Jewish Holidays and Festivals

In Judaism, life is marked by numerous special days in which adherents take time out of their everyday lives to stop work and focus on God and his mitzvot (commandments), including Sabbath services and holidays.

The history of Judaism is full of incredible stories, which, according to the Bible, are important for Jews of all generations to remember. Because the purpose of most of the holidays and festivals in Judaism is to recall God's work in history, they are one of the most important aspects of the Jewish faith.

Observing holidays and festivals also has important social outcomes. They help to keep tradition alive, contribute to a sense of community and belonging, and ensure regular reflection and celebration.

The most important Jewish holy days are the Sabbath, the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot) and the two High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). For observant Jews, it is forbidden to work on any of these days.

Yom Kippur

In Judaism, Yom Kippur, celebrated on the 10th day of Tishri, is the most important and solemn of Jewish holidays. Yom Kippur is the occasion on which otherwise non-observant Jews are most likely to attend synagogue, refrain from work, or fast. 

And HaShem spoke unto Moses, saying: "Howbeit on the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; there shall be a holy convocation unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto HaShem. And ye shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before HaShem your G-d."

Yom Kippur

In the Bible, Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shabbaton, "Sabbath of Sabbaths," for it is on Yom Kippur that the abstention from work and solemnity that characterize the Sabbath are most complete.

In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, the high priest conducted an elaborate sacrificial ceremony on Yom Kippur. Clothed in white linen, he successively confessed his own sins, the sins of priest, and the sins of the people, then entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple - the only day this was allowed - to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice and offer incense.

The priest then sent a goat (the "scapegoat") into the wilderness, where it was driven to its death, to symbolically carry away the sins of Israel. 

Observances of Yom Kippur

On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidre is recited. This prayer is well known for its beautiful melody, but its meaning has sometimes been misunderstood. The Kol Nidre ("all vows") annuls all vows made throughout the year, and Anti-Semites have used the prayer as evidence that Jews are untrustworthy. But the Kol Nidre actually refers only to vows made between oneself and God, and especially frivolous vows made to God when pleading for help or religious vows made under duress (such as professed conversion to Christianity during the Inquisition). 

The recitation of the Kol Nidre does not change the fact that obligations towards other people must be upheld. In fact, the eve of Yom Kippur is considered one of the best times to seek and grant forgiveness. God will forgive sins committed against himself, but if one has wronged another person, he must seek forgiveness from that person and try to make it right. The Mishna teaches, "Yom Kippur does not atone until one appeases his neighbors." 

On Yom Kippur, Jews must abstain from all work, food, drink (including water) and sex. Orthodox Jews also follow the Talmudic regulations of not wearing leather shoes, not washing, and not "anointing oneself" (i.e., wearing deodorant, lotions, perfumes, etc.).

The majority of Yom Kippur is spent in the synagogue, where special services are conducted from morning to evening. Especially in Orthodox synagogues, it is customary to wear white on Yom Kippur to symbolize purity before God and the forgiveness of sins. Some wear the kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried.

One special feature of the Yom Kippur synagogue service is the insertion of the confession of sins of the community into the regular Amida blessing. All are recited in the first person plural (e.g., "we have been aggressive, we have been slanderous") to emphasize communal responsibility for sins. 

The concluding service is unique to Yom Kippur. Called Ne'ilah, it usually lasts an hour and the ark (where Torah scrolls are kept) remains open throughout the service. Everyone therefore must stand the entire time. The service is the last chance to get in a "good word" before God's judgments are sealed. At nightfall, the Yom Kippur service concludes with one last long blast on the shofar

Happiest Time of the year

In view of its fasting, penitence, and "affliction of the soul," it would be natural to think of Yom Kippur as a day of sadness. But the Talmud says of it:

There were no days as happy for the Jewish people as the 15th of Av [when marriages were arranged] and Yom Kippur.  This holiday is happy because it brings about reconciliation with God and other people. Thus, if they have observed it properly, many people feel a deep sense of serenity by the end of the fast. 

Sukkot

In Judaism, Sukkot is known by several names: the "Festival of Booths." the "Festival of the Ingathering," the "Festival," and the "Season of Rejoicing." The Hebrew pronunciation of Sukkot is "sue-COAT" but it is more commonly pronounced in the Yiddish way: "SOOK-ut."

