The weekly day of rest, on Saturday, is marked in Israel with most spending the day together with family and
friends. Public transport around the majority of the country is suspended, businesses are
closed, essential services are at skeletonstaff
strength, and furlough is granted to as many soldiers
as possible. The secular majority take advantage of
their weekly day of rest for leisure time at the seashore,
places of entertainment and excursions in outdoor settings.
The observant devote many hours to festive family meals
and services in synagogue, desist from travel and refrain
from working or using appliances.
Marking the beginning of the Jewish new year, the origins of Rosh Hashanah is Biblical (Lev.
23:2325): "a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts
[of the shofar]." The term Rosh Hashanah, "beginning of the year,"
is rabbinical, as are the formidable themes of the festival: repentance,
preparation for the day of Divine judgment and prayer for a fruitful
year. Major customs of Rosh Hashanah include the
sounding of the shofar in the middle of a lengthy service that focuses
on the festival themes, and elaborate meals at home to inaugurate the
new year. The prayer liturgy is augmented with prayers of repentance and the Hallel, a collection
of blessings and psalms recited on Rosh Hashanah, at the beginning of
each new month, on the three pilgrimage festivals, and on occasions
of public deliverance. In many senses, Israel begins its year on Rosh Hashanah.
Government correspondence, newspapers, and most broadcasting,
to give only three examples, carry the "Jewish
date" first. Felicitations for the new year are
generally tendered before Rosh Hashanah, not in late
Eight days after Rosh Ha-Shana,
is the day of atonement, of Divine judgment, and of "selfdenial"
(Lev. 2327) so that the
individual may be cleansed of sins. The only fast day decreed in the
Bible, it is a time to enumerate one's misdeeds and contemplate one's
faults. The Jew is expected, on this day, to pray for forgiveness for
sins between man and God and correct his wrongful actions for sins between
man and his fellow man. The major precepts of Yom Kippur lengthy
devotional services and a 25hour fast are observed even by
many of the otherwise secular. The level of public solemnity on Yom
Kippur surpasses that of any other festival, including Rosh Hashanah.
The country comes to a complete halt for 25 hours on this day; places
of entertainment are closed; there are no television and radio broadcasts
not even the news; public transport is suspended; and even the
roads are completely closed. It is reinforced in Israel by memories
of the 1973 war, a surprise attack
launched on Yom Kippur by Egypt and Syria against Israel.
Described in the Bible (Lev.
23:34) as the "Feast of Tabernacles,"
Sukkot is one of the three festivals that were celebrated
until 70 CE with mass pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem and are therefore known as the "pilgrimage festivals."
On Sukkot, Jews commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (c.13th
century BCE) and
give thanks for a bountiful harvest. At some kibbutzim,
Sukkot is celebrated as Chag Ha'asif (the harvest
festival), with the themes of the gathering of the second
grain crop and the autumn fruit, the start of the agricultural
year, and the first rains. In the days between Yom
Kippur and Sukkot,
tens of thousands of householders and businesses erect sukkot - booths for temporary dwelling, resembling the booths in which the Israelites
lived in the desert, after their exodus from Egypt - and acquire the palm frond, citron, myrtle sprigs, and willow
branches with which the festive prayer rite is augmented. All around
the country, sukkot line parking lots, rooftops, lawns, and public spaces.
No army base lacks one. Some Israelis spend the festival and the next
six days literally living in their sukkot.
In Israel, the "holy day" portion of Sukkot (and the other two pilgrimage festivals, Passover and Shavu'ot) is celebrated
for one day. Diaspora communities
celebrate it for two days, commemorating the time in antiquity when
calendation was performed at the Temple and its results reported to
the Diaspora using a tenuous network of signal fires and couriers. After the festive day, Sukkot continues at a lesser level of sanctity, as mandated by the Torah (Lev.
23:36). During this intermediate week-half festival, half ordinary-schools
are closed and many workplaces shut down or shorten their hours. Most
secular Israelis spend the interim days of Sukkot and Passover at recreation
sites throughout the country.
