Notable days of the Jewish Calendar
The four major Jewish Holidays, or the Big Four, are Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Chanukah and Passover. Purim is usually celebrated when there are young children in the family. But the Big Four are just the beginning—Jewish celebrations are abundant throughout the calendar year.
Jews have holidays celebrating the harvest, and one marking giving of the Ten Commandments. There are modern-day holidays commemorating the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel and even a day given over to romance. Think Saint Valentine’s Day minus the Saint. (Purim is pretty cool for grown-ups too, what with all the costumes and revelry. And food, can’t forget the food.)
I’ve organized a calendar of Jewish celebrations and holidays for you below by season and have included brief definitions.
Rosh HaShana — the Jewish New Year.
Yom Kippur — the Day of Attonement. Next to the Sabbath, it is considered to be the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur is given over to prayer and self-reflection. Jews who have reached the age of religious maturity (13 for boys, 12 for girls), and whose health would not be compromised, are expected to fast from sunset to sunset.
Together, Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are often referred to as Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. Indeed, the 10 days that begin with Rosh HaShanah and conclude with Yom Kippur are filled not only with prayer but with soul searching, pleas for forgiveness and a commitment to spiritual and moral renewal.
Sukkot — Fesitval of Booths, celebrates the gathering of the fall harvest. Sukkot occurs four days after Yom Kippur. A sukkah (plural sukkot), is a temporary shelter reminiscent of those built by the Children of Israel during the fall harvests of long ago. Sukkot initiates eight days of festivities that culminate in the holiday of Simchat Torah.
Simchat Torah — celebrates the ending of the cycle of reading the Torah and beginning anew. Simchat Torah is the climax of nearly a month of fall holidays.
Chanukah — not a “Jewish Christmas,” either in importance or history! Commemorates the battles in Ancient Greece fought by Jews determined to maintain Jewish life and customs. Also known as the Festival of Lights. This reference recalls the rededication of the Holy Temple and the miracle that a day’s worth of oil used to light the eternal light in the Holy Temple, lasted for eight days, the time needed to press additional oil for the lamp.
Purim — a day celebrating Jewish survival in the face of near destruction. The Jewish community of Ancient Persia was threatened by annihilation by King Ahasuerus’ adviser, Haman. Esther, the young Jewish woman who became Ahasuerus’ queen, stepped forward to denounce Haman and his plot and thus, saved her people.
Tu B’Shevat — known as the New Year of the Trees, this holiday marks the beginning of the planting season in Israel.
Passover — commemorates the Israelites’ Exodus from Egpyt. Outside of the High Holidays, Passover is likely the most widely observed holiday of the Jewish calendar. Celebrated for eight days (seven in Israel and by Reform Jews), Passover begins with a ritual meal called a Seder, an hours-long celebration filled with food, discussion and singing that enables Jews to fulfill the commandment to retell the story of our going out from Egypt.
Shavuot — holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Shavuot, literally “Festival of Weeks,” is so named because it occurs seven weeks and one day after the beginning of Passover. Shavout is also called Chag Habikurim, Festival of the First Fruits, and Chag HaKatzir, Harvest Festival. These names reflect the holiday’s origin as the time marking the end of the spring wheat harvest.
Yom HaShoah — Holocaust Remembrance Day. There are no prescribed rituals for Yom HaShoah, although each year more and more communities hold memorial services and invite survivors to speak of their experiences.
Yom HaZikaron — the equivalent of Israel’s Memorial Day.
Yom Ha’Atzmaut — Israeli Independence Day, commemorating the creation of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. In Israel, Yom HaAtzma’ut is celebrated with exuberant parties, often military parades. In the United States, some communities sponsor solidarity marches and daylong events centered around Israeli culture.
Lag B’Omer — minor holiday marking the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the 2nd century CE. A teacher of Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah), he is credited with writing the Zohar.
Tisha B’Av — literally the ninth of Av, a day of mourning recalling the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem. The last holiday of the Jewish calendar, Tishah B’Av, falls in late summer and is the most somber day in Jewish history. It is a day of fasting and other restrictions meant to drive home the point that all of Israel is in mourning on this day.
Tu B’Av — in the time of the Temple in Jerusalem this was a joyous holiday marking the beginning for the grape harvest. Dressed in white garments, unmarried girls would go out and dance in the vineyards. Today akin to Valentine’s Day, it is growing in popularity as a day for weddings and other romantic ventures.
Personal Stories of Jewish Celebrations, Culture & Life
These Jewish celebrations and holidays are brought to life in the personal stories and accounts in my book, This Jewish Life. The book is made up of 54 stories of birth, holidays, life cycle events and more. My book is one calendar year of Jewish life as told by a diversity of voices.
If you are interested in more information on Jewish life, continue to browse these pages or check out my book, This Jewish Life.
- Return to category page: Resources: About Jewish Life
- Related Story: Beginning the New Year at Sea — The story of a young Jewish student who celebrates Rosh Hashana away from home for the first time.
- Related Story: It is a Tree of Life — A powerful account of the tradition of walking Torah scrolls through the synagogue during the holiday of Simchat Torah.
- Related Story: Making the World Safe for Pastry — One woman discusses issues of her personal Jewish identity and Purim’s role as a part of that identity.
- Related Story: Out of Bondage — The story of a Jewish family recently freed from the bondage of the Soviet Union and their first Passover Seder in the US.
- Check out my book: This Jewish Life, Stories of Discovery, Connection & Joy