MORE than 15 million people around the world adhere to Judaism – an ancient religion spanning over 3,000 years.
But how do observers celebrate the significant dates in the Hebrew calendar?
What are the major Jewish festivals?
There are numerous Jewish festivals, but only five of them allow observers to miss work.
Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot are viewed as the most important festivals in Judaism, where observers are forbidden from labour.
Work is permitted on two minor holidays, Purim and Hanukkah.
But there are others too, dotted throughout the Hebrew year.
Here’s the background to the festivals, and how they’re celebrated.
Shavuot – The Feast of Weeks
Shavuot is celebrated seven days after the second Passover seder and is one of the three pilgrimage festivals
It is an ancient grain harvest festival but also identified with Biblical times with the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Traditionally, dairy foods are eaten at this time.
The Book of Ruth is read.
Shabbat – The Sabbath
Shabbat means seventh, and comes at the end of the Jewish week every Saturday.
The weekly festival is so central to Jewish life that the term shomer Shabbat (Shabbat observer) is synonymous with religious Jews.
The day of rest begins on Friday at sunset and ends on the following evening.
Its foundations lie in the Book of Genesis, when God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.
The Torah instructs that no work should be done and no fires kindled on the holy day.
Greenery and flowers are often used to decorate homes during Shavuot because Mount Sinai was thought to have burst into bloom in anticipation of God’s words.
Rosh Hashanah – Jewish New Year
This is the Jewish New Year, when Jews believe God will decide what happens in the year ahead.
Rosh Hashanah is the first of the High Holidays or Yamim Noraim, celebrated ten days before Yom Kippur.
It is observed on the first two days of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar.
The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה), literally “day [of] shouting/blasting”.
The festival is celebrated with praying in the synagogue, personal reflection, and sounding the shofar – an ancient musical horn typically made of a ram’s horn.
Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement
This is the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar.
It comes after ten Days of Repentance or Days of Awe, the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Meaning “Day of Atonement”, the festival is designed to reflect on the past year and for observers to ask for God’s forgiveness.
Jewish people tend to fast for 25 hours, and abstain from sex, bathing and the wearing of any make-up or perfume.
Many will wear white as a symbol of purity, and are forbidden from wearing leather shoes.
Yom Kippur is the only day of the Jewish calendar when synagogues run five services a day – and the day is spent in continuous prayer.
The sound of the shofar marks the end of the holy day.
Sukkot – Feast of Tabernacles
The book of Exodus tells the story of the Israelites’ journey to the promised land.
Sukkot commemorates these years spent wandering the desert, living in makeshift dwellings.
Some Jewish families observe the festivals by living in temporary huts called sukkot they have built themselves out of branches and leaves.
Each day they hold celebrations with four types of plant: branches of palm, myrtle and willow and a citrus fruit called an etrog.
Sukkot is intended to be a joyful festival that lets Jews live close to nature and know that God is taking care of them.
Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
Shemini Atzeret is an extra day after the end of Sukkot. Jews spend some time in their sukkot, but not as much, and without some of the rituals.
Simchat Torah means “Rejoicing in the Torah”.
Synagogues read from the Torah – the law of God as revealed to Moses – every week, completing one read-through each year.
They reach the end on Simchat Torah and this holiday marks the completion of the cycle, to begin again the next week with Genesis.
Hanukkah – Festival of Lights
Hanukkah or Chanukah is sometimes known as the Festival of Lights, and celebrates the “miracle of the oil”.
The celebration refers to 164 BC, when a group of Jews called the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem from the occupying Syrian Greeks.
When they came to rededicate the temple, they had only enough sacred oil to light the menorah – a seven-branched candlestick – for one day.
Despite this, the candles remained lit for eight days.
Jews celebrate this by lighting one extra candle on a special nine-branched menorah, called a chanukkiya, each night of the eight-day festival.
They say prayers and eat fried foods to remind them of the oil.
Some gifts are exchanged, including chocolate money and special spinning tops called dreidels.
Known as the Jewish Mardi-Gras, Purim is celebrated all over the world with an all-day party.
The holiday celebrates the saving of the Jews from ancient royal adviser Haman, who planned to massacre the Jewish people in the Achaemenid Empire in the Middle East.
His plans were foiled by Mordecai and his cousin and adopted daughter Esther, who had risen to become Queen of Persia.
According to the book of Esther in the Jewish bible the Torah, the day of deliverance should be celebrated as a day of feasting.
Purim is normally celebrated with an exchange of gifts between friends and families, and by giving donations to the poor.
People gather for a huge feast known as a Seudat Purim and there are public readings of the Scroll of Esther.
Pesach – Passover
The festival celebrates God liberating Jewish people from slavery in ancient Egypt and their freedom as a nation under Moses.
In the Book of Exodus, the Bible tells that God helped the Children of Israel to escape from slavery by inflicting ten plagues upon the ancient Egyptians before the Pharaoh would release his Israelite slaves.
The tenth and worst of the plagues was the death of the Egyptian first-born.
The Israelites were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb.
This was so that the spirit of the Lord knew to pass over the first-born in these homes, hence the English name of the holiday.
It is said the Israelites left in such a hurry that they could not wait for bread dough to rise, or leaven.
To remember this, no leavened bread is eaten for the duration of Passover, leading to the celebration being described as the feast of unleavened bread in the Torah or Old Testament
Flat unleavened bread (matzo) is therefore traditionally eaten during the holiday.
LATEST ON HOLIDAYS AND RELIGIOUS FESTIVALS
Hebrew holidays – dates for April 2019-2020
All festivals begin at sunset the night before the listed date
- Purim: March 20-21, 2019
- Pesach or Passover: April 19-27, 2019
- Pesach Sheni: May 18-19, 2019
- Lag BaOmer: May 22-23, 2019
- Shavuot: June 8-10, 2019
- Tish’a B’Av: August 10-11, 2019
- Tu B’Av: August 15-16, 2019
- Leil Selichot: September 21, 2019
- Rosh Hashanah: September 29-October 1, 2019
- Yom Kippur: October 8-9, 2019
- Sukkot: October 13-20, 2019
- Shemini Atzeret: October 20-22, 2019
- Simchat Torah: October 21-22, 2019
- Chanukah: December 22-30, 2019
- Tu BiShvat, New Year for Trees – February 2-10, 2020
- Purim: March 9-10, 2019
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