The Jewish Calendar
The Jewish year follows a pattern of festivals and observances, some ancient and some instituted in more recent times, each with its own story and meaning, some serious and sombre, some joyful.
This section gives some details as to some of the main Jewish religious observances throughout the year.
Traditionally, every Friday sunset to Saturday when it is fully dark, around 25 hours later, Jews come together to rest, reflect on their week and spend quality time with family and friends for Shabbat.
Marking and celebrating Shabbat (the sabbath day) is one of the 10 commandments and commemorates the story from Genesis of G-d creating the world in 6 ‘days’ and resting on the 7th ‘day’. Candles are lit at the start and end of the day, the ‘kiddush’ blessing is said over wine to remember the story of creation and special foods such as hallah bread are eaten to make the day special. Orthodox Judaism has strict rules where 39 categories of creative work should not be done on Shabbat. Other groups within Judaism have a looser or self- defined definition of what would be considered ‘work’ that should be avoided on the day.
Rosh Hashanah, or ‘Head of the Year’ in Hebrew, is the Jewish New Year. It falls in September or October. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the High Holy Days, a ten-day period of introspection and repentance that culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
During Rosh Hashanah most Jews attend synagogue services even if they are not regular attendees during the year. Some Jews participate in a ritual called Tashlich, which means ‘casting off’ in Hebrew. This involves going to a body of water, such as a river or lake, and symbolically casting off their sins and regrets by throwing breadcrumbs or small stones into the water.
Rosh Hashanah is a time for families and friends to come together and share festive meals. Symbolic foods are eaten, such as round hallah bread, apples dipped in honey, pomegranates etc, to symbolize a sweet and fruitful year ahead.
The shofar is blown during Rosh Hashanah services, as well as at other times throughout the high holy days. The sound of the shofar is meant to awaken the soul and inspire individuals to reflect on their actions. Rosh Hashanah is a time of renewal, new beginnings, and spiritual reflection. It is a time for Jews to reaffirm their commitment to living a meaningful and ethical life.
Yom Kippur, or the ‘Day of Atonement’ in Hebrew, is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. It falls in September or October. Yom Kippur is a solemn and introspective day of fasting, prayer, and repentance.
Jews who are physically able to do so observe a complete fast from sunset until it is dark the following day. Yom Kippur is marked by a series of prayers and readings in synagogue services. The first prayer of Yom Kippur is Kol Nidre, which is recited at the beginning of the evening service, annulling all promises made that were not kept that year.
The Neilah service is the concluding service of Yom Kippur. It is a powerful and intense service that takes place just before sunset. The Ark (where the Torah scrolls are kept) remains open throughout the service, symbolizing the gates of heaven being open as the day comes to a close.
Yom Kippur is a day of deep reflection, repentance, and seeking forgiveness for mistakes from the past year. It is a time for Jews to reconcile with themselves, with others, and with G-d, as they strive to start the new year with a clean slate and a renewed commitment to living a good life.
Sukkot commemorates the Israelites’ 40- year journey through the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. It is a week-long holiday that falls in September or October.
During Sukkot, Jews build temporary outdoor structures called sukkahs (‘huts’ or ‘booths’). These are typically made of wood or other materials and have a roof made of branches or foliage, through which one can see the stars. The sukkah represents the temporary dwellings the Israelites lived in during their journey in the desert. Many Jewish families eat their meals and spend time in the sukkah throughout the holiday. Some even sleep in the sukkah. The flimsiness of a sukkah is to remind Jews that it is God which is ultimately protecting them, not bricks and mortar.
Sukkot is also a harvest festival, and it is customary to decorate the sukkah with fruits, vegetables, and other agricultural products. 4 species of plants are prominent during Sukkot: a citron fruit, branches from a palm, myrtle and willow tree. These are held together and waved during specific prayers. The citron represents the heart and unity of the Jewish people; the palm represents the spine and strength; the myrtle represents the eyes, beauty and clarity and the willow represents the lips, prayer and speech.
Sukkot is a joyous holiday emphasising gratitude, unity, and the temporary nature of material possessions. It is a time for Jews to come together, celebrate, be hospitable to guests and reflect on their connection to their ancestors and the natural world.
