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Jewish Holidays

The vivacity and richness of a religion is best exhibited by the variety and splendor of its holidays. And in this respect, Judaism ranks right up there with its long list of eagerly awaited and enthusiastically celebrated festivals. In Hebrew, Jewish holidays and festivals, depending on their nature, may be called yom tov ("good day") or chag ("festival") or ta'anit ("fast"). The origins of various Jewish holidays generally can be found in Biblical mitzvoth (commandments), rabbinical mandate, and modern Israeli history.

 

While the exhaustive list of Jewish holidays is quite long, we present here a smaller list of the more popular ones, in chronological order of appearance in the modern English calendar.  

Tu B'Shevat

 

Tu B'Shevat, the 15th of Shevat on the Jewish calendar, is the day that marks the beginning of a "New Year for Trees." Customs include planting trees and eating dried fruits and nuts, especially figs, dates, raisins, carob, and almonds. In Israel, the flowering of the almond tree, which grows wild around the country, coincides with Tu B'Shevat.  

The name “Tu B'Shevat” is derived from the Hebrew date of the holiday, which occurs on the 15th day of Shevat. "Tu" stands for the Hebrew numerals "tet vav" which is 15.  

In keeping with the idea of Tu B'Shevat marking the revival of nature, symbolized by the budding of the almond tree, many of Israel's major institutions have chosen this day for their inauguration. The cornerstone laying of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem took place on Tu B'Shevat 1918; the Technion in Haifa, on Tu B'Shevat 1925; and the Knesset, on Tu B'Shevat 1949.

 

Ta'anit Esther and Purim

 

These commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people of the ancient Persian Empire from Haman's plot to annihilate them, as recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther.

 

According to the Book of Esther, Haman, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus planned to kill the Jews in the empire, but his plans were foiled by Queen Esther, herself a Jew. Mordecai, a palace official, cousin and foster parent of Esther, subsequently replaced Haman. The Jews were delivered from being the victims of an evil decree against them and were instead allowed by the King to destroy their enemies, and the day after the battle was designated as a day of feasting and rejoicing.  

Customs include listening to the public reading, usually in synagogue, of the Book of Esther in the evening and again in the following morning, sending food gifts to friends, giving charity to the poor and eating a festive meal.  

During the days before Purim, children are often entertained with Purim puppet shows similar to a Punch and Judy performance where puppeteers using small puppets dressed up as Mordecai, Esther, Ahasuerus, Vashti, Haman and more present the entire Purim story. During the celebration children are also entertained with games, rides and fun of a Purim Carnival.

 

Passover

 

Passover commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt and begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan (equivalent to March and April in Gregorian calendar), the first month of the Hebrew calendar's festival year according to the Hebrew Bible.  

In the story of the Exodus, the Bible tells that God inflicted ten plagues upon the Egyptians before Pharaoh would release his Hebrew slaves, with the tenth plague being the killing of firstborn sons. The Hebrews were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a spring lamb and, upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord passed over these homes, hence the term "passover".  

When finally the Pharaoh acquiesced to Moses’ demands to set the Jews free, it is said that they left in such a hurry that they could not wait for bread to rise. In commemoration, for the duration of Passover, no leavened bread is eaten, for which reason it is called "The Festival of the Unleavened Bread".  

However, the Pharaoh soon changed his mind and sent his army after the Jews. Moses, on God’s instructions, parted the Red Sea to allow the fleeing Jews to proceed. The Egyptian army, pursuing close behind, drowned as the waters fell back after the last Jew had passed through.

 

Passover is divided into two parts. The first two days and last two days (that commemorate the splitting of the Red Sea) are full-fledged holidays. Holiday candles are lit at night, and Kiddush and sumptuous holiday meals are enjoyed on both nights and days. Many Jews refrain from working, driving and using electric appliances. The middle four days are called Chol Hamoed, semi-festive "intermediate days," when most forms of work are permitted.

     

Rosh Hashanah

 

Rosh Hashanah -the name means "Head of the Year"- is the Jewish New Year and Day of Judgment, in which God judges each person individually according to their deeds, and makes a decree for the following year. It is observed for two days beginning on Tishrei 1, the first day of the Jewish year.  

The central observance of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram's horn, which represents the trumpet blast of a people's coronation of their king. The cry of the shofar is also a call to repentance; for Rosh Hashanah is also the anniversary of man's first sin and his repentance thereof, and serves as the first of the "Ten Days of Repentance" which culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  

The traditional greeting on Rosh Hashanah is "shana tova", for "a good year," or "shana tova umetukah" for "a good and sweet year." Rosh Hashanah meals often include apples and honey, to symbolize a sweet new year. Some of the symbolic foods eaten are dates, black-eyed beans, leek, spinach and gourd, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud.  

Yom Kippur

 

Yom Kippur, also known in English as the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn and important of the Jewish holidays. Its central themes are atonement and repentance. It is the tenth and final day of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashanah.

 

According to Jewish tradition, God, or "YHVH" ("The One Who Was, Is and Shall Be"), inscribes each person's fate for the coming year into a "book" on Rosh Hashanah and waits until Yom Kippur to "seal" the verdict. During the Ten Days of Repentance, a Jew tries to amend his behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God (bein adam leMakom) and against his fellow man (bein adam lechavero). The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt. At the end of Yom Kippur, one considers one's self absolved by God.

 

For twenty-six hours - from several minutes before sunset on Tishrei 9 to after nightfall on Tishrei 10 - Jews "afflict their souls": abstain from food and drink, do not wash or anoint their bodies, do not wear leather footwear, and abstain from marital relations.  

In the course of Yom Kippur five prayer services are held: Maariv, on the eve of Yom Kippur; Shacharit - the morning prayer; Musaf, which includes a detailed account of the Yom Kippur Temple service; Minchah, which includes the reading of the Book of Jonah; and Ne'illah, the "closing of the gates" service at sunset. The prayer services also include a public confession of sins (Vidui) and a reenactment of the special Yom Kippur avodah (service) in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  

Hanukkah

 

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BCE. Hanukkah is observed for eight nights, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, and may occur from late November to late December on the Gregorian calendar.

 

The name is derived from the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration", marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of Antiochus IV and commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil".

 

According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.

 

The festival is celebrated by a series of rituals that are performed every day throughout the 8-day holiday. Some are family-based and others are communal. The primary ritual, according to Jewish law and custom, is to light a single light each night for eight nights. As a universally practiced "beautification" of the mitzvah, the number of lights lit is increased by one each night

 

There are special additions to the daily prayer service, and a section is added to the blessing after meals. Hanukkah is not a "Sabbath-like" holiday, and there is no obligation to refrain from activities that are forbidden on the Sabbath.

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