Jewish Holiday History

Holiday History

Rosh Hashanah

Every year at the end of the summer Jews are known to ask, “When is Rosh Hashanah?”

The Torah has an answer:

“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.” [Leviticus 22:24]

The date described in the Torah is the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei. Since the Jewish calendar is a lunar based calendar with an adjustment for the solar year, the date changes on the Gregorian calendar each year but falls sometime between the beginning of September to the very beginning of October.

jewish-learningAccording to Rabbinic tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the day when God created the world. Yet the holiday is not about the world’s birthday. In fact, the traditional Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah is the story of Abraham obeying God’s command by demonstrating his willingness to bind Isaac upon the sacrificial altar (which, of course, Abraham did not complete because the command was merely a test of Abraham’s obedience).

The designation of this particular Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah sets the tone for the themes of Rosh Hashanah: commitment to faith and a focus on interpersonal relationships. The holiday is the time of year when we critique our own behavior and determine what steps we can take to improve our lives, improve our relationships with others and improve our world.

It has become a custom among Jews to celebrate the new year with apples and honey—apples as a round fruit to represent the cycle of the calendar year, and honey as a blessing for a sweet year. The challoth we eat during this season are round as well, continuing the theme of the yearly cycle.

Yet these traditions are specific to Jews of European origin (Ashkenazi Jews). Jews from other parts of the world have developed other traditions. Moroccan Jews observe a tradition known as a Rosh Hashanah seder including a sheep’s head representing the ram that was used on the altar in place of Isaac. Other traditions include pomegranates and black eyed peas to represent abundance. Nuts are avoided because of the mystical interpretation that the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “nut” has the equivalency of “sin.” Italian Jews eat beets and sweet vegetables prepared into a salad topped with cinnamon and sugar to represent the sweetness of the year.

We at the Center want to wish everyone a wonderful New Year. Whether you celebrate it with apples and honey or beets and cinnamon; whether you spend the entire day at the synagogue or a festive meal with your family, we hope that you all have a Leshana Tova u’metukah – may you have a good and sweet year.



  • Leviticus Chapter 23 instructs the People of Israel to observe the “Festival of the Lord.” This day is to be observed as a recognition of the fall harvest. It is celebrated with “the four species” and a pilgrimage to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
  • Today, we observe the “four species” with a special set made up of a citron (a lemon-type citrus fruit), a palm branch, a myrtle branch and a willow branch. The terms in Hebrew are “etrog, lulav, hadas and aravah” (respectively).
  • The etrog has taste and smell. The palm has taste but no smell. The myrtle has smell but no taste. The willow has neither taste nor smell. These correspond to four types of people. There are those who study and do good deeds; there are those who study but do not do good deeds; there are those who do good deeds but do not study; and there are those who do neither good deeds nor study.
  • We built a sukkah, a hut or booth, representing the huts in which the Israelites dwelled during their wandering through the desert for forty years. The roof, in Hebrew, “skhakh,” is all natural and needs to be incomplete so as to see stars. People observe Sukkoth by eating meals in the sukkah during the holiday. Some people sleep in the sukkah.
  • The American holiday of Thanksgiving was modeled after the biblical celebration of Sukkoth by the early pilgrims

Simchat Torah


  • Simchat Torah” means “Rejoicing of the Torah” or “Rejoicing of the Law.”
  • Leviticus Chapter 23 describes the holiday of “Atzeret” as the closing day of Sukkoth.
  • In the Talmud the day became known as “Shemini Atzeret” which translates as “the eighth day of Assembly.” In Israel Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are observed as one holiday.
  • The holiday came to be a celebration of completing the cycle of reading the Torah. On the holiday the very last chapter of Deuteronomy is read AND the very first chapter of Genesis is read to represent the fact that we never finish reading the Torah.
  • As a celebration of “Rejoicing of the Torah” during services there is a ceremony of dancing throughout the aisles of the synagogue with the Torah.
  • Since the creation of the State of Israel the celebration of dancing with the Torah has included dancing with Israeli flags as part of the ceremony.

 “Mr. Heshvan”

At the conclusion of our fall Jewish holidays, we begin an unusual month in the Jewish calendar, the month is called “Heshvan,” sometimes known as “Marheshvan.” The rabbis of the Talmud took the dual name to make a play on words – they sermonized that Heshvan was called “Mar” “Heshvan” because of what makes Heshvan unique – Heshvan is the only month in the Jewish calendar that does not have any unique observances in it. While Heshvan does have Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh, so does every other month, but every other month also has unique observances – from Rosh Hashanah in Tishrei, to Hanukkah in Kislev, Purim in Adar and Passover in Nissan. Some months have observances which are very minor and seem obscure or unknown to us – such as the “tenth of Tevet,” a very minor fast day marking the day they Babylonian king began the siege of Jerusalem prior to its destruction in the year 586 BCE.

Heshvan has no such observance. The play on words the Talmudic rabbis developed asserted that “Heshvan” is sometimes known as “Mar” “Heshvan” because it is “bitter,” from the Hebrew word, “MARor” (bitter herbs, a word you may recognize from Passover). The month is bitter because it has no celebrations, no observances; it is a plain old boring month.

