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Jewish Holidays: Festivals in Israel

Jewish festivals, originating in antiquity, are observed in Israel intensively and often in many different ways than they are observed by Jews in the Diaspora. The holidays are manifested in traditional and nontraditional customs and practice and they leave their imprint on diverse aspects of national life. The Jewish festivals are the "landmarks" by which Israelis mark the passing of the year and the holidays are very much a part of daily life: on the street, in the school system and in synagogues and homes around the country.

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.

Rosh HaShanah
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 December.

Yom Kippur
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.

Shemini Atzeret/Simkhat Torah
The intermediate week of Sukkot and the holiday season end on the "sacred occasion of the eighth day" (Lev. 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.

Remembrance Day for the October 7 Disaster and the Swords of Iron War
The Remembrance Day for the October 7 Disaster and the Swords of Iron War (Heb. יום זיכרון לאומי במדינת ישראל לאירועי ה-7 באוקטובר 2023 ומלחמת חרבות ברזל) is the day Israel commemorates the tragic events and the victims of October 7th, 2023, and its aftermath, including those who fell in the war and civilians who were murdered in acts of terrorism. The remembrance day is observed on the 24th of Tishrei. 

Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Day

The Hebrew date of the assassination, the 12th of Heshvan 5756, is the national day of remembrance and mourning marked by all state institutions, army bases and schools.

Beginning on 25 Kislev (usually in December), Chanukkah 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 are not.

Tu B'Shevat
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 festivals.

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 festival day.

Yom HaShoah
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."

Yom HaZikaron
Remembrance 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.

Yom HaAtzmaut
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.

Lag B'Omer
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).

Jerusalem Day
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 modern renewal."

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).

Tisha B'Av
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 Celebrations
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.

Another event 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 holiday.

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.