Sukkot is a harvest holiday, comparable in some ways to the American Thanksgiving. It also one of the "Pilgrim Festivals" (the others are Pesach and Shavuot) on which Jews used to make pilgrimages to the Temple with offerings for God from the harvest.

At nine days (eight days for Jews in Israel and Reform Diaspora Jews), Sukkot is the longest Jewish holiday. Judging by its length, its extensive treatment in the Tanakh and the fact that it is sometimes called "The Festival," Sukkot may at one time have been the most important holiday in Judaism.

The Festival Booth

"On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is the Festival of Sukkot. ... You will dwell in booths for seven days; all natives of Israel shall dwell in booths." - The festival of Sukkot begins on 15 Tishri, the fifth day of Yom Kippur. Sukkot is thus a transition from the solemnity of the most important high holy day to the joy of a historical festival. Work is forbidden on the first and second days of the festival only.

The primary observance associated with Sukkot is the building and dwelling in a temporary shelter, or "booth" (Hebrew sukka). This practice is instituted in Leviticus 23 as a way of remembering the time the Hebrew people spent wandering in the wilderness. Many modern Jews set up these makeshift shelters in their yards and invite friends over to join them.

Another Sukkot observance is the collection of the four species, which is based on the command of :"On the first day, you will take for yourselves a fruit of a beautiful tree, palm branches, twigs of a braided tree and brook willows, and you will rejoice before the L-RD your G-d for seven days."

Today, the command of the four species is observed by first collecting and binding together six branches: one palm branch (Hebrew lulav), two willow branches and three myrtle branches (hadassim). This bundle, called the lulav because the palm branch is the most prominent part, is held in one hand and an etrog (a citrus fruit similar to a lemon, native to Israel) is held in the other hand. The four species are then waved in the six directions (east, south, west, north, up and down) to symbolize that God is everywhere while blessings are recited. On the seventh day of the festival, the plants are taken around the synagogue seven times.

Hanukkah

Hanukkah is one of the few holidays that is not instituted in the Torah. It commemorates a post-biblical event: the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian-Greek rulers of Jerusalem and the subsequent rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE.

It also celebrates a miracle that accompanied this event: When the temple was rededicated, God miraculously made the one day's worth of oil burn brightly for eight days.

Hanukkah may be the Jewish holiday with which non-Jews are most familiar, due to its proximity to Christmas. It is not, however, the "Jewish Christmas" - it historically predates Christmas and is a very different celebration.

Hanukkah: history, dates, and observance

By the time of the Talmud (c. 500 CE), the political situation had changed and the tale of the Maccabees was no longer as popular. It seems the victorious Maccabees had become almost as oppressive as the previous regime and, even worse, their descendents allied themselves with the Romans.

So in their discussion of Hanukkah the rabbis focused more on the legend of the miraculous oil than on the victory of the Maccabees.

For most of its history, Hanukkah has been a rather minor when compared to other Jewish holidays, but in the late 19th century it began to gain popularity and today it is one of the most celebrated Jewish holidays (along with Passover, according to one source.

This change seems to be due in part to the increasing popularity of Christmas gift-giving in the late 19th century, and the corresponding wish to offer an alternative, especially for children, that maintains Jewish identity and avoids assimilation.

In addition, the Zionist movement, which arose in the late 19th century, found inspiration in the story of the Maccabees.

Hanukkah Observance

Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev (mid- to late-December). "Feast of Lights" (along with "Feast of Dedication" and "Feast of the Maccabees").

The only essential ritual of Hanukkah is the lighting of candles. The Hanukkah candles are held in a chanukkiah, a candelabra that holds nine candles. (The chanukkiah is different from a menorah, which is a candelabra that holds seven candles and is pictured on the official emblem of the State of Israel.) The candle (shammash) in the middle of the chanukkiah is used to light the others.

One candle is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, two are lit on the second, and so on, until all eight are lit on the eighth night. The candles are added from the right, but lit beginning with the first one on the left (representing the current night). During or after the lighting of the candles, these blessings are recited:

Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Universal Presence, Who sanctifies us with the mitzvot and gives us this path of kindling the light of Hanukkah. Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Universal Presence, Who worked miracles for our ancestors in ancient days at this time. On the first night of Hanukkah, a special blessing is added:

Blessed are You, Eternal One our God, Universal Presence, Who keeps us in Life always, Who supports the unfolding of our uniqueness, and Who brings us to this very moment for blessing. Once they are lit, the candles may not be used for any other purpose, such as lighting other candles or reading by, and they must burn for at least a half an hour. The chanukkiah should be placed in a window to proclaim the miracle it represents (except in times of persecution, when to do so could endanger the family's lives).

