What are the Major Jewish Holidays?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Many people are familiar with Hanukkah, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah, three major Jewish holidays, but there are a number of other important holidays in the Hebrew calendar to commemorate various events in Jewish history and to celebrate the Jewish faith. In communities with a large Jewish population, they may be designated as official holidays, although for devout Jews, the holiday actually starts the night before, which is something important to keep in mind when scheduling events which coincide with these days.

Hanukkah commemorates the miracle at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Hanukkah commemorates the miracle at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Hebrew calendar starts with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which falls in late September or early October. Ten days after the New Year, Jews around the world observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day, people fast for 25 hours and attend special religious services. Yom Kippur is a day of reflection, and a chance for Jewish people to have a private conversation with God about their deeds in the past year.

Hassidic man praying at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem.
Hassidic man praying at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem.

Five days after Yom Kippur falls the holiday of Sukkot, which usually occurs in October. On Sukkot, Jewish people commemorate the 40 years their ancestors spent wandering in the desert. Some families build a small shelter, called a sukkah, and spend time in the shelter during this holiday. After Sukkot ends, people celebrate Simchat Torah, the date when the annual cycle of reading the Torah is over, and the cycle begins again for the year. Typically, the Torah scrolls are carried in a parade on Simchat Torah.

Jerusalem, Israel.
Jerusalem, Israel.

In December, people of the Jewish faith celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, commemorating the miracle at the Temple in Jerusalem. This eight day holiday is accompanied with gift-giving, as many gentiles are aware, but people also eat traditional foods during Hanukkah, and light candles on a special candelabra called a hanukiah each evening to celebrate. While many non-Jews know this holiday as a primary Jewish holiday, it is in fact not traditionally considered to be one of the most important. Its importance may have been raised simply because of the proximity to a very important holiday in the Christian religion — Christmas.

Torah scrolls are often featured in Jewish holidays.
Torah scrolls are often featured in Jewish holidays.

One month before Passover, also known as Pesach, people celebrate Purim, a festive holiday based on the story of Esther. Children dress up in costumes and act out Biblical stories in some Jewish communities on this holiday, and everyone celebrates with parties and food. Over the eight-day festival of Pesach, people remember the Exodus from Egypt. This is one of the Jewish holidays which coincides with holidays in other religions, as Easter usually falls on the same dates.

Some Jewish communities also observe Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance day, in late April or early May. The next major Jewish holiday is Shavu'ot, which commemorates the gift of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Jewish families also celebrate a major holiday every Friday night and Saturday, when they observe Shabbat.

The changeable dates of these days can be confusing for outsiders. Holidays move around because they are not linked with the Gregorian calendar used by most of the world, but rather with the Hebrew calendar. Dates on the Hebrew calendar are calculated slightly differently, and, as a result, holidays appear to skip around when they are mapped onto the Gregorian calendar.

Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar in the Jewish calendar.
Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar in the Jewish calendar.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

GigaGold

@Renegade

I think that your opinions are quite common in the west these days. Lately we have seen a growth in holiday work hours and overtime. Depending on who you ask, this is either a tragedy or a sign of good hard work.

My personal opinion is that all work is secondary to relationship. Holidays strengthen our relationship with our families and with God, thereby strengthening our work ethic and our motivation for enjoying all of life. Mere drudgery and obsession with money carry with them broken families and broken hearts, and by themselves they are a very cruel god to worship. I think Charles Dickens paints a perfect picture of this conundrum in A Christmas Carol.

Renegade

@GigaGold

Is this really true? Do you honestly think that taking so many days out of a work schedule is helpful to a society? Imagine all the things we could get done if we simply did away with holidays! The reason for a truly strong society is consistent hard work on the part of every member, not repeated excuses for idleness. To me, every day is a holiday to my god- work. He rewards me quite well every week in the form of a paycheck.

GigaGold

These holidays are an excellent way to remind each generation of the things God has done to deliver his chosen people throughout history and of his continuing faithfulness to them. It is important to recognize holidays as not merely a day off, but a day in which we have plenty of time to rest from work and remember the mighty works which have been done for us.

frankjoseph

Most of the Jewish holidays find their start in ancient times, but there are three more recently created holidays.

One is Yom Hashoah which the article notes -- a commemoration of the victims of the Shoah (Holocaust). This holiday is observed on the 27th day of the Jewish month of Nisan which usually corresponds to a day in either late April or early May on the Western calendar.

Also a newer holiday, but relatively widely commemorated is Yom Hazikaron -- remembrance of the fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terrorist attacks. This holiday takes place on the 4th day of the Jewish month of Iyar, and is one day before the next modern holiday.

Yom Haatzmaut is the third modern holiday. It falls on 5th day of the Jewish month of Iyar which typically coincides with late April or early May on the Western Calendar. Yom Ha'atzmaut is Israel's Independence Day.

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