There are many important religious festivals throughout the Jewish year. Some mark key events in the history of Judaism, while others have an agricultural significance. The festivals are celebrated not only in synagogues but with various rituals at home, too, each one marked with a different type of food. In addition, the Sabbath, or Shabbat in Hebrew, provides a weekly structure for the year. Each festival starts on the evening before the event and then continues on the next day, because in biblical times a day began at sunset, since that was a way of marking time.
The week-long festival of Sukkot (meaning “huts”) is celebrated five days after the solemn High Holy Days. Sukkot commemorates the time when the Israelites lived in temporary dwellings during the Exodus from Egypt, and also celebrates the gathering of the final harvest. A ritual associated with Sukkot is the blessing over the four plants a palm branch, an etrog (citrus fruit), myrtle, and willow. These are known as the Four Species, or the Lulav, and represent the agriculture on which we all depend.
The sukkah is a temporary shelter. It is built with three walls and a small gap left in the roof so that people can see the stars a reminder that God is looking after them. Although some families build a hut in their yards, some synagogues also have a communal sukkah for people to use after the service.
During the synagogue service, the four plants are waved in all directions. This is to show that God is everywhere.
DECORATING THE SUKKAH
It is customary for children to help decorate the sukkah with pictures, paper chains, and seasonal fruit, representing the autumn harvest. Meals are eaten in the huts, and sometimes people sleep there too.
On each day of the festival a blessing is said while holding the Four Species. On the seventh day of Sukkot, followers end the morning service by walking seven times around the synagogue. The figure seven is symbolic of the seven processions made by the priests around the Temple during biblical times.
Immediately after Sukkot comes Simchat Torah (meaning “rejoicing over the Torah”). The festival marks the end of the Torah readings and the start of a new cycle of readings. This shows that God’s words are continuous. Amid dancing and clapping, all the Torah scrolls are taken out of the Ark and paraded several times around the synagogue or in the streets.
The festival of Hanukkah commemorates an important historical event. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Jews in ancient Israel were not allowed to practice their faith. A monumental battle was won when they rebelled against their foreign rulers. Judah the Maccabee, leader of the revolt, rededicated the Temple, which had been used for pagan worship. The eternal lamp was relit, and although they only had enough oil to last one day, miraculously the oil lasted for eight days.
During Hanukkah, people usually eat food cooked in oil, such as latkes (potato pancakes) and doughnuts. This serves as a reminder of the miracle of the oil. In some communities children also receive money or chocolate coins.
LIGHTING THE MENORAH
On each night of Hanukkah, the family gathers to recite blessings, light the candles, and sing Hanukkah songs. The hanukkiya, or menorah, holds eight candles as well as a servant candle to light the others. The newest candle is lit first, then the others are kindled. By the end of the week, all eight candles are lit, symbolizing the miracle of the oil in the Temple.
While the candles burn, children play with a special spinning top called a dreidel. On each of its four sides is a Hebrew letter standing for the words “a great miracle happened there.”
The minor festival of Tu Bishvat is also known as the New Year for Trees. Historically, 10 percent of agricultural produce had to be given to priests and the poor on Tu Bishvat. In Israel today, the festival is seen as a time to plant new trees and for eating the fruits of the land.
Some school children in Israel plant a sapling on Tu Bishvat, which falls in January, the start of Spring. Jews in other communities are also encouraged to sponsor a tree in Israel through the Jewish National Fund.
A fun and entertaining festival, Purim is usually celebrated in March. The main ritual associated with Purim is the reading of the Megillah (the Book of Esther). It recounts the story of a Jewish woman called Esther and her cousin Mordecai, who lived in Persia (now Iran) in the 5th century BCE. They devised a plan to stop a villainous court official, Haman, from killing Persian Jews.
On the eve of Purim, and on the day itself, Jews gather in the synagogue to read the Megillah. Unlike other biblical books, there is no mention of God in the Book of Esther. Observant Jews believe that this shows God is always working, even in ways that are not obvious.
The synagogue service reflects the fun spirit of Purim. Whenever the name of Haman is mentioned, people hiss, stamp their feet, or shake rattles, known as greggers.