Food

In addition to the lighting of the candles, many other Hanukkah traditions have developed over the years. One favorite is eating fried foods in recognition of the miraculous oil. A customary Hanukkah treat that developed in Eastern Europe is the latke, a potato pancake fried in oil and served with applesauce or sour cream. Jews in Israel enjoy a sufganiot, a kind of jelly donut.

Games

Another popular Hanukkah tradition is the game of "spin the dreidel." A dreidel is a four-sided spinning top with the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hay, and shin drawn on each side. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, "A great miracle happened there," and they also stand for Yiddish words that represent the rules of the game: nit(nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put).

Each player begins with an equal amount of nuts, pennies, M&Ms, or other small pieces, then the players take turns spinning the dreidel. Before each spin, each person puts one piece into the pot. If the spin lands on nun, nothing happens. If it lands on gimel (one Jewish author knows this as "gimme!"), the player collects all the pieces and everyone antes up again. A result of hay means the player takes half the pieces in the pot, and shin requires the player to put one more piece in the pot.

The origin of the dreidel game is not clear. One theory is that it was used as as protection in times of persecution: to avoid being caught studying the Torah, Jews would quickly pull out the dreidels and pretend they were gambling.

 

Gift

A more recent tradition associated with Hanukkah is gift-giving, which by all accounts derives directly from Hanukkah's proximity to Christmas. Many Jewish families have adopted the tradition of giving small gifts to their children to alleviate jealousy of non-Jewish friends who celebrate Christmas. Gifts are not exchanged with anyone else, however, and Hanukkah gifts generally tend to be smaller than their Christmas counterparts.

Tu B'shevat

In Judaism, New Year for Trees, also known as, Tu B'Shevat is a holiday on the 15th of the Jewish month of Shevat, and its name simply means "15 Shevat" in Hebrew.

Tu B'Shevat might be compared to the beginning of the fiscal year in the modern world. The 15th of Shevat is a fixed date for counting the age of trees, in order to follow the biblical law quoted above.

If a tree is planted on 12 Shevat, it will be considered one year old just three days later, on Tu B'Shevat. But if a tree is planted on 16 Shevat, it won't be a year old until a full year later on the next Tu B'Shevat. This is obviously not as exact, but easier than keeping track of the exact day each fruit tree was planted.

"When you come to the land and you plant any tree, you shall treat its fruit as forbidden; for three years it will be forbidden and not eaten. In the fourth year, all of its fruit shall be sanctified to praise the Lord. In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit." -- Leviticus 19:23-25 The date of 15 Shevat does not come from the Torah, but was developed by Jewish rabbis some time before the 1st century BC as a practical way of following the Torah's law concerning tree fruit. Tu B'Shevat is not a religious holiday and is relatively minor.

Over the years some rituals have developed for celebrating Tu B'Shevat. The main observance is to eat plenty of fruit on this day, especially the kinds that grow in Israel. Some of these are praised in another verse in the Torah:

In recent years, Tu B'Shevat has become a day especially associated with Jewish environmentalism. Common practices on Tu B'Shevat thus include planting new trees and raising money for trees to be planted in Israel.

In the Middle Ages, Jewish mystics developed a Tu B'Shevat Seder (a meal like that held on Passover) symbolizing the connection to the land of Israel and God's relationship to the world using the imagery of a cosmic tree. The Seder involves drinking wine and eating fruit interspersed with readings and blessings related to the earth, such as "Praised are You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign over all, that creates the fruit of the tree." This ritual is still practiced today by some.

Purim

In Judaism, Purim is a joyful spring holiday that features a festive meal, gift-giving, costumes, noisemakers in the synagogue, and required drunkenness. Purim is thus sometimes nicknamed "the Jewish Mardi Gras" or "the Jewish Halloween."

Purim is such a joyous holiday that the rabbis teach it will still be observed in the age of the messiah, when most other holidays will be abolished.

Purim is not one of the holidays commanded in the Torah, but it is rooted in the biblical book of Esther and its requirements are outlined in the Talmud. Purim has been celebrated since at least the second century CE, and probably long before.

