Jewish holidays are, in the words of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, “the master code of Judaism.” The primary teachings of Judaism are embedded in their messages: slavery and freedom, covenant with God, sin and the possibility of renewal, the celebration of life, assimilation and Jewish survival, the problem of evil, work and rest, etc.
By understanding the holidays, one can review Jewish history, learn basic Jewish beliefs and values and encounter classic Jewish texts. But more than that, the Jewish holidays are a key to discovering the inner sanctum of this 4000 year old Jewish tradition. The person who lives their weekly, monthly and yearly rhythms holds the heart of the faith in his/her hands.
The sections below contain what we hope will be only the beginning of your exploration of the beauty and meaning of Jewish holidays. For additional resources, check out the attached articles or websites in each section, visit the Beth El library or contact one of the rabbis.
(Note: the introductions to many of the sections below are based on chapters in Rabbi Wayne Dosick’s book, “Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Belief, Tradition and Practice.” This is just one of many books that contain valuable information on Jewish holidays.)
According to a midrash, God once said, “I have a precious jewel in my possession which I wish to give to Israel. And Shabbat is its name.” No Jew who has ever truly tasted the delight of Shabbat could argue with that description. If anything, it might be an understatement.
To a person looking from the outside, Shabbat might appear to be restrictive. A cursory glance at its traditional prohibitions might lead one to assume that it is day lacking joy and spirit. Yet experienced from within, it is just the reverse. Shabbat is a glorious release from weekday concerns and routine pressures. It is a day of peace, tranquility, inner joy and spiritual uplift accompanied by song and delight.
Shabbat is a precious treasure. It is a time for families to gather around their dining room tables. A time of sharing, resting, singing, walking, eating, praying and loving. Truly, God has given no more precious gift to Israel!
The beginning of a new year is filled with mixed emotions. In looking back on the previous year we focus on our failures, missed opportunities and the precious moments that slipped by. At the same time, the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days) provide us with a new year full of hope and renewal.
The rituals and symbols of Rosh Hashanah wonderfully capture and express these mixed feelings. The shofar blasts cry out for the year gone by. The shofar urges us to wake up, look inside ourselves and to recognize our habitual shortcomings. By beginning the process of introspection in the month of Elul we can recite the prayers of the High Holy Days with a sense of seriousness and urgency.
But Rosh Hashanah is more than just somber prayers in a minor key. Gathered as families around the dining room table, we dip challah and apples into honey. The sweet honey reminds us of the many pleasures we experienced in the course of the previous year. By reciting special blessings we ask God to grant us a new year of health and happiness.
Yom Kippur lacks the shofar and the festival meal of Rosh Hashanah, but its rituals are no less powerful, its symbols no less evocative.
On Yom Kippur we dress in white. Over suits and dresses, it is customary to wear a kittel (white robe) during tefillot. White reminds us of the purity that we strive to attain throughout our lives.
During the course of the day’s extended prayers, one symbol is repeated over and over again. As we recite the vidui (confessional), it is customary to stand slightly bowed and to lightly beat our hearts with our fisted right hand. Bent over under the weight of burdens and pain, we express our humility. Admitting that our hearts turned astray, we beat our chest to express the pain we caused ourselves and others.
When done for the first time, the customs of wearing a kittel and beating our chests may feel awkward and embarrassing. But both help us better enter the words of our prayers and the mood of the day.
Following on the heels of Yom Kippur, the eight day festival of Sukkot is a welcome break from Yom Kippur’s heavy mood of introspection and soul searching. Many mitzvot are associated with Sukkot. The sukkah itself and the gathering of the lulav and etrog are undoubtedly the most recognizable of the mitzvot. But one mitzvah stands out above the others, the mitzvah (literally ‘commandment’) of being happy.
The rabbis called Sukkot z’man simhateinu, ‘the season of our rejoicing.’ Through eating, entertaining, singing and dancing the festival can indeed take on a spirit of joy and celebration. Feeling a sense of renewal and hope from the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days), we grant ourselves the pleasures of the outdoors and of relaxation. Lest we take this self indulgence too far, our reading from the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) reminds us of the temporal nature of this celebration. Ultimately, Sukkot provides many rich opportunities to enjoy the blessings of life while maintaining a keen awareness of its fleeting nature.
Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah
Originally the climax and grand finale of the Sukkot celebration, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, are now distinguished by their emphasis on the Torah. After studying the Torah, one immediately realizes that it is a great gift and treasure of our people. Therefore, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are designated as the time when the community gathers to celebrate the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle and the transition from the end of the book Devarim (Deuteronomy) to the beginning of Beresheet (Genesis). The celebration includes prayer, song, and dance. Both the young and the old will dance around and embrace the Torah to show their love and appreciation for the gift of its teachings.
In the home, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are marked by the usual rituals of Kiddush, candlelighting, etc., and by the prohibition on working. Again, it is an excellent opportunity for the family to gather and celebrate the teachings and ideals of the Torah before gathering with the community for a largescale celebration.
Chanukah in our homes can warm our hearts during the cold days of December. Each night we light the Chanukah menorah (chanukiyah) and sing Chanukah songs. In remembrance of the miraculous oil which lasted for eight days, we eat foods which are fried in oil such as latkes. In Israel today, another popular food is jelly donuts (sufganiyot). We can also enhance our celebration by playing dreidel with family and friends, making our own chanukiyah, and decorating our homes with Chanukah symbols.
