"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, descriptions tend to vary. 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 in popular media this is often a default mindset. 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 Hanukkah. 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" in Yuddish or "chag same'ach" in Hebrew. There are three kinds of holidays:
- "Major Holidays": They originate from the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), the first five books of the Judaeo-Christian religious canon. On these days, "work" is forbidden in mostly the same way it is on the Sabbath (cooking is allowed, 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, "Mundane Part of the Holiday"): On Passover, which is 7-8 days long, and Sukkot, which is 8-9 days long, only the first and last 1-2 days are full holidays. The ones in between are more or less minor, and many different kinds of "work" are permitted. Just how much is permitted depends on how lenient the observer is.
- "Minor Holidays": They originate from observances outside the Torah. 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.
The Jewish CalendarThe Jewish calendar is lunisolar — that means it attempts to simultaneously follow the phases of the Moon and the seasons. Each of its 12 months are 29-30 days, each roughly following the duration between two consecutive New Moons. However, this results in a year of only 353-355 days (depending on the length of the months), 10-12 days shorter than the solar year. To make sure that the holidays fall in roughly the same time every solar year, an extra month is added on every so often (7 out of every 19 years). The month names (which was derived from the Babylonian calendar, a product of the Jews' long exile) are as follows:
- Adar Sheni (literally, "Second Adar"), the extra month
Rosh Hashanah (Head of the Year) — 1-2 TishriOne of the most important holidays in the calendar, marking the beginning of the civil year. 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 ("Days of Awe"), also known as the "High Holidays". During this time, Jews are exhorted to examine and repent of their sins, as it is believed that on this day God starts judging humanity for their actions during the previous year and seals their fate for the whole year ten days later (Yom Kippur). Thus, "Happy New Year" is often deemed an inappropriate greeting; traditionally it has to be "l'shana tova tikatev v'techatem" ("may you be written and sealed for a good year"), or simply "shana tova" ("have a good year"). 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 a hundred times in order to "awaken" Jews to repent. Food! Starting from here, 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 throughout Tishri. On the day 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 Ashkenazis will eat the fish at any festive opportunity. There are a great many other simanim ("signs") that various groups eat on this day, 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 hopes of vanquishing their enemies.
Aseret Yemei Teshuva (Ten Days of Penance) — 1-10 TishriNot so much a holiday as it is a period of reflection and penance.
Tzom Gedalia (Fast of Gedaliah) — 3/4 TishriA fast observed from dawn to dusk, mourning the assassination of Gedaliah ben Ahikam, the governor of Judah appointed by King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon to administer to Jews left behind after the majority were exiled to Babylon, by some Jews opposed to his appointment in spite of his efforts to restore order following the destruction of the Temple, forcing the remnant to flee to Egypt for fear of retaliation and thus dashing any semblance of autonomy. The assassination is generally believed to have occurred on a Rosh Hashanah, thus out of respect the fast is moved to the third of Tishri, except if it is a Shabbat, in which case it is moved to the fourth.
Erev Yom Kippur (Eve of the Day of Atonement) — 9 TishriLiterally the day before the big day, this is marked by additional morning prayers, exchanges of forgiveness, giving to charity and two festive meals — think of it as the Mardi Gras of Jews. Food! Plentiful, as a preparation for the day-long fast.
Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) — 10 TishriYom Kippur itself is not only a "major holiday" but also a fast day. However, unlike most other fasts, not only food and drink are forbidden, but also makeup, leather shoes, hand washing and sexual relations (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 for forgiveness and reconciliation with God before their fates are sealed for the year after a ten-day examination which began at Rosh Hashanah. Food! None. Too bad.
Sukkot (Feast of Booths) — 15-21 Tishri (22 Tishri outside Israel)Occurs five days after Yom Kippur (yes, Tishri is a busy month). One of the big three holidays in the calendar and originally one of the three times when Jews are obliged to go to the Temple in Jerusalem (besides Passover and Shavuot). 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 seven days, celebrating God's providence throughout the Jews' journey out of Egypt, during which time they had to sleep in huts. When in the synagogue, men will carry the Four Species: the etrog (a yellow citronnote ), the lulav (palm frond), the hadasim (myrtle branches) and the aravot (willow branches). The latter three are bound together in one bundle. During the prayers, the Species are held and waved around at various points. Historically, many congregations could not access some or all of the Species (this was a particular problem among Ashkenazis in Europe and, later, North America), so it was common for a synagogue to have only one of each, but today all the men having a full set is pretty common. The last day 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.
Shemini Atzeret (Eighth Day of Assembly) — 22 TishriUsually observed outside Israel (where it is considered the eighth day of Sukkot), Shemini Atzeret is both an extension of Sukkot and the eve of Simchat Torah.
Simchat Torah (Rejoicing with the Torah) — 22 Tishri (Israel) / 23 Tishri (world)Simchat Torah 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, perhaps even enough to make them appreciably (and pleasantly) drunk, 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.