itself is not only a "major holiday" but also a fast day; however, unlike most other fast days, not only food and drink but also makeup, leather shoes, hand washing, and sexual relations are forbidden (Tisha B'Av is the only other day with these restrictions). The entire day and much of the preceding night is spent in the synagogue, praying.

Food! None. Too bad. Though there's usually a good spread before the fast; it's said that, in eating a huge meal on the 9th to prepare for fasting on the 10th, God is appreciative enough to give you merit as though you fasted on both days. After the fast the food isn't bad either.

Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret, Simchat Torah - 15-23 Tishrei (22 Tishrei in Israel)

Occurs five days after Yom Kippur (yes, this time of year is extremely busy!). One of the big three holidays in the calendar. Essentially the "Festival of Huts", Sukkot is more of an agricultural festival, but nowadays is mainly known for the sometimes elaborate wooden huts that spring up in any heavily Jewish area. Jews eat and (some) sleep in them for a seven-day period, in remembrance of when the original Hebrews slept in huts in their journey out of Egypt (or, some say, as a reference to the Clouds of Glory that surrounded them).

When in synagogue, men will carry the Four Species: the etrog (a yellow citrus fruit), lulav (palm frond), hadasim (myrtle branches) and aravot (willow branches). The last three are bound together in one bundle. During the prayers, the Four Species are held and waved around at various points.

The last day of chol hamo'ed (i.e. the seventh day of the holiday) is known as Hoshana Rabbah. There are some aspects of the High Holidays that trickle down here. The prayers are longer, and near the end, the men will take a bundle of five aravos and bash them against the ground several times. This is very symbolic and has nothing whatsoever to do with letting out the stress of building huts and cooking and cleaning so much.

Outside Israel, the last two days of Sukkot are known as Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. (In Israel, there's only one last day, on the 22nd of Tishrei, and it's Simchat Torah.) Shmini Atzeret is basically Simchat Torah lite. Simchat Torah itself is a day in which Jews celebrate the completion of the Torah reading for the year. They dance with Torah scrolls in the synagogue, and often get blindingly drunk.

Food! Nothing in particular, just lots of it. The challah is still dipped in honey all the way up until Simchat Torah.

Chanukah - 25 Kislev - 2 Tevet (3 Tevet, if that year Kislev has only 29 days in it)

Or Hanukah, or Channukkah, or for those truly addicted to spelling, Chhhannnukkkkahhhh.note  The most well-known of the Jewish holidays, and ironically one of the least important in the calendar. Chanukah is the most recent holiday added to the universal Jewish calendar (around 100 BCE) and is classified as a "minor holiday" (i.e. work is permitted).

The story of Chanukah involves the Chashmona'im, a family of priests in power, and the Maccabees, a specific set of people in the family. The Syrian-Greeks, in occupying Israel, eventually started banning Jewish practices and even defiled the Jewish Temple. The Chashmona'im led a rebellion against them and ousted them from power. It is worth noting that this is the first recorded war for religious freedom. When they got back to the Temple, though, they couldn't find any unspoiled oil to light the menorah, a holy ceremonial candelabra. They finally found one jar of oil still sealed, but it was only enough for a single day. However, miraculously, the oil lasted eight days, leaving them enough time to manufacture new oil.

To commemmorate the war and the miracle, Jews light a chanukiyah, a smaller version of the menorah with a total of nine lights: one for each night, plus a shamash or "helper" light. The shamash is necessary because the lights themselves are forbidden to be used for their light. Each night, one more light is lit (so one plus shamash on the first day, two plus shamash on the second day, up to 8 + 1 on the last day).

By its nature, Chanukah is totally dissimilar from Christmas other than falling around the same time of year. We get annoyed when people try to conflate the two. Unfortunately, there are some Jews (often those jealous of their Christian friends) who have begun to do so, hence the creation of the "Chanukah bush" (to emulate Christmas trees) and the giving of presents; some families even give a present every single night of the holiday, which makes people's heads hurt. The 'Chanukah bush' is tragically ironic, given that the point of Chanukah is that we did not assimilate into Greek culture but kept our Jewish identity. Presents are somewhat justified, however, as a variation on the giving of Chanukah gelt (Yiddish for "money").