The word "Purim" means "lots," and refers to Haman's casting of lots in the story of Esther (see below). Purim is also known as "The Feast of Lots."

 

Dates of Purim

Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar (mid-March). In leap years, when there are two months of Adar, Purim is celebrated during Adar 2. Like all Jewish holidays, Purim begins at sunset the night before the date of the holiday.

In Jerusalem, Purim is celebrated on 15 Adar, a day later than everywhere else. The separate date, known as Shushan Purim, which says the "walled cities" did not achieve victory until that day. Rabbis interpret this as the cities that were walled at the time of Joshua, and one city that definitely fits that description is Jerusalem (Shushan Purim is also celebrated in Hebron and the Old City of Safed).

Jews living in Israel can extend the Purim festival by celebrating outside the city on 14 Adar, then returning home for the Shushan Purim on the 15th.

The Story of Esther

The event commemorated by Purim is one of victory over oppressors of the Jewish people. The heroine is Esther, a beautiful Jewish woman who married the king of Persia, King Ahasuerus, after winning a beauty contest. The king loved Esther more than any of his other women and made her his Queen. He was not aware that Esther was a Jew, for her guardian Mordecai, a great Jewish leader, had advised her to not to reveal her true identity.

Haman, the villain of the story, was the king's prime minister. He hated the Jews (especially Mordecai, because he would not bow down before him) and tried to convince King Ahasuerus that it would be in the best interest of his kingdom if the Jews were eliminated. In his speech he argued:

"There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from those of every other people's, and they do not observe the king's laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them." {6} The king gave Haman permission to deal with the Jews as he saw fit, so Haman made plans to massacre the Persian Jews. He cast lots to determine the day, which was to be 13 Adar.

Mordecai convinced Esther to speak to the king on the behalf of her people, which would require her to appear before him unsummoned - a crime punishable by death. She fasted for three days to prepare for the meeting. King Ahasuerus welcomed her, listened to her story, and was outraged by what he heard. He had Haman hanged on the gallows that had been intended for Mordecai, and appointed Mordecai as prime minister in Haman's place.

The story does not quite end there, for the king had officially decreed the massacre, and it could not be stopped. But he allowed the Jews to fight to defend themselves. They fought on the 13th of Adar and celebrated their victory on the 14th day. Those in walled cities were victorious a day later, on 15 Adar.

 Observance on Purim

The ritual observance of Purim begins with Ta'anit Esther (The Fast of Esther). This minor fast day is held on one of the days preceding Purim, usually 13 Adar. (If the 13th falls on a Friday or Saturday, it is held on the preceding Thursday, in honor of the Sabbath.) It actually commemorates the fasting of the Jewish warriors before their battle on 13 Adar, but it is named for Esther, who also fasted before her important task. 

On Purim, all Jews are required to fulfill the four Purim mitzvot:

  • Two readings of the Megillah (Scroll of Esther) (Mikrah Megillah)

  • Festive meal (Seudah Purim)

  • Gifts of food to friends (Mishloach Manot)

  • Charity to the poor (Matanot l'Evyonim)

The first reading of the Megillah must occur sometime between sunset the night before Purim and sunrise on Purim; it usually takes place just after sunset. The second reading must occur between sunrise and sunset on Purim. It is ideal to hear the Megillah in the synagogue with many people, but the most important thing is that the reading is heard clearly. When Haman's name is read, it is customary for the congregation to yell and make noise so that it cannot be heard. This symbolically blots out the memory of his name from the earth.

"The Purim feast is unlike any other in the Jewish year. In addition to good food and lots of alcohol, the meal is characterized by its zany raucous atmosphere -- trombones blare, silly string flies, and grown men dance together for hours on end. "

 

One of the most well-known (and beloved) aspects of the Purim festive meal is that each (adult) participant is obliged to become so drunk that he or she cannot distinguish between the phrases, "Cursed be Haman" and "Blessed be Mordecai."

Opinions vary as to exactly how drunk this is, but there is no doubt that the intoxication is intended to be significant. However, one should not become so drunk that he endangers his health or neglects other mitzvot such as ritual washing, praying, or saying the blessing after meals, and it is improper to pray if one is so drunk that he is "unfit to stand before the King." 

A third mitzvah of Purim is to give a gift of two types of food or drink to at least one friend (the Mishloach Manot).

