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Guide to Jewish festivals

Last updated: 2004-08-17

Jewish star of david symbol

Star of David

The Jewish calendar is full of festivals and special days, either commemorating a major event in Jewish history or celebrating a certain time of year (such as Jewish New Year).

Festival days are known as Yom Tovim and many of these days are marked by Jews refraining from working - however, unlike the Sabbath cooking (for the day ahead only) and carrying items outside of the home are both permitted. Except where stated, all of the following festivals are guided by these laws.

The main festivals are as follows:

Purim (Festival of Lots)

This one-day festival takes place four weeks before Passover and usually falls in February or early March. It recalls the story of Esther, a Queen who foiled a plot by one of her advisors, Haman, to kill all the Jews. As well as the story being read in synagogue in a book called the Megillah, it is a day for parties and celebrations, and fancy dress is traditional. Pastries called Hamentaschen are also eaten - these are triangular (the same shape as Haman's hat) and filled with poppy seeds, jam or fruit.

Normal work and activities are permitted on Purim.

Pesach (Passover)

This takes place around March/April time, and commemorates Moses freeing the Israelites from their enslavement under the Pharaoh in Egypt. The festival lasts for eight days and during that time no 'leavened' food (i.e food containing wheat or any type of grain) may be consumed (including bread, cereals, whisky and beer) - Jews who come from the Middle East, known as Sephardi Jews, will eat rice and pulses, but European Jews won't. The reason for eating no leavened food is to remember when the Israelites had to leave Egypt in a hurry and did not have time to prepare proper food for themselves - their bread did not rise in time and so was considered 'unleavened' and tasted more like crackers. This is symbolised on Pesach by eating Matzah - unleavened bread.

On the first two nights, a service known as a Seder (order) is held at home - this tells the story of the Passover and the Jewish exodus from Egypt, chronicled in a book called the Haggadah. The service is traditionally a relaxed affair - it is customary for those attending to lean to their left to show that they are no longer bound by the restrictions of slavery imposed by the Pharaoh of Egypt and may sit however they please. Four cups of wine are also drunk during the service, and a celebratory meal is eaten.

After the first two days, a four day period follows when normal work activities may be resumed, although leavened food is still forbidden. The final two days of the festival, like the first, are Yom Tovim. The festival finishes at sundown on the eighth day.

A great deal of preparation is required for Passover as not only are Jews not allowed to eat leavened food (known as chametz), they are not allowed to own it either, and must clear their houses of it before the festival begins. These days, people will get a rabbi to sell on their chametz for a token sum of money to a non-Jew, which can be redeemed after the festival is over. It is also customary to use different crockery, cutlery and cookware, which has not been used to cook foods containing chametz, for the duration of the festival.

Shavuot (Pentecost)

Shavuot takes places seven weeks after Passover (usually around late May/early June) and commemorates Moses being given the Ten Commandments by God following the Exodus from Egypt. The festival lasts for two days and requires relatively little advance preparation compared to some of the other Yom Tovim; however, it is traditional to eat dairy products, as when the Jews were awaiting the arrival of their commandments and were unsure as to what their new dietary laws would be, they ate only dairy products and vegetables, to avoid eating the meat of any animals which might be forbidden. Cheesecake is a particular favourite at this time of year, and many people steer clear of meat altogether. The synagogue is decorated with flowers for the festival's duration in celebration of the giving of the commandments.

There are few other customs associated with the festival, although some ultra-orthodox Jews often stay up all night on the first night to study the Bible.

Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year)

The Jewish New Year takes place around September/October, and is considered one of the most important and serious holidays (or High Holy Days) in the Jewish calendar. As well as being a time for celebration it is also a time for reflection and repentance for sins committed in the previous year. In synagogue, people pray to God to forgive them for their wrongdoings and to give them a good year - during the service a Shofar, or ram's horn, is blown, to alert congregants to the seriousness of the festival and the fact that God is deciding their fates for the coming year - which will be sealed on the Day Of Atonement ten days later. This period is known as The Ten Days Of Repentance and is traditionally a solemn time.

However, Rosh Hashanah is also a time for celebration - other traditions include eating apples dipped in honey in the hope that this will lead to a sweet year.

Yom Kippur (Day Of Atonement)

The Ten Days Of Repentance end with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day Of Atonement, which is the day on which the fates of all Jews are sealed for the coming year. This High Holy Day is the most solemn and serious day in the Jewish calendar, which involves praying for forgiveness for sins and afflicting oneself as punishment for those committed in the past year. Jews fast (refraining from any food or drink) for 25 hours from sundown on the previous evening until sundown the next night, and are not allowed to work, bathe or wear leather shoes. The fast begins with a special evening service known as Kol Nidre (All Vows), and synagogue services last for the whole of the following day until the Fast ends.

Although it is a solemn day, Yom Kippur is also thought of as a happy day because it is the time for Jews to cleanse themselves of wrongdoings and reach a spiritual high. Fasting is not only done as a means of affliction but also because nothing is supposed to detract congregants from their prayers on the day. However, children below Barmitzvah or Batmitzvah age, pregnant women and diabetics are discouraged from fasting, as is anybody whose health is likely to be seriously affected by the 25-hour abstinence.

Succot (Tabernacles)

This festival begins five days after the end of Yom Kippur and commemorates the booths the Israelites constructed in the wilderness and lived in after their exodus from Egypt. During the eight-day festival, Jews are supposed to live in a similar booth known as a Succah (dwelling) - the walls are made of wood and the ceiling of greenery to leave the stars visible. In countries such as Israel where the climate permits, many people sleep in the Succah, but elsewhere it is used mainly for meals only.

In synagogue, each congregant says a blessing over four different species of plants - a palm branch (lulav), citron (esrog), myrtle branch and willow twig - which are representative of the four different types of Jewish person.

The middle four days of the festival are regular working days - although the fourth of these, Hoshana Rabba (Save Us), is treated as one final chance to purge the soul of sins committed in the previous year. The eighth day of the festival is called The Eighth Day Of Solemn Assembly (Shemini Atzeret), when a prayer for rain is said during the synagogue service.

Simchat Torah (Rejoicing Of The Law)

Following immediately on from Succot is Simchat Torah, which celebrates the end of the reading of the Torah, in synagogue - and the fact that it can now be read from the beginning again. This is one of the happiest festivals in the Jewish calendar - it is celebrated by making seven circuits of the synagogue which are punctuated with dancing and singing of traditional Hebrew songs. Children are given flags to hold on the circuits, and many synagogues hold parties after the service.

Chanukah (Festival of Lights)

Another eight-day festival, which takes place in December. The story of Chanukah hails back to a period in history when, Jews were forbidden to follow their faith and many were forcibly converted or killed for not converting. Eventually a band of Jews called the Maccabees gathered an army and revolted against the Greeks and won the battle, although their temple and way of life was all but destroyed. This band of men sought to clean up the temple and restore the faith, but in order to light the temple the special seven-branch candleabra (Menorah) was needed, and only enough oil could be found to keep it alight for one day. However, a miracle occurred and the Menorah continued to remain alight for seven days on only one day's supply of oil until new oil could be made to keep the light going.

Traditions of Chanukah include lighting candles on a Menorah every night for eight nights in the home, eating food cooked in oil (doughnuts, potato pancakes etc.), giving presents, holding parties and celebrations, and playing games with a dreidel, a traditional spinning top.

As with Purim, normal work and activities are permitted on Chanukah.