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Jewish Festivals

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Key Jewish Festivals (Leviticus 23 has biblical commandments for many of these)

Rosh Hashanah (literally ‘head of the year’) The Jewish New Year. This festival is marked with services, family meals, the blowing of the rams horn (‘Shofar’) and penitence. At the family meals we eat sweet foods to have a sweet new year – apple and honey is a popular choice. Rosh Hashanah is preceded by a month in which we consider our actions over the last year, and try to think about how we would like to do better in the next year. It is the start of 10 days of repentance, leading up to…

Yom Kippur The Day of Atonement. This is a day on which we fast. Having attempted in the preceding days to put things right with fellow humans, this is our day for trying to put things right in our relationship with God. It is a very special time which allows us to reflect on who we want to be in the world in the coming year.

Sukkot Tabernacles. This is one of the 3 Pilgrim festivals (when people would have gone to the Temple in Jerusalem) and follows on a few days after Yom Kippur. We build temporary dwellings in our gardens, where we eat, and if the weather is good, sleep (this doesn’t really happen much in the UK!) It is a harvest festival, at which we also remember the temporary nature of our ancestors existence wandering in the desert for 40 years. It is a time to reflect on impermanence how reliant we are on nature to treat us well! We also have 4 species of plant which together are a lulav and etrog, which we shake in all directions– this might be a prayer for rain, but is also a reminder that God is all around us. Our sukkah viewed from above inside our sukkah

Simchat Torah Festival of the Torah. This comes right at the end of Sukkot (a busy month!) and celebrates a cycle of completing the torah. It is read on a scroll so when we reach the end, we have to roll it all the way back to the beginning. At Simchat Torah usually 2 people are honoured in the community for their contribution over the year by having the privilege of reading the last section or the first section. There’s lots of dancing with the scrolls in the synagogue, and it’s a very happy festival.

Your browser may not support display of this image.Chanukah Festival of Dedication. This is one of the most famous Jewish festivals as it tends to fall around Christmas time, but it’s actually one of the least important festivals as it’s not mentioned anywhere in Torah. It celebrates the victory of the tiny Maccabean army over the Greeks who had sacked the Temple. When we regained the Temple, a miracle occurred because in rededicating the temple we needed to light the Menorah – 7 branched candlestick that always burnt in the temple, but there was only enough oil for 1 day, and it was an 8 day journey – but the light lasted 8 days! So we celebrate for 8 days by lighting a Chanukiah (like a menorah but with 2 extra branches) adding a candle or wick and oil each night. We eat oily foods and play gamesour chanukiah on the first night.

Purim. This is the festival which celebrates the story of Ester and her uncle Mordechai. They saved the Persian Jewish community from being massacred by the King’s advisor Haman. Ester means hidden and God’s name doesn’t appear in the story of Esther so it is said that God is hiding in the story. In remembrance of this, and in celebration, it is traditional to go to synagogue to hear the story read in fancy dress or disguise. Purim is marked with lots of parties, and there is a custom to drink ‘until you cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai’ – it’s a chance for everyone to let their hair down as we emerge out of winterme and my friend Stephanie in our purim costumes!

Pesach. Passover. (Pilgrim festival 2) This festival celebrates the exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery. We have 2 nights of ‘seder’ – a special meal where we have symbolic foods, and retell the story of the exodus from Egypt. Families and friends will come together for their seder meals. For the 8 days of Pesach we don’t eat bread or what we call ‘chametz’ – leaven. Cakes are made without flour, and we eat matzah (like a big cracker!) instead of bread. We clean our houses very thoroughly beforehand to make sure no chametz is there, and this is a great time for spring cleaning! It’s an opportunity for us to clean out from our lives too, and think about the things that enslave us that we want to sweep away.

Shavuot. Feast of Weeks (Pilgrim festival 3). 7 weeks after Pesach (7x7) we celebrate the receiving of Torah at Sinai. There is a custom to stay up all night and learn, and there is also a focus on dairy products, so we eat lots of cheesecake! (Food is always an important part of Jewish festivals!)

Tisha B’Av. The 9th of Av (a Hebrew month). This is a 25 hour fast that mourns the destruction of both temples, and various other Jewish disasters all said to have occurred on this date.

Made with the help of the following table helps put the dates of the festivals in context, and gives the names of the minor festivals too. There is then some discussion on how the calendar works…