The iconic game played on Chanukah is the dreidel, a spinning top with four sides. On each side is a letter: "Nun", "Gimel", "Heh", "Shin", which spell an acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, "a great miracle happened there". In Israel, the Shin is replaced with a Peh, which changes the meaning to "a great miracle happened here". Money is put into a pot (like in poker) and depending on what side the dreidel comes down on, you either put in or take out. It should be noted, however, that because the only "move" a player can make is spinning the dreidel, it is actually really boring to play, and only children and people who don't know better will actually take it seriously. One couple tried mixing it with Texas-hold-'em, but we're getting off-topic now. Side note: Dreidel becomes quite a lot more fun when you make it a drinking game.

As a side note, in Israel it's also gotten a bit more important than is traditional or justified on purely religious grounds, though for completely different reasons: there, the whole fight-for-independence angle is played up, and depending on the political and social climate the importance of military strength may be emphasized.

Food! Fried foods are eaten on Chanukah (because they're made with oil). Popular ones are latkes or levivot (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts—if you're from the American Midwest, think of paczkis, as there isn't any real difference). Mm, feel those arteries harden, and those digestive systems moan! Chocolate coins may be available for purchase as a type of Chanukah gelt.

For more details on (C)han(n)uk(k)ah, see this video.

Asara B'Tevet - 10 Tevet

A minor fast day from sunrise to sunset, this day commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.

Tu Bishvat - 15 Shvat

A very minor holiday, this marks the "new year for trees". (The name just means "15th of the month of Shvat"). Some people will eat extra dried fruits or nuts today, often having a rare fruit they haven't had all year so that they can recite a special blessing over it.

In Israel, many elementary schools send hordes of school-children to plant new trees. It is estimated that upwards of 300 million trees have been planted by school-children since the state's inception. However, the Keren Kayemet, a national foundation similar to the Parks Commission, has to send out a vast number of employees to replant those trees, since school children understandably aren't very good at it. Also, many of those trees are promptly bulldozed to make way for new neighborhoods and roads.

The Fast of Esther - 13 Adar or Adar II.

A minor fast day from sunrise to sunset, this day commemorates Esther's fasting for three days during the Purim story and leads directly into the reading of the Book of Esther when Purim begins that night.

Purim - 14 Adar or Adar II.

A "minor holiday" in that work is not forbidden. The most joyous day in the Jewish calendar, and the holiday most obviously geared towards kids. The story of Purim is actually really cool, taking place around 300 BCE, and involves kings! Queens! Betrayal! Conspiracy! Poison! Sex! Humiliation! War! And 1,000 Elephants! Essentially, the evil Haman tries to convince King Ahasuerus (sometimes known as Artaxerxes or Xerxes - yes, possibly that Xerxes) to kill all the Jews. Needless to say, he doesn't win, thanks to the efforts of the noble Mordechai and Esther, and is in fact Hoist by His Own Petard in an incredible Crowning Moment of Awesome.

On Purim, kids dress up in various costumes and roam around town giving presents to their neighbors and friends (so it's kind of like a reverse Halloween, though not as scary). More importantly, it's required to get drunk on Purim; according to the Talmud, one must be inebriated enough to not know the difference between "Blessed is Mordechai" and "Cursed is Haman". Overly sober rabbis have indicated that one can fulfill this just by going to sleep (since unconscious people don't know the difference either). Most other people have called them spoilsports and gotten drunk all the same.
  • Among Orthodox Jewry there is actually a great deal of debate over what exactly this requirement for drunkenness means in a practical sense. The general consensus among Modern Orthodox rabbis is that those who can drink in a safe and responsible manner should have something to drink, but not so much that they literally can't differentiate between "Blessed is Mordechai" and "Cursed is Haman", probably because that level of intoxication also leads to blackouts, drunk driving, assaults, and all sorts of general badness.