Finally, charity must be given to at least two poor people on Purim, in an amount at least equal to the value of one inexpensive meal. Each Jew's donation need not be given to the poor directly, but it must be distributed on Purim. Most notably, Purim charity must be given without regard to the merit, desert, or even need of the recipient. On all other days, Jews are required to ensure their donations are used properly, but not on Purim. "On this day of unbridled joy, no questions are to be asked." 

 Purim Customs

As with many holidays, non-religious customs for celebrating Purim have developed over the years. One very popular custom is the baking of hamantaschen ("Haman's ears" or "Haman's pockets"), three-cornered pastries with a fruit filling.

It has also become customary to celebrate Purim with plays, satirical skits (Purimshpiels), disguises, and beauty contests to commemorate Esther's story.

Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah means "head of the year" and is commonly known as the Jewish New Year. It is the day on which the year number changes, but unlike secular New Year celebrations, Rosh Hashanah is a solemn and holy time.

It occurs on the first and second days of Tishri, which falls in September or October. 

And HaShem spoke unto Moses, saying: "Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation. Ye shall do no manner of servile work; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto HaShem."

Horns

A distinctive feature of Rosh Hashanah is the shofar blast, which fulfills the biblical command for a "blast of horns" in Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29:1. A total of 100 blasts are sounded from the synagogue on each day of Rosh Hashanah, using four different tones. The shofar is not blown if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Sabbath.The great rabbi Maimonides regarded the shofar blast as

an allusion, as if to say, "Awake, O you sleepers, awake from your sleep! O you slumberers, awake from your slumber! Search your deeds and turn in repentance!"

Work

No work is permitted on Rosh Hashanah, and most of the day is spent in synagogue. There is a special, longer liturgy for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The services on both days center on the theme of God's sovereignty. 

Food

Rosh Hashanah is not a time of fasting. In fact, several special foods are prepared for Rosh Hashanah. The most popular food-related custom is eating apples and bread dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet new year. After the apple is dipped in honey, the following blessing is said over the fruit:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, king of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree. Amen. Then, after taking a bite of the apple, this short prayer is recited:

May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, that you renew for us a good and sweet year. 

On Rosh Hashanah, Challah bread, normally braided, may be baked into round shapes to symbolize the cyclical nature of the year, baked with raisins for a sweet new year, or shaped into a ladder or bird to express the wish that the family's prayers would rise to heaven.

Fish is also traditionally part of the Rosh Hashanah meal, for it is a traditional symbol of fertility and prosperity. It also represents knowledge since its eyes are always open. Traditionally, the head of the fish is placed before the head of the family, who prays, "May it be your will that we be like the head (leaders) and not like the tail (followers)." 

Pomegranate is often part of the holiday meal as well. It is said to have 613 seeds, which is the number of mitzvot (commandments). The pomegranate therefore serves to remind God of the obedience of the family in the prior year. 

Casting off - Tashlikh

In another long-standing tradition, called Tashlikh ("casting off"), worshippers walk to a creek or a river and empty their pockets or cast bread crumbs into it, symbolizing the casting off of their sins of the previous year. This is usually done on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. In many communities, the Tashlikh has become a very social occasion, as numerous people from different neighborhoods descend on the same body of water for the ritual. 

Passover

I'M AN ORIGINAL CATCHPHRASE

Passover

Passover Dates

Passover begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan and ends on the 22nd (21st in Israel and among Reform Jews). It is a joyful time of family togetherness, but also one of prescribed ritual and strict rules. In addition to the special dietary laws described above, work is prohibited on the first two and last two days of Passover (first and last day in Israel and Reform Judaism). The day before Passover is the Fast of the Firstborn, a minor fast undertaken by all firstborn males.

The degree of work that is forbidden on major holidays like Passover is less strict than on the Sabbath. Leviticus 23:3 commands the Jews to "do no manner of work" on the Sabbath, whereas Leviticus 23:7 requires them to "do no manner of servile work" on the festivals. The general interpretation of the latter commandment is that work can be done on the festivals if it contributes to the enjoyment of the festival and could not have been done beforehand. Thus baking bread or grinding fresh coffee, for example, is allowed on holidays but not on the Sabbath.

Passover (also known as Pesach and the Festival of Unleavened Bread) is a spring holiday commemorating the Exodus, one the most important events in the history of Judaism and an important foundation for all Jewish beliefs. Passover remembers the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt in the time of Moses (circa 13th century BCE). Many of its observances are instituted in chapters 12 to 15 of the book of Exodus.