The intermediate week of Sukkot and the holiday
season end on the "sacred occasion of the eighth
23:36). Celebration of Shemini Atseret/Simhat
Torah focuses on the Torah the Five Books of Moses and is noted for
public dancing with a Torah scroll in one's arms and
with recitation of the concluding and beginning chapters
of the Torah, renewing the yearly cycle of Torah reading.
After dark, many communities sponsor further festivities,
often outdoors, that are not limited by the ritual restrictions
that apply on the holy day itself.
Beginning on 25 Kislev (usually in December), Channukah commemorates
the triumph of the Jews led by the Maccabees over the Greek rulers (164 BCE): the physical victory of the small
Jewish nation against mighty Greece and the spiritual
victory of the Jewish faith against the Hellenism of
the Greeks. Its sanctity derives from this spiritual
aspect of the victory, and the miracle of the flask
of oil, when a portion of sacramental olive oil meant
to keep the Temple candelabrum lit for one day lasted for eight as the Temple was being
rededicated. Channukah is observed in Israel, as in the Diaspora, for eight
days. The central feature of this holiday is the lighting
of candles each evening one on the first night,
two on the second, and so on in commemoration
of the miracle at the Temple. The Channukah message in Israel focuses strongly on aspects of restored
sovereignty; customs widely practiced in the Diaspora,
such as giftgiving and the dreidl (spinning
top), are also in evidence. The dreidl's sides are marked
with Hebrew initials representing the message "A
great miracle occurred here"; in the Diaspora,
the initials stand for "A great miracle occurred
there." Schools are closed during this week; workplaces
The fifteenth of Shevat (January
February), cited in rabbinical sources as the new year
of fruit trees for sabbatical, tithing, and other purposes,
has almost no ritual impact. But it has acquired secular
connotations as a day when trees are planted by individuals,
especially by schoolchildren and it serves as the time
when intensive afforestation is done by the Jewish National
Fund and local authorities. During this month, the fruit
trees begin to flower, starting with the almond tree,
although it is still cold.
Another rabbinical festival, in early spring, occurs
on 14 Adar (15 Adar in walled cities), commemorating
the deliverance of beleaguered Jewry in the Persian
Empire under Artaxerxes, as recounted in the Scroll
of Esther. This festival compensates for the solemnity
of most other Jewish observances by mandating merriment.
Schools are closed, public festivities abound, newspapers
run hoax items reminiscent of April Fools' Day, children
(and adults) don costumes, and a festive reading of
the Scroll of Esther is marked by noisemakers sounded
whenever Haman's name is recited. The Orthodox indulge
in inebriation, within limits, and carry out an exacting
list of duties: giving of alms, evening and morning
readings of the Scroll of Esther, recitation of Hallel to mark the national deliverance, exchange of delicacies
and a fullfledged holiday feast.
In the spring, beginning on 15 Nisan, is the festival of the Exodus and liberation
from bondage. Freedom is, indeed, the dominant note of Passover. The
rites of Passover begin long before the festival, as families and businesses
cleanse their premises of hametz-leaven and anything containing
it-as prescribed in the Torah (Ex.
12:1520). The day before the festival is devoted to preparatory
rituals including ceremonial burning of the forbidden foodstuff. On
the holiday evening, the seder is recited: an elaborate retelling of
the enslavement, redemption, and Exodus, modeled after the ritual of
the paschal sacrifice at the Temple.
At this festive meal, the extended family gathers to recite the seder
and enjoy traditional foods, particularly the matza-unleavened
bread. The following day's observances resemble those of the other pilgrimage
Passover is probably second only to Yom
Kippur in traditional observance by the generally nonobservant.
In addition, a secular Passover rite based on the festival's agricultural
connotations is practiced in some kibbutzim.
