Exploring the Jewish calender

by Paul A. Tambrino, Ed.D., Ph.D.

My calendar shows Jewish Holidays of Ros-ha-Shana running from Sept. 20-27 and Yom Kippur from Sept. 29-30 in 2017. What is the significance of each of these holidays, and what other holidays might our Jewish neighbors observe during the year?

The Jewish calendar begins with Ros-ha-Shana, the Jewish New Year, and it usually occurs in September or October. Thus, the Jewish Year straddles two years of the civil calendar. Since, the Jewish day begins and ends at sundown; all holidays begin at sundown of the day preceding the dates given below and end at sundown of the last date given in the paragraphs below.

Ros-ha-Shana this year is from Sept. 20-27. The book of Leviticus mentions that the ram’s horn (shofar) is to be blown on this day, traditionally to arouse people to repent. It is also know as the Feast of Trumpets (see Lev. 23:24) and is the beginning of 10 days of judgments as the Jews “pass before their Creator.” If they are not in the Book of Life they have 10 days to repent and escape judgment. It is a time for Jews to review the mistakes they made in the past year and to resolve to make improvements in the “new year.”

Yom Kippur this year will be observed from sundown of Sept. 29 to sundown Sept. 30 and is commonly known as the Day of Atonement. It is a day of complete rest from work on which the Israelites are commanded to “afflict” themselves. This word, “afflict,” is understood as an admonition to refrain from eating, drinking, bathing, wearing leather shoes and sexual relations. It is regarded as a Day of Atonement before “the Lord your God” (Lev. 23:28), and as the “Sabbath of Sabbaths” (23:32).

Five days later, Oct. 4-11, is Sukkot, a harvest festival during which the Israelites are commanded to dwell in temporary booths (or sukkot). Oct. 11, the eighth day after the beginning of Sukkot, is the holiday of Shemini Atzeret at which time the Israelites were expected to assemble at the Sanctuary and rededicate themselves to the service of God and the study of Scripture. Simchat Torah on Oct. 12, focuses on the Torah – the Five Books of Moses. The annual cycle of weekly Torah readings is completed at this time. This completion of the Torah readings is a time of great celebration, with processions, singing and dancing.

Hanukkah, Dec. 12-20, commemorates the Maccabees military victory over the Greek Syrians and the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It is also know as the Jewish festival of lights.

Deuteronomy 8:8 describes Israel as “a land of wheat and barley, and (grape) vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and (date) honey.” Because the Bible describes Israel as a land blessed with seven fruits and grains, called the seven species or shivat haminim, Tu B’Shvat will be celebrated on Jan. 30, 2018.

From Feb. 28 to March 1, Jews will celebrate Purim, how Queen Esther (see the book of Esther) saved the Jews of Persia from annihilation. This is a festive and favorite holiday with costumes, noisemakers and lots of good food.

The next holiday (March 30 to April 7) is the festival of matzot (the food with which it is most associated). We know this holiday as Passover; the most widely observed holiday among Jews today.

Leviticus then speaks of Omer, the forty-nine days that are counted daily, starting with the second night of Passover, March 31. Passover commemorates the redemption of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. On the first Passover the Angel of Death “passed over” the Jewish houses on which the blood of a “perfect” lamb was sprinkled. On the fiftieth day (May 20 to 21), the holiday of Weeks (Shavuot) is observed. Biblically this holiday is associated with the end of the harvest but Jewish tradition tends to associate Shavuot with the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. On Shavuot Jews light candles, decorate with greenery, eat dairy food, study Torah, attend prayer services and read the Book of Ruth.

Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the Jewish calendar month of Av, which in 2018 will be July 22) is a day of mourning and fasting in Judaism. On this day Jews remember the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem as well as other tragedies Jews experienced in their history. In mourning the destruction of Jerusalem, Jews customarily refrain from eating meat during the nine days (tishat hayamim) between the first and ninth of the Hebrew month of Av.

This brings us full cycle when Ros-ha-Shana will again be observed on Sept. 10, 2018. In addition to these biblical holidays, Jews will also observe Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27), Israel’s Memorial and Independence days (April 17) and Jerusalem Day (May 12).