Tu B’Shevat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat) is the Jewish new year for trees. In January/February in the Land of Israel, trees begin to form their fruit. This is also an excellent time for planting new saplings. For Jews living in most places in the diaspora, Tu B’Shevat falls in the middle of cold winters. Over the centuries, therefore, the holiday has served as an important link between Jews and the land of Israel. In recent years, its commemoration has been used to heighten the awareness of ecology and the responsibility of each person to preserve and enhance the earth.
For more information on how to make your own Tu B’Shvat Seder and to learn more about Jewish views on the environment, explore the articles and links below. Further resources are available in the Beth El library and from the rabbis.
The holiday of Purim is based on the story in Megillat Esther (the Bible’s Book of Esther). Scholars have had difficulty identifying the time and characters of the story from a historical perspective. Nevertheless, Purim has attained great popularity because it reflects the perennial problem of the Jewish people- animosity against the Jews. Despite (or perhaps because) of its very serious theme, the holiday is full of merry-making with songs, drinks, jokes, costumes, tricks, Purim shpiels and more.
There are four mitzvot specifically associated with Purim. They include:
- Reading the Megillah
- Seudat Purim – a festive meal
- Mishloach manot – exchange of food gift baskets
- Matanot L’evyonim – gifts to the needy
By observing these mitzvot, we can fully enter the spirit of the holiday and reflect on its timeless story and lessons.
For more information on celebrating Purim, insights into Megillat Esther, activities for children and much more, explore the articles and links below. Additional resources are available in the Beth El library and from the rabbis.
The holiday of Pesach (Passover) commemorates the exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egyptian slavery. It is also the springtime festival that celebrates the rebirth of the earth after the long, cold winter. Perhaps more than any other holiday, Pesach has shaped who we are as a Jewish people and who we want to become. Its story of slavery and freedom recalls our earliest history as a nation and also expresses our ongoing dream of a world redeemed.
The laws and customs of Pesach are extensive and detailed and preparing for the holiday requires some time and effort. But the mitzvot of kashering our homes for Pesach and making a seder bring to life the timeless lessons of this beautiful festival.
For more information on the laws and rituals of Pesach, how to celebrate and the meanings behind this celebration of freedom, explore the articles and links on the sidebar. Further resources are available in the Beth El library and from the rabbis.
Between 1939 and 1945, the Nazi Party, led by German Chancellor Adolph Hitler, engaged in the systematic attempt to kill every Jew in the world. Their “success,” the death of six million Jews (one-third of the world’s Jewish population), was and remains, overwhelmingly devastating to the Jewish people.
Yom HaShoah is a day to commemorate this tragic history. Solemn programs that often include memorial prayers and reminisces by Holocaust survivors help mark this day. While Yom HaShoah can do little to erase the anguish of destruction and death, it can do much to help Jews remember the victims and pledge to work toward a world where this kind of genocide will never happen again.
Explore the articles and links below for more information on the history of the Holocaust and observance of Yom HaShoah. Additional resources are available in the Beth El library and from the rabbis.
On May 14, 1948 (5th Iyar), the modern State of Israel declared independence. For the first time in almost 1,900 years, the Jewish people had a free and independent homeland in the biblically Promised Land.
Every day since that declaration of independence, Israel and been forced to struggle to survive. But Israel has not only survived, it has thrived as a nation. Appropriately, Israelis celebrate Yom Ha’azmaut (Israeli Independence Day) with joyous festivities- parades, picnics, games and speeches.
Yom Ha’azamaut is a day of celebration not only for Israelis. Jews around the world join in because while Israel is the physical homeland of many Jews, it is the spiritual homeland of all Jews.
Explore the articles and links below for more information on the State of Israel and Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations. Additional resources are available in the Beth El library and from the rabbis.
As is true of all Jewish holidays, the festival of Shavuot has many layers of meaning. Originally the conclusion to the barley harvest (begun at Pesach), Shavuot was initially an agricultural holiday that was celebrated at the Temple in Jerusalem. With the destruction of the Temple, the significance of the holiday changed and expanded. Rabbinic sages determined that exactly seven weeks (Shavuot literally means “weeks”) elapsed between the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. Shavuot, they taught, was z’man matan Torateinu, the day that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Sinai.
Today, Shavuot is marked with special prayers, foods, the reading of Megillat Rut (the biblical Book of Ruth) and most importantly, the unique custom of Tikkun Leil Shavout (an all night Torah study session). For more information on the mitzvot of Shavuot, further insight into the revelation on Mt. Sinai, recipes for the holiday and more, explore the articles and links below. Additional resources are available in the Beth El library and from the rabbis.
Literally, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and 70 CE. We remember the destruction of Jewish life in Israel and the resulting exile of the Jewish people from their land on this solemn day of mourning and fasting. The prophet Jeremiah who witnessed the destruction and lived through exile chronicled his experience in what became the biblical book of Eikha (Lamentations). The reading of Eikha by candle light on Tisha B’Av is one of the special mitzvot associated with this summer fast day.
For more information on the observance of Tisha B’Av and insights into Megillat Eikha, explore the articles and links below. Additional resources are available in the Beth El library and from the rabbis.