Hebrew English Length Gregorian Equivalent Festivals
Your browser may not support display of this image. Nissan 30 days March-April Fast of the First born, Pesach, Sefirat Ha Omer, Yom Ha Shoah
Your browser may not support display of this image. Iyar 29 days April-May Sefirat Ha Omer, Yom Hazikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Lag Ba Omer, Yom Yerushalayim
Your browser may not support display of this image. Sivan 30 days May-June Sefirat Ha Omer, Shavuot
Your browser may not support display of this image. Tammuz 29 days June-July Shiva Asar b’Tamuz (17th), The three weeks
Your browser may not support display of this image. Av 30 days July-August Tisha b’Av (9th), Tu b’Av (15th)
Your browser may not support display of this image. Elul 29 days August-September  
Your browser may not support display of this image. Tishri 30 days September-October Rosh Hashanah, Tzom Gedalia, Yom Kippur, Hoshanah Rabba, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah
Your browser may not support display of this image. Cheshvan 29 or 30 days October-November  
Your browser may not support display of this image. Kislev 30 or 29 days November-December Chanukah
Your browser may not support display of this image. Tevet 29 days December-January Asarah b’tevet (10th)
Your browser may not support display of this image. Shevat 30 days January-February Tu b’shevat (15th)
Your browser may not support display of this image. Adar I (leap years only) 30 days February-March  
Your browser may not support display of this image. Adar (Adar II in leap years) 29 days February-March Fast of Esther, Purim, Shushan Purim

Jewish Time

How does this calendar work?

The Gregorian calendar used by most of the world has abandoned any correlation between the moon cycles and the month, setting the length of months to 28, 30 or 31 days. On average, the moon revolves around the Earth in about 29½ days (I’m told!). The Earth revolves around the sun in about 365¼ days, that is, about 12.4 lunar months.

The Jewish calendar, however, coordinates the rotation of the Earth (a day; sunset to sunset), the movement of the moon around the earth (a month) and the movement of the earth around the sun (a year). Months are either 29 or 30 days, corresponding to the 29½-day lunar cycle. Years are either 12 or 13 months, corresponding to the 12.4 month solar cycle.

The lunar month on the Jewish calendar begins when the first sliver of moon becomes visible after the dark of the moon. In ancient times, the new months used to be determined by observation. When people observed the new moon, they would notify the Sanhedrin. When the Sanhedrin heard testimony from two independent, reliable eyewitnesses that the new moon occurred on a certain date, they would declare the rosh chodesh (first of the month) and send out messengers to tell people when the month began. This is the root of the 2 day festival – it took a while for the message to spread!

The problem with a lunar calendar is that there are approximately 12.4 lunar months in every solar year, so a 12-month lunar calendar loses about 11 days every year and a 13-month lunar gains about 19 days every year. The months on such a calendar "drift" relative to the solar year, important when so many festivals have an agricultural root). To compensate for this drift, an extra month was occasionally added. In ancient times, this month was also added by observation: the Sanhedrin observed the conditions of the weather, the crops and the livestock, and if these were not sufficiently advanced to be considered "spring," then the Sanhedrin inserted an additional month into the calendar to make sure that Pesach would occur in the spring (it is referred to in the Torah as Chag he-Aviv, the Festival of Spring!).

The additional month is known as Adar I, Adar Rishon or Adar Alef. It is inserted before the regular month of Adar (known in such years as Adar II, Adar Sheini or Adar Bet). Note that Adar II is the "real" Adar, the one in which Purim is celebrated, the one in which yahrzeits for Adar are observed, the one in which a 13-year-old born in Adar becomes a Bar Mitzvah.

In the fourth century, Hillel II established a fixed calendar based on mathematical and astronomical calculations. This calendar, still in use, standardized the length of months and the addition of months over the course of a 19 year cycle, so that the lunar calendar realigns with the solar years. Adar I is added in the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years of the cycle. The current cycle began in Jewish year 5758 (the year that began October 2, 1997). Don’t worry, this doesn’t need to be memorized - we have good calendars!

In addition, Yom Kippur should not fall adjacent to Shabbat, because this would cause difficulties in coordinating the fast with Shabbat, and Hoshanah Rabba should not fall on Saturday because it would interfere with the holiday's observances. A day is added to the month of Cheshvan or subtracted from the month of Kislev of the previous year to prevent these things from happening.

Numbering of Jewish Years

The year number on the Jewish calendar represents the number of years since creation, calculated by adding up the ages of people in the Bible back to the time of creation. However, this does not necessarily mean that the universe has existed for only 5700 years as we understand years. Many Orthodox Jews will readily acknowledge that the first six "days" of creation are not necessarily 24-hour days (indeed, a 24-hour day would be meaningless until the creation of the sun on the fourth "day").

Jews do not generally use the words "A.D." and "B.C." to refer to the years on the Gregorian calendar. "A.D." means "the year of our Lord," and we do not believe Jesus is the Lord. Instead, we use the abbreviations C.E. (Common or Christian Era) and B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), which are commonly used by scholars today.

Why isn’t the first month at Rosh Hashanah?

The "first month" of the Jewish calendar is the month of Nissan, in the spring, when Passover occurs. However, the Jewish New Year is in Tishri, the seventh month, and that is when the year number is increased. This concept of different starting points for a year is not as strange as it might seem at first glance. The Gregorian "new year" starts in January, but the new "school year" starts in September, and the “financial year” begins in April. Similarly, the Jewish calendar has different starting points for different purposes.

The names of the months of the Jewish calendar were adopted during the time of Ezra, after the return from the Babylonian exile. The names are actually Babylonian month names, brought back to Israel by the returning exiles. Note that most of the Bible refers to months by number, not by name.

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