There is an ironic beauty in the recognition that Heshvan is unique. By asserting that Heshvan is “bitter” because it has no unique character, that recognition makes Heshvan unique. By not having any unique observances, Heshvan becomes the only month not to have any unique observances. It is unique because it is the only month that has nothing unique!

Okay, regarding all this analysis of the name of a Hebrew month – all well and good, but so what??!! It’s a month, for goodness sakes.

But this discussion teaches us something. It teaches us compassion for all people. The rabbis of the Talmud were brilliant thinkers, scholars, philosophers. They wouldn’t have spent so much time debating how a month “feels” based on its name unless that discussion had a higher purpose.

Everyone has intrinsic value. Every single person has a place and function in society. The Talmud states that “one who kills a single human is the same as one who kills the whole world,” and similarly, “one who saves the life of a single human being is the same as one who saves the life of the entire world.” Every human being has an inherent holiness. Every person is infused with the spirit of God, have been created in the Divine image as asserted so eloquently in the book of Genesis. The affirmation in the book of Genesis that human beings were created in the image of God is a profound theological statement. If every person was created in the image of God then every single human being has an inherent holiness, an intrinsic value, a supreme worth that is unrelated to that person’s race, wealth, position, status in society or level of achievement.

Every single human being was created in the image of God. Not some people. Not the elite, or the powerful, or the wealthy, or the governing, but everyone, including the oppressed, the poor, the powerless, and in biblical society, the slave.

That is the supreme message that we learn from what may otherwise seem as a flip, silly or irrelevant discussion in the Talmud. Extraordinary care was taken in determining which of the rabbis’ deliberations were included in that comprehensive text. To afford precious space from the Talmud to a discussion on how a month “feels” indicates that this story must have greater meaning. By recognizing this fact we can learn an inspiring philosophy that may otherwise be hidden in what seems to be an obscure and irrelevant discussion.


What is Hanukkah?
This is the exact question posed in the Talmud. “Hanukkah” means “dedication.” It is the holiday which celebrates the rededication of the Temple back to God after it was re-captured by the Maccabees from the ancient Greeks.

The Maccabees
Hanukkah is one of the few Jewish holidays not mentioned in the Bible. The story of how Hanukkah came to be is contained in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, which tell the story of the Maccabees, a small band of Jewish fighters who liberated the Land of Israel from the Syrian Greeks who occupied it. The Maccabees waged a three-year campaign that culminated in the cleaning and rededication of the Temple. Since they were unable to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot in early autumn, the victorious Maccabees decided that Sukkot should be celebrated once they rededicated the Temple. Since Sukkot lasts seven days, this became the timeframe adopted for Hanukkah.

The Talmud and the Miracle of Oil
About a century later — at the time that the Mishnah (the first compilation of oral rabbinic law included in the Talmud) was redacted — the holiday had become known as Hanukkah (“dedication”). In the Gemara (a commentary on the Mishnah), we can clearly see the development of both the holiday and the stories associated with it. Completed approximately 600 years after the Maccabees’ events, the Talmud contains the famous story of the miraculous jar of oil that burned for eight days.  To understand why the observance of Hanukkah is so important, the rabbis recount the story of the miraculous jar of oil to associate the holiday with what they believed to be a blatant, supernatural miracle. Although the seemingly miraculous victory of the Maccabees was certainly part of the holiday narrative, this event still lies within the natural human realm. The rabbis may have felt this to be insufficient justification for the holiday’s gaining legal stature that would prohibit fasting and include the saying of certain festival prayers. Therefore the story of a supernatural event centering on the oil — a miracle — would unquestionably answer any concerns about the legitimacy of celebrating the holiday.

Hanukkah in Modern Times
Hanukkah gained new meaning with the rise of Zionism. As the early pioneers in Israel fought to defend themselves against attacks, they began to connect with the ancient Jewish fighters who stood their ground in the same place. Hanukkah, with its positive portrayal of the Jewish fighter, spoke to the reality of the early Zionists who felt particularly connected to the message of freedom and liberty. Hanukkah has developed into a holiday rich with historical significance, physical and supernatural miracle narratives, and a dialogue with Jewish history.

Source:  My Jewish Learning  http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hanukkah-history


What is Purim?
Purim is one of the most joyous and fun holidays on the Jewish calendar. It commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from an evil decree.

The story of Purim is told in the biblical book of Esther. The heroes of the story are Esther, a Jewish woman living in Persia, and her cousin Mordecai, who raised her as if she were his daughter. Esther was taken to the house of Ahasuerus, King of Persia, and he made her queen. But the king did not know that Esther was a Jew, because Mordecai told her not to reveal her nationality.

The villain of the story is Haman, an advisor to the king. Haman hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, so Haman plotted to destroy the Jewish people. Mordecai persuaded Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people. This was a dangerous thing for Esther to do, because anyone who came into the king’s presence without being summoned could be put to death, and she had not been summoned. Esther fasted for three days to prepare herself, then went to the king. He welcomed her. She told him of Haman’s plot against her people. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman was hanged on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai.

Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar, which is usually in March. The 14th of Adar is the day that Haman chose for the destruction of the Jews. The word “Purim” means “lots” and refers to the lottery that Haman used to choose the date for the massacre.

The primary commandment related to Purim is to hear the reading of the book of Esther. The book of Esther is commonly known as the Megillah, which means scroll. It is customary to boo, hiss, stamp feet and rattle graggers (noisemakers) whenever the name of Haman is mentioned in the service. The purpose of this custom is to “blot out the name of Haman.”
In addition, we are commanded to send out gifts of food or drink, and to make gifts to charity. The sending of gifts of food and drink is referred to as shalach manos (sending out portions). Among Ashkenazic Jews a common treat at this time of year is hamantaschen (Haman’s pockets). There are many explanations as to why we eat these tri-cornered pastries on Purim, including that they are meant to represent Haman’s hat or ears. It is customary to hold carnival-like celebrations on Purim, to perform plays and parodies.

Adapted from Jewish Virtual Library


What is Passover?
The story of Pesach, known as Passover in English, originates in the Bible as the telling of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The Torah recounts how the Children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt by a Pharaoh who feared them. After many generations of oppression, God speaks to an Israelite man named Moses and instructs him to go to Pharaoh and ask him to let God’s people go free. Pharaoh refuses, and Moses, acting as God’s messenger, brings down a series of 10 plagues on Egypt.

The last plague was the Slaying of the Firstborn; God went through Egypt and killed each firstborn, but passed over the houses of the Israelites leaving their children unharmed. This plague was so terrible that Pharaoh relented and let the Israelites leave.

Pharaoh then regretted his decision and chased the Children of Israel until they were trapped at the Sea of Reeds. God instructed Moses to stretch his staff over the Sea of Reeds and the waters parted, allowing the Children of Israel to walk through on dry land. The waters then closed, drowning Pharaoh and his soldiers as they pursued the Israelites.

The Torah commands an observance of seven days of Passover. Many Jews in North America and all Jews in Israel follow this injunction. Some Jews outside of Israel celebrate Passover for eight days.

There are several mitzvot (commandments) unique to Passover, which are evident in the customs and rituals of the holiday to this day: matzah (the eating of unleavened bread); maror (the eating of bitter herbs); chametz (abstention from eating leaven); b’iur chametz (removal of leaven from the home); and haggadah (participation in the seder meal and telling the story).

The Seder

On the fifteenth day of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, Jews gather with family and friends in the evening for the ritual observance of this holiday that centers around a special home service called the seder (meaning “order”). A seder is an elaborate festive meal that takes place on the first night(s) of the holiday. The Passover seder has 15 separate steps (of prayers, rituals, readings and songs) in its traditional order. These steps are laid out in the Haggadah (meaning “telling”), the book used during the seder. Today, the holiday is a celebration of freedom and family.

Adapted from www.reformjudaism.com


The Festival of Shavuot
You shall count for yourselves -- from the day after the Shabbat, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving -- seven Shabbats, they shall be complete. Until the day after the seventh sabbath you shall count, fifty days... You shall convoke on this very day -- there shall be a holy convocation for yourselves -- you shall do no laborious work; it is an eternal decree in your dwelling places for your generations. -Leviticus 21:15-16, 21

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, is the second of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Passover and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it commemorates the time when the first fruits were harvested and brought to the Temple, and is known as Hag ha-Bikkurim (the Festival of the First Fruits). Historically, it celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and is also known as Hag Matan Torateinu (the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah).

The period from Passover to Shavuot is a time of great anticipation. We count each of the days from the second day of Passover to the day before Shavuot, 49 days or 7 full weeks, hence the name of the festival. The counting reminds us of the important connection between Passover and Shavuot: Passover freed us physically from bondage, but the giving of the Torah on Shavuot redeemed us spiritually from our bondage to idolatry and immorality.

It is noteworthy that the holiday is called the time of the giving of the Torah, rather than the time of the receiving of the Torah. The sages point out that we are constantly in the process of receiving the Torah, that we receive it every day, but it was first given at this time. Thus it is the giving, not the receiving, that makes this holiday significant.

Shavuot is not tied to a particular calendar date, but to a counting from Passover. Because the length of the months used to be variable, determined by observation, and there are two new moons between Passover and Shavuot, Shavuot could occur on the 5th or 6th of Sivan. However, now that we have a mathematically determined calendar, and the months between Passover and Shavuot do not change length on the mathematical calendar, Shavuot is always on the 6th of Sivan (the 6th and 7th outside of Israel).

Work is not permitted during Shavuot.

It is customary to stay up the entire first night of Shavuot and study Torah, then pray as early as possible in the morning.

It is customary to eat a dairy meal at least once during Shavuot. There are varying opinions as to why this is done. Some say it is a reminder of the promise regarding the land of Israel, a land flowing with “milk and honey.”

According to another view, it is because our ancestors had just received the Torah (and the dietary laws therein), and did not have both meat and dairy dishes available.

Source: www.jewfaq.org

 The David Posnack JCC is also home to a Rescued Czech Torah in our Holocaust Learning Center. Learn more about this remarkable piece of Jewish history.