Passover's name comes from the last of the Ten Plagues visited on the Egyptians by Yahweh before the Exodus. All firstborn male children were killed, but those Hebrew households that had slaughtered a lamb and marked their doorposts with its blood were "passed over." It is also an agricultural holiday commemorating the beginning of the harvest season, but this aspect of Passover is not emphasized.

Passover Food

To commemorate the suffering of the Hebrews while in Egypt and their departure in haste at the Exodus (no time for the bread to rise), no leaven may be eaten during Passover. Matzah (or matzo) - unleavened bread - is therefore a central feature of the festival. In addition, all leaven (chametz) must also be completely removed from the house during Passover, a symbolic way of removing the "puffiness" (arrogance, pride) from one's soul.

Chametz includes anything made from the five major grains (wheat, rye, barley, oats and spelt) that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes after coming into contact with water; for Ashkenazic Orthodox Jews, chametz also includes rice, corn, peanuts, and beans (all of which are used to make bread). The morning before Passover, a formal search of the house is undertaken, and any remaining chametz is burned. Because of this observance, Passover is also known as "The Feast of Unleavened Bread."

Passover Seder

The central observance of Passover is a ritual meal shared by Jewish families on the first and second nights (Jews in Israel and Reform Judaism omit the second night), called the seder (Hebrew for "order"). The seder meal consists of recited benedictions and explanations, ritual handwashing, four cups of wine, and symbolic foods including matzah, bitter herbs, and crushed fruits. Eating, drinking, and other rituals occur at specified intervals. The recitations are set out in the Haggadah, a special book that tells the story of the Exodus for the purpose of the Passover celebration.

Prior to eating the Passover meal, the youngest member of the family asks the following four questions:

The prepared answers, supplied in the Haggadah, are recited in unison by all present, ensuring the spiritual meaning of the ritual is preserved for future generations.

Counting the Omer During Passover

On the second night of Passover, the Counting of the Omer begins. It will last for seven weeks (49 days) until the day before Shavuot. The days should be counted during this time, which reminds the Jews that the Exodus (which is commemorated on Passover) was not complete until the giving of the Torah (which is celebrated on Shavuot).

Each night during the Counting of the Omer, Jews recite a blessing and state the number of weeks and days of the Omer. The days are spent in semi-mourning, to commemorate a plague in Jewish history. No weddings, parties, or dances are held.

On the 33rd day of the Omer (which occurs on the 18th of Iyar), these mourning practices are temporarily lifted to celebrate a break in the plague. This is a minor holiday called the Lag b'Omer ("33rd of the Omer").

Shavout

What is the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost)?

In Judaism, The Feast of Weeks or Shavuot (Hebrew label) or Pentecost (Greek label) is the name given to the festival, which occurred fifty days after the offering of the barley sheaf during the Passover feast (see Leviticus 13:16).

The Feast of the Fiftieth Day has been a many-sided one, and as a consequence has been called by many names. In the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament it is called the "Feast of Harvest" (Exodus 12:16) and the "Feast of Weeks" (Deuteronomy 16:10), also the "Day of the First-Fruits" (Numbers 27:26).

In the later literature it was called also the "closing festival" (Haggai 2:4). It is called, too, the "closing season of the Passover" to distinguish it from the seventh day of Passover and from the closing day of the Feast of Tabernacles, i.e., the end of the fruit harvest (Leviticus 23:36, Numbers 29:35, and Deuteronomy 16:8).

Feast of Weeks and the harvest

In Palestine, the grain harvest lasted seven weeks and was a season of gladness (Deuteronomy 16:9). It began with the harvesting of the barley during the Passover and ended with the harvesting of the wheat at Pentecost, the wheat being the last cereal to ripen. Pentecost was thus the concluding festival of the grain harvest, just as the eighth day of Tabernacles was the concluding festival of the fruit harvest.

The Feast of Weeks is the second of the three festivals to be celebrated by the altar dance of all males at the sanctuary. They are to bring to the sanctuary "the first-fruits of wheat harvest," "the first-fruits of thy labors which thou hats sown in the field." These are not offerings definitely prescribed for the community; "but with a tribute of a free-will offering of thine hand . . . shalt thou [the individual] rejoice before the Lord thy God, thou and thy son and thy daughter, . . . the Levity that is within thy gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow" (Deuteronomy 16:9-12).

