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Jewish Festivals


The most important Jewish festivals and holidays, which are observed at various times throughout the year, derive from Biblical mitzvot (commandments) and rabbinical mandate. Miriam Bell provides us with a summary of the key occasions for observance and/or celebration in the Jewish Calendar.



A Shabbat at home

A friday evening family Shabbat meal. Photographed, (front to back) Jeff and Rosemary Cook. Photography by Keren Cook. © JoM

The seventh day of the Jewish week is Shabbat which is the biblically ordained day of rest. Traditionally, it is intended to commemorate the creation of heaven and earth in six days, the Exodus of the Hebrews and to look forward to a future Messianic Age.

In Jewish law (halakhah), the tradition of the unbroken seventh day Shabbat is considered the most important holy day in the Jewish calendar. Halakhah gives Shabbat the status of a holiday and defines its time frame as being from a few minutes before sunset on Friday until just after nightfall on Saturday.

Variations on Shabbat and its rituals are widespread throughout Judaism. However, one constant idea is that, on Shabbat, no work (melacha) – except that involving worship or the preservation of life and health - is permitted. Rather Shabbat is considered to be a day when Jews can contemplate the spiritual aspects of life and spend time with family.

Shabbat begins with the lighting of candles and the recitation of Kiddush over wine. It is concluded by  recitation of the Havdalah. Central to observance of Shabbat is the reading of the Weekly Torah portion in synagogue on Saturday morning.

Over the course of Shabbat, three festive meals are eaten - in the evening, in the morning, and late in the afternoon. Traditionally, the evening dinner starts with Kiddush and another blessing recited over two loaves of challah.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are Judaism’s High Holy Days. Observed in the months of September and/or October, they are a time of prayer and solemn introspection. The two days of Rosh Hashana mark the beginning of the Ten Days of Awe that end with the fast of Yom Kippur.


Roshashana © Ilan Wittenberg

Roshashana © Ilan Wittenberg

Rosh Hashanah is considered to be the Day of Memorial or Remembrance, as well as the Day of Judgment. The holiday is characterised by one specific mitzvah: the blowing of the shofar. Morning prayer services are lengthy and tend to focus on themes of majesty and judgment, remembrance, the birth of the world, and the blowing of the shofar. Ashkenazi Jews recite the Tashlikh prayer, which is a symbolic casting off of the previous year's sins, on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah.

Yom Kippur is considered to be the holiest day of the year for Jews. Its central theme is atonement and reconciliation. This is accomplished through prayer and complete fasting—including abstinence from all food and drink (including water). There are a number of other prohibited activities (including bathing and the wearing of perfume or cologne) which are intended to ensure attention is completely focused on the quest for atonement with God.

The other traditions and rituals associated with Yom Kippur, which begins at sunset, are:

Work-related restrictions identical to those of Shabbat.
Recitation of a traditional prayer in Aramaic called Kol Nidre just before sunset.
Lengthy prayers on Yom Kippur evening.
Lengthy services throughout the day of Yom Kippur – including recitation of the prayer of remembrance (Yizkor), liturgical poems (piyyutim), the entire Book of Jonah, and the Ne'ilah to conclude the day.
Wearing of religious clothing throughout the prayers.
The blowing of the shofar to mark the conclusion of the fast.

Peasch, Shavuot and Sukkot


Pesach table setting

A Pesach (Passover) table setting with Charoses. Matzoh and Maror. Photography by Keren Cook. © JoM

The three major festivals of the Jewish religious year are biblically ordained. Each of these three festivals is traditionally an occasion of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, culminating with prayer at the Western Wall.

Pesach (Passover) commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt over 3,300 years ago, and their birth as a nation under the leadership of Moses (as told in the Book of Exodus). The seven day commemoration is one of the most widely observed, and best known, Jewish holidays.

The rituals and symbols unique to the Passover celebrations derive from the narrative of Exodus. For example, when the Egyptian Pharaoh freed the Israelites, they left so quickly they did not wait for bread dough to rise (leaven) – so, for the duration of Passover no leavened bread is eaten, rather matzoh (flat unleavened bread) is eaten. Matzoh has come to symbolise Passover.


Detail of A Pesach (passover) table wtih Matzoh

Detail of Matzoh (unleavened bread) on a Pesach (Passover) table. Photography by Keren Cook. © JoM

Perhaps the most important element of Passover is the Passover Seder – which is an elaborate, ritualised meal. It includes the reading of a special text called the Haggadah, which retells the Exodus story, throughout the meal. Four cups of wine and symbolic foods from a seder plate are consumed at various points in the meal and narrative. Participation – particularly from children – is considered essential, and there is discussion and songs as well as prayers.

Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) commemorates the giving of the law to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai. It marks the conclusion of the Counting of the Omer, which begins on the second day of Passover and continues for seven weeks. This is said to represent anticipation and desire for the Giving of the Torah. On Passover, the Israelites were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh; on Shavuot they were given the Torah and became a nation committed to serving God.

Shavuot is also connected to the season of the grain harvest in Israel. Traditionally, it was the concluding festival of the grain harvest.

Shavuot is unlike other Jewish holidays in that it has no prescribed mitzvot - other than traditional festival observances of meals, special prayer services and abstention from work. However, it is also characterised by many customs. These include:

Reading of a liturgical poem (Akdamut) during Shavuot morning synagogue services.
Consumption of dairy products like milk and cheese (chalav).
Reading of the Book of Ruth at morning services.
Decoration of homes and synagogues with greenery (Yerek).
Engaging in all-night Torah study.

Sukkot (Feast of Booths or Tabernacles) commemorates the biblical sojourn in the wilderness. It follows Yom Kippur and lasts for seven to eight days. On the first day work is forbidden and the day is celebrated as a full festival with special prayer services and holiday meals.

The custom most associated with Sukkot is that of the sukkah (which means booth or tabernacle). The sukkah is a walled structure covered with schach (plant material like palm leaves) constructed for the holiday. It represents the type of fragile dwellings in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.

Throughout the holiday, meals are eaten inside the sukkah and some people sleep in it. Each day a blessing is recited over the lulav (a closed frond of the date palm tree, bound with boughs and branches of the willow and myrtle trees) and etrog (yellow citron).

Some other well-known festivals/holidays are:

Tisha B'Av: The destruction of the Temple is mourned on the fast of Tisha B’av.

Purim (Festival of Lots) celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from the wicked Haman in the days of Queen Esther of Persia.

Hanukkah (Festival of Lights) commemorates the victory of the Maccabees and the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. It has become particularly well-known as it occurs around

Christmas and many non-Jewish people think of it as “the Jewish Christmas”.


Purim © Ilan Wittenberg

Purim © Ilan Wittenberg


More information about Jewish festivals/holidays can be found at:


Image above header: Photograph celebrating the Jewish New Year - Rosh Hashanah and the blowing of the Shofar reproduced here with the permission of Ilan Wittenberg. © Ilan Witternberg -

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