As well as listening to the Megillah, people eat a festive meal, exchange gifts of food, and give to charity. Some Jewish communities organize parties and parades. Often children and adults wear colorful costumes to add to the festive atmosphere.
In March or April Jews celebrate the important festival of Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew. Jews commemorate the time when the people of Israel were led out of Egypt by Moses—this was the beginning of a Jewish nation. A celebratory meal, called a seder (a Hebrew word meaning “order”), takes place during the Passover. The family gathers to eat this special meal, recount the story of the Exodus, and sing songs of praise to God.
The festival lasts for eight days, and on the first two nights, the story of the Exodus from Egypt is read from the Haggadah. A child present at the meal asks four questions from the Haggadah, and by retelling the story, the questions are answered. In the past, the Haggadah was written and illustrated by hand, and some of these have survived to the present day. The detail of the Passover meal shown below is from a medieval German version.
THE PASSOVER TABLE
The seder plate is used only for the Passover meal. The food on the plate symbolizes the story of the Israelites in ancient Egypt (C. 1290–1224 BCE). A glass of salt water is also placed on the table to symbolize the bitter tears of the enslaved Israelites.
When the Israelites left Egypt in a hurry, the only food they were able to take was some bread that had not risen. Today, Jews refrain from eating any food that contains leaven (yeast), known as chametz. This includes bread, so people eat matzo instead. It is also important not to have any leavened food in the home during Passover.
In ancient Israel, the 49 days between Passover and the festival of Shavuot were counted. This period was known as the Omer. It marked the end of the barley harvest and the start of the wheat harvest. A sheaf (omer in Hebrew) from the new season’s barley crop was offered at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Although there is no Temple or omer offering today, some observant Jews still count down the days between Passover and Shavuot. They use a special calendar to help them keep track of the days.
Day 33 of the Omer calendar is known as Lag BaOmer. A rabbi, Shimon bar Yochai, is said to have revealed mystical secrets contained in the Kabbalah on this day. Another tradition tells the story of Rabbi Akiva, a noted Torah scholar who lost 24,000 of his students in an epidemic during the Omer period. However, on the Lag BaOmer, no one died. Some people light bonfires to mark the occasion.
The Greek name for the festival of Shavuot is Pentecost, from the word for “fifty,” because it begins after the 49 days of the Omer period. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and the beginning of a new wheat harvest. During the synagogue service, the Ten Commandments and the Book of Ruth are read. The festival lasts for two days.
As well as the commandments, Shauvot celebrates the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. These fruits have always been identified with the land of Israel.
On Shavuot, some people eat dairy foods. This is a reminder of the time when the Israelites ate only dairy food while waiting to hear the commandments they wanted to avoid eating meat forbidden in the dietary laws. Synagogues are also decorated with flowers to celebrate the giving of the commandments, and very observant Jews stay up all night learning the Torah.
The Jewish day of rest, the Sabbath is known in Hebrew as the Shabbat. It begins every Friday at sunset with the lighting of the Shabbat candles and ends the following Saturday night. In Jewish communities, the Shabbat is observed in various ways.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. On the seventh day you shall do no work.”
ONE OF THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
Before the start of Shabbat, some Jews wash their hands three times with a special two-handed cup. Only when this is done can the Shabbat meal begin.
The two challah loaves on the Shabbat table recall the time when the Israelites wandered in the desert. God gave them manna to eat every day, but on Friday they received double the amount.
The ceremony marking the end of Shabbat is called havdalah, which means “separation.” It features a braided candle, wine, and sweet-smelling spices. Havdalah emphasizes the separation between the holy Shabbat and the other days of the week.
THE MEANING OF SHABBAT
Just as God rested on the seventh day after creating the world, observant Jews do not work at all on Shabbat. It is traditional to invite guests home for the Shabbat evening meal, especially those without families. Essentially, Shabbat is seen as a time to worship, rest, and be with the community.
The havdalah candle brings to mind the light created by God when he brought order to the world. Its many wicks symbolize the unity of the Jewish people.