Pesach, or ‘Passover’, commemorates the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in ancient Egypt, as described in the biblical book of Exodus. During Pesach, Jews observe various rituals and traditions. The holiday lasts for seven or eight days, depending on the Jewish tradition and location.
The ‘Seder’ is a special meal held on the first or first two nights of Pesach. It involves retelling the story of the Exodus, following a specific order. The Seder plate contains symbolic foods, such as matzah (unleavened bread), bitter herbs, and a roasted lamb shank bone. ‘Seder’ means ‘order’, referring to the specific steps taken at this meal. Throughout the holiday, Jews eat matzah, which is unleavened bread. It symbolizes the haste in which the Hebrews left Egypt, as they did not have time to let their bread rise.
Before Pesach begins, Jews engage in a thorough cleaning of their homes to remove all hametz (leavened products). During Pesach, Jews abstain from eating hametz and instead consume only unleavened products. This includes avoiding bread, pasta, and other leavened foods. Instead, they eat matzah and specific Passover-friendly foods. This is not only as a reminder of the hurried Exodus, but also a spiritual reminder of the nations’ lowly beginnings as slaves – hametz represents haughtiness as it is ‘puffed up’. Matza represents the basics of life and humility.
Pesach is a time of remembrance, gratitude, and celebration for the Jewish people, symbolizing their freedom from slavery and the beginning of their journey as a nation.
Shavuot, also known as the Festival of Weeks, is a Jewish holiday that occurs seven weeks (50 days) after Passover. It is a significant holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Shavuot has both historical and agricultural significance. Historically, according to Orthodox tradition, it marks the day when the Hebrews received the Ten Commandments and the Torah from G-d. Agriculturally, it celebrates the wheat harvest in ancient Israel.
Many Jews participate in a tradition called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which involves staying awake all night studying Torah and other Jewish texts. This practice is believed to demonstrate eagerness and readiness to receive the Torah. In synagogue services on the first day of Shavuot, the Ten Commandments are read from the Torah. This re-enacts the moment when the Hebrews received the commandments at Mount Sinai. It is customary to eat dairy foods during Shavuot. This tradition has various explanations, including the idea that the Hebrews did not have kosher (‘fit’) meat available immediately after receiving the dietary laws of the Torah. Therefore, they ate dairy until they could prepare kosher meat. Many synagogues and homes are decorated with flowers and greenery to symbolize the beauty and bounty of the harvest season.
Shavuot is a time for Jews to celebrate the importance of the Torah in their lives and to renew their commitment to its teachings. It is a holiday of learning, gratitude, and spiritual reflection.
Rites of Passage
Rites of passage occur throughout the year in a Jewish community, from welcoming a baby, celebrating a marriage or mourning a death. There are many different laws and traditions surrounding all of these. Here are some:
Brit Milah, Bar and Bat Mitzvah
In Genesis we read, “And G-d said to them, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1). This supports the idea that having children is encouraged and celebrated at their birth and as they grow into adults.
Brit Milah is the Jewish celebration for welcoming and naming baby boys. The phrase means ‘covenant of circumcision’ in English. It takes place when a baby boy is 8 days old (as long as they are well). Brit Milah is mentioned in the Torah: “the promise between G-d and Abraham.” (Genesis 17:11-12).
Simhat Bat is the Jewish celebration for welcoming and naming baby girls, meaning ‘joy of a daughter’. There are various customs for the celebration. Some girls are named when their parent is called up to say a blessing over the Torah in the synagogue.
Boys celebrate their Bar Mitzvah at the age of 13. To demonstrate that he accepts religious responsibility, the boy is invited to read from the Torah. The Hebrew phrase means ‘son of the commandments’. Girls celebrate their Bat Mitzvah age 12 or 13, and become a ‘daughter of the commandments’. They may be invited to give a talk in synagogue, which is usually on a topic relating to the weekly portion of the Torah. In some synagogues, the Bat Mitzvah girl is invited to read from the Torah. Some Jews do fundraising or volunteering for a charity to mark their Bar / Bat mitzvah. There is often a party or meal to celebrate these milestones. From this age, girls and boys are responsible for their religious decisions, including doing ‘mitzvot’ (commandments).