However, there is a regularly appointed first-fruit offering which the whole community must bring. It consists of two first-fruit loaves ("lemme hari-kari") of new meal, of two-tenths of an hyphae, baked with leaven. The loaves were to be waved; hence the name "wave-loaves". Furthermore, various animal sacrifices were enjoined, and no work was permitted. In Numbers 27:26-31, the main Pentecostal offering is one of new meal. There is also a list of grain and animal offerings differing somewhat from that in Leviticus 23:15-22. These offerings are to be made in addition to the fixed daily offering.

Its mention in rabbinical literature

The festival is known in Mishnah and Talmud as "'Aẓeret". "'Aẓeret" is usually translated a "solemn assembly," meaning the congregation at the pilgrimage festivals.

Tisha B'Av

Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av (Jul. 21-22, 2018), is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, on which we fast, deprive ourselves and pray. It is the culmination of the Three Weeks, a period of time during which we mark the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

1313 BCE: The spies returned from the Promised Land with frightening reports, and the Israelites balked at the prospect of entering the land. G‑d decreed that they would therefore wander in the desert for 40 years. Read more.

Both Holy Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on this date. The First Temple was burned by the Babylonians in 423 BCE (read more) and the Second Temple fell to the Romans in 70 CE (read more), unleashing a period of suffering from which our nation has never fully recovered.

The Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans in 133 CE ended in defeat: The Jews of Betar were butchered on the 9th of Av and the Temple Mount was plowed one year later on the same date. Read more.

Later on in our history, many more tragedies happened on this day, including the 1290 expulsion of England’s Jews and the 1492 banishment of all Jews from Spain. Read more.

More: What Happened on Tisha B’Av?

How 9 Av Is Observed

The fast begins at sunset of the 8th of Av and concludes at nightfall the following night. During this time, we do not

  • eat or drink

  • wear leather footwear

  • bathe or wash ourselves (washing only until the knuckle when mandated by halachah)

  • apply ointments or creams

  • engage in marital relations or any form of intimacy

  • sit on a normal-height chair until chatzot (the time when the sun has reached its apex)

  • study Torah (except for the “sad” parts that deal with the destruction of the Temples, etc.)

  • send gifts, or even greet one another (you may respond to greetings)

  • engage in outings, trips or similar pleasurable activities

  • wear fine, festive clothing

Starting from midday on 8 Av, we limit our Torah study to the few allowed topics that are of a sad nature or pertain to the Temples’ destruction.

We eat a square meal in the afternoon, before Minchah services. Then, late in the afternoon, a “separation meal,” seudah hamafseket, is eaten. It consists of bread and a hard-boiled egg dipped in ashes, accompanied by water. This meal is eaten alone, sitting on a low stool. (See here for how this plays out when Tisha B’Av follows Shabbat.)

The meal must be over by sundown, when all the laws of Tisha B’Av take effect.

Tisha B’Av evening services are held in synagogue, where the ark has been stripped of its decorative curtain and the lights dimmed. Evening prayers are followed by the chanting of Eichah (Lamentations).

Morning prayers are held without tallit and tefillin, since both are considered adornments. Most of the morning is occupied by the reading of Kinot, elegies marking the various tragedies that befell our people.

Work is permitted on Tisha B’Av, but discouraged. On this day, one’s focus should be on mourning and repentance. If one must work, it is preferable to begin after midday.

It is customary to give extra charity on Tisha B’Av, as on every fast day.

After midday, it is permissible to sit on chairs, and tallit and tefillin are worn during the afternoon prayer. In the synagogue, the ark’s curtain is restored to its place before the afternoon prayers.

Many communities have the custom to clean the house and wash the floors after midday, in anticipation of the Redemption, which we await.

Many important details and laws can be found in Order of the Day and What to Expect at Tisha B’Av Services.

After the Fast

When night falls, before breaking the fast, one should perform netilat yadayim (hand-washing), this time covering the entire hand with water, but without reciting the blessing. It is also customary to perform Kiddush Levanah at this point, celebrating the rebirth of the moon, and our hoped-for national rebirth.

The Temple was set ablaze on the afternoon of the 9th of Av, and it burned through the 10th. Therefore, the restrictions of the Nine Days (such as not eating meat, swimming or laundering clothing) extend until midday of the 10th of Av.