In synagogue, the Book of Esther is read, and whenever Haman's name comes up, everyone in the synagogue makes a huge racket. Traditionally this was with graggers (noisemakers with a cylindrical handle that are turned to make noise) but nowadays you're likely to hear electronic beepers, cap guns, or just plain banging.

There's also a requirement to have a big honking feast in the evening, during which the people who aren't drunk yet often become so.

Also, it is forbidden to refuse a request for charity, so many people go collecting. Often these people are teenage boys in funny hats and various stages of inebriation, who sing and dance around your house, making the china wobble.

Food! Hamentashen are triangular pastries filled with jam or poppy seeds and are ubiquitous on Purim. The Hebrew name (Oznei Haman) mean "Ears of Haman". Try not to think about that too long. For young kids this is ignored and we tell them that Haman wore a three sided hat. This was most likely started by mothers sick of having to deal with their children not being able to sleep through the night until Pesach. The etymology of the Yiddish term, Hamentash, is unknown, with a great many possibilities under consideration.

Shushan Purim - 15 Adar or Adar II

People in cities that have been surrounded by a wall since the time of Joshua push Purim off by a day, celebrating it on this date instead. This includes Jerusalem and Shushan (for which the day is named),note  as well as a widely varying list of other cities, depending on custom. This has also led to a great deal of debate about what constitutes "a city surrounded by a wall since the time of Joshua": besides which cities these were, do people living in the same municipality but outside the old walls count?note  What if the walls were entirely destroyed and then rebuilt? What about a city with two or more walls concentrically (pretty common for a very long time), one older and one more recent? Etc., etc., etc.

Passover - 15-22 Nisan (21 Nisan in Israel)

Taking place 30 days after Purim, Passover (or Pesach) is one of the big three holidays. It commemmorates the exodus from Egypt over 1,000 BCE. As the Bible says, the Jews were led out of Egypt so quickly that their bread didn't have time to rise. The end result was matzah, which for Ashkenazi Jews is invariably a flat bread sort of like a cracker. Because of this, on Passover nothing leavened ("chametz") is eaten at all. Some Orthodox movements have latched onto Passover as a great place to introduce stringencies; so, for example, Ashkenazi Jews don't eat beans or rice, and many don't even allow matzah to come into contact with any liquid, for fear that there's a little uncooked dough inside that may rise. Sephardi and other Jews are for the most part free of this sort of thing, regarding the Ashkenazi stringencies as kind of silly, and several communities are known for their soft, bread-like matzah that is almost indistinguishable from regular bread—to say nothing of their fondness for rice dishes and plenty of legumes during Passover.

Before Passover, the house is cleaned scrupulously of all crumbs (this often turns into spring cleaning). The night before Passover, bedikas chametz (Search for Leaven) is done. This consists of turning out all the lights, going around with a candle (or flashlight), feather (or brush) and bag, and catching any crumbs you missed. To ensure you find something, 10 pieces of chametz (bread or possibly Cheerios) are put out beforehand. The next day, whatever chametz you have left is burned. Chametz which cannot be discarded is symbolically sold to a non-Jew and sealed off for the duration of the holiday.

Passover is seven (eight outside Israel) days long; the first and last (or outside Israel, first two and last two) days are "major holidays" while the middle ones are "Chol Hamo'ed".

On the first night (or first two outside Israel), a seder is held. This is a long, ritual-laden sequence which the family holds in their dining room. It involves discussion of the Exodus and Torah thoughts; specific foods eaten, such as matzah and maror, a bitter herb, to remember the servitude; a meal; four cups of wine; and many songs. The whole thing is contained in a book called the haggadah ("telling"). Sedarim can last well past midnight (this troper has wearily headed home at 3 AM from his uncle's house several times).