It serves as a spring festival, a festival of freedom, and the date
of the harvesting of the first ripe grain. Passover also includes the
second "intermediate" week five halfsacred, halfordinary
days devoted to extended prayer and leisure, and it concludes with another
Traditional rites of public bereavement are in evidence
on Holocaust Martyrs'
and Heroes' Remembrance Day, less than a week after Passover,
when the people of Israel commune with the memory of the six million
martyrs of the Jewish people who perished at the hands of the Nazis
in the Holocaust. On this day, a siren
is sounded at 10 A.M., as the nation observes two minutes of silence,
pledging "to remember, and to remind others never to forget."
Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars is commemorated
a week later, as a day of remembrance for those who
fell in the struggle for the establishment of the State
of Israel and in its defense. At 8 P.M. and 11 A.M.,
two minutes of silence, as a siren sounds, give the
entire nation the opportunity to remember its debt and
express its eternal gratitude to its sons and daughters
who gave their lives for the achievement of the country's
independence and its continued existence.
It is directly followed by Independence
Day (5 Iyar), the anniversary of the Declaration
of the Establishment of the State of Israel, on
May 14, 1948. This is not a centuries old celebration,
but a day that means a lot to many citizens who have
physically and actively participated in the creation
of a new state and have witnessed the enormous changes
that have taken place since 1948.
On the eve of Independence Day municipalities sponsor
public celebrations, loudspeakers broadcast popular
music and multitudes go "downtown" to participate
in the holiday spirit. On Independence Day many citizens
get to know the countryside by travelling to battlefields
of the War of Independence,
visit the memorials to the fallen, go on nature hikes
and, in general, spend the day outdoors picnicking and
preparing barbecues. Israel Prizes for distinction in literary, artistic
and scientific endeavor are presented and the International
Bible Contest for Jewish Youth is held. Army bases are
opened to the public and air force flybys, as well
as naval displays take place.
The thirtythird day in the counting of
the weeks between Passover and Shavu'ot, has become
a children's celebration featuring massive bonfires, commemorating events
at the time of the BarKochba
uprising against Rome (132135 CE).
Celebrated on 28 Iyar, about a week before Shavu'ot,
commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem,
capital of Israel, in 1967,
after it was divided by concrete walls and barbed wire
for nineteen years. On this day, we are reminded that
Jerusalem is "the focal point of Jewish history,
the symbol of ancient glory, spiritual fulfillment and
The last of the pilgrimage festivals, when enumerated from the beginning
of the Jewish year, falls seven weeks after Passover (6 Sivan), at the
end of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. The
Torah (Lev. 23:21) describes
this occasion as the festival of weeks (Heb. shavuot), for so is it
counted from Passover,
and as the occasion on which new grain and new fruits are offered to
the priests in the Temple.
Its additional definition the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai
is of rabbinical origin. Shavuot is observed among the Orthodox
with marathon religious study and, in Jerusalem,
with a mass convocation of festive worship at the Western
Wall. In the kibbutzim,
it marks the peak of the new grain harvest and the ripening of the first
fruits, including the seven
species mentioned in the Bible (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates,
olives and dates).
The lengthy summer until Rosh
Ha-Shanah is punctuated by the Ninth of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the First and Second Temples.
On the day itself, numerous rules of bereavement and the Yom
Kippur measures of "selfdenial," including a fullday
fast, are in effect.
Ethnic communities observe further rites and celebrations
of their own. Some betterknown celebrations include the Mimouna,
unique to Moroccan Jewry, on the day
after Passover, celebrating
the renewal of nature and its blessings; and the Saharana of
Kurdish Jewry, after Sukkot,
which was the national holiday of the Jews in Kurdistan.
is the Sigd holiday of the Ethiopian
Jewish community, which occurs on the
29th of Cheshvan (usually October or November).
It is a celebration which began in Ethiopia,
expressing their yearning for Zion, and
continues in Israel today as an expression
of their thankfulness. In July 2008, Sigd
became a State
Thus, with its diverse population and multiple lifestyles
and attitudes, Israel celebrates the cycle of Jewish
festivals and observances in a public manner that underscores
the country's Jewishness and its centrality to Judaism.