The Last Supper in Christianity is generally held to have been a Passover seder, and in general, Easter falls quite close to Passover. The massive movement in the date of Easter is a result of having a Christian holiday map to the Jewish festival of Passover; the incessant debates over how to calculate the date of Easter is a result of the Christians refusing to just use the Jewish calendar to figure out the date already and rely on convoluted mathematics instead. The name of Easter in many languages is based on the Hebrew Pesach (Passover): Latin and Greek Pascha gave rise to Spanish Pascua, Italian Pasqua, French Pâques, and Dutch Pasen (among others), and the Hebrew Pesach directly led to Arabic Id ul-Fiṣḥ.note 

Food! Lots of stuff can't be eaten on Passover, leading to creative copies and workarounds. Potatoes and eggs are always popular, and potato starch is often used instead of flour. Egg noodles instead of normal ones, too. And some really awful candy and chocolate. Another flour substitute is matzah meal, essentially pulverized matzah. Unfortunately, matzah has adverse effects on the digestive system, so many an Ashkenazi Jew will spend at least the end of Pesach somewhat blocked. As noted above, this is one holiday where it's definitely better to be Sephardi; since the Sephardim never engaged in the vast multiplication of stringencies (particularly the ban on things resembling chametz) that the Ashkenazis do, many of them can go through Passover with their diets largely unchanged (albeit with more rice than might be usual in a week).

Sefirat Ha'Omer - 16 Nisan - 5 Sivan

The 49 days between Passover and Shavuot are known as Sefirat Ha'Omer (Counting the Omer). Each night, we count the days and weeks that have passed since the second day of Passover. During this time, when the Temple was standing, a special offering of wheat was given, known as the Omer (hence the name).

This time is also traditionally one of mourning, since in Talmudic times, a plague swept through the students of the great Rabbi Akiva, killing 24,000 of them. For three to four weeks (depending on your custom), we don't listen to music, shave our beards, cut our hair, or have weddings.

Lag Ba'Omer - 18 Iyar

The 33rd day of the Omer ("Lag" is 33 in Hebrew letters). A very minor holiday, but it's when the students stopped dying, so it's a happy day. The primary custom is to have a big bonfire (in Israel they're really big on this part), though there's something about archery as well (not many people do this).

Shavuot - 6-7 Sivan (in Israel only 6 Sivan)

One of the big three holidays, the only one to be only one (or two) days long. Shavuot (or Pentecost) takes place 50 days after Passover and commemmorates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. There are only two well-known customs associated with it. First, men stay up literally the entire night studying Torah. Morning prayers are done before sunrise, and often finish around 7:00 AM. Second, plant decorations are common (flowers, greens etc.) in both homes and synagogues.

Although on an importance level Shavuot is up near the top, for some reason it is one of the most-overlooked festivals for non-Orthodox Jews.

Food! It's customary to eat dairy products throughout the holiday (on either half the meals or all of them). There are a lot of explanations for this; one is that this is because right after the Torah, with its laws on meat and milk, were given, the Jews had to make their pots and pans kosher, so they couldn't eat meat immediately.

The Three Weeks - 17 Tammuz - 9 Av

The Three Weeks (sometimes known as Bein Ham'tzarim, "between the borders") is a time of mourning in the summer. It marks the time when the Temples were destroyed, and several other historical tragedies occurred then as well.

The first day is the 17th of Tammuz, which is a fast day. The three weeks afterwards are given mourning rituals: so, like in Sefirat Ha'Omer, no shaving, no music, no weddings, no haircuts.

The last nine days are called (oddly enough) the Nine Days, starting from the first of the month of Av. Additional restrictions are added - no eating meat, no drinking wine, no swimming.

The culmination is in Tisha B'Av, the Ninth of Av. This is a super-long fast day, beginning the evening before. We sit on the floor (or very low chairs or benches). The Book of Eichah (Lamentations) is communally read at night, and both at night and during the day, there are extended "Kinos" (also lamentations) read in the synagogue. During the day it's common to have speeches or (lately) video presentations emphasizing introspection and repentance.

Six days later, Tu B'Av, is a very minor holiday, with few actual customs associated with it. In Talmudic times it was a sort of day of matchmaking, which has been revived in recent years in modern Israel as an equivalent to Valentine's Day.


If you're wondering what Jews do on non-Jewish holidays, this guy pretty much sums it up (at least for Jews in predominately Christian areas). Note that even on non-Jewish holidays, food is still involved.

Among the non-Orthodox, there's also parties to be found on Christmas eve in major cities, such as Jew'ltide and Heebonism.