This is the Biblical Feast that we celebrate.
Jewish people believe Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birth of mankind. It is a time to reflect and pray for forgiveness for sins of the past year. According to the Jewish calendar, it usually falls in September or October. This year, it also begins on the Friday evening, the Jewish Sabbath.
The Jewish new year, is a fall holiday, taking place at the beginning of the month of Tishrei , which is actually the seventh month of the Jewish year (counting from Nisan in the spring). It is both a time of rejoicing and of serious introspection, a time to celebrate the completion of another year while also taking stock of one’s life.
The two days of Rosh Hashanah usher in the Ten Days of Repentance (Aseret Yemei Teshuvah), also known as the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim), which culminate in the major fast day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Days of Awe represent the climax of a longer process. Starting at the beginning of the previous month, called Elul, the shofar is traditionally sounded at the conclusion of the morning service. A ram’s horn that makes a trumpet-like sound, the shofar is intended as a wake-up call to prepare for the Tishrei holidays. One week before Rosh Hashanah, special petitionary prayers called Selichot are added to the ritual. Rosh Hashanah itself is also known as Yom Hadin or the Day of Judgment, on which God opens the Books of Life and Death, which are then sealed on Yom Kippur.
The culmination of the Days of Awe is the fast day of Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). This is the day at the conclusion of which, according to tradition, God seals the Books of Life and Death for the coming year. The day is devoted to communal repentance for sins committed over the course of the previous year. Because of the nature of Yom Kippur it is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur is the day on which we are instructed to divorce ourselves as completely as humanly possible from the mundane world in which we live, in order to devote ourselves with all our hearts and minds to our relationship with the Divine. Fasting is the most widespread manifestation of this devotion. Other examples include: refraining from washing, sexual relations, and the wearing of leather (a sign of luxury in earlier times). It is traditional to dress in white on this day, symbolizing personal purity. Because of this and the desire to avoid leather, many Jews wear sneakers, or white athletic shoes, on Yom Kippur.
The liturgy of Yom Kippur is completely centered in the synagogue. It is traditional to wear a tallit, or prayer shawl, at all times in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. There are more and longer services on this day than any other in the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur is ushered in while it is still light out with a powerful and ancient prayer called Kol Nidrei (All Vows), in which the congregation asks that all vows made under duress during the coming year may be considered null and void before God. The Yom Kippur liturgy adds a special Musaf (additional) service. On Yom Kippur, Yizkor, the memorial service, is recited, as is the Avodah, a symbolic reenactment of the ancient priestly ritual for Yom Kippur. During the course of the holiday, a major component of the liturgy is the repeated communal confession of sins, the Viddui. The day closes with a unique and emotionally powerful service called Neilah, during which the liturgy imagines the gates of heaven closing at the end of the High Holiday period. Neilah, during which it is traditional to stand since the ark is opened, ends with a long blast of the shofar or ram’s horn, understood by many as signifying God’s redemptive act in answer to true repentance.
Beginning five days after Yom Kippur, Sukkot is named after the booths or huts (sukkot in Hebrew) in which Jews are supposed to dwell during this week-long celebration. Sukkot came to commemorate the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert after the revelation at Mount Sinai, with the huts representing the temporary shelters that the Israelites lived in during those 40 years.
Many of the most popular rituals of Sukkot are practiced in the home. As soon after the conclusion of Yom Kippur as possible, often on the same evening, one is enjoined to begin building the sukkah, or hut, that is the central symbol of the holiday. The sukkah is a flimsy structure with at least three sides, whose roof is made out of thatch or branches, which provides some shade and protection from the sun, but also allows the stars to be seen at night. It is traditional to decorate the sukkah and to spend as much time in it as possible. Weather permitting, meals are eaten in the sukkah, and the hardier among us may also elect to sleep in the sukkah. In a welcoming ceremony called ushpizin, ancestors are symbolically invited to partake in the meals with us. And in commemoration of the bounty of the Holy Land, we hold and shake four species of plants (arba minim), consisting of palm, myrtle, and willow (lulav ), together with citron (etrog ).
During the intermediate days of Sukkot, one is allowed to pursue normal activity. One is nonetheless supposed to hold and wave the lulav and etrog on a daily basis, eat one’s meals in the sukkah, and continue to dwell in the sukkah for the remainder of the holiday.
Simchat Torah, a celebration of the conclusion of one and the beginning of another annual cycle of readings from the Torah.
Simchat Torah is characterized by joyful dancing with the Torah. The final portion of the Book of Deuteronomy is read in the synagogue followed by the rolling back of the Torah and the beginning of the Book of Genesis is then read. In this manner, the annual cycle of Torah readings continues unbroken.
Simchat Torah conveys a clear message about the centrality of Torah in Jewish life. It is both a source of Jewish identity and a precious gift from God. Simchat Torah is the day on which the whole community gathers to come into direct contact with the Torah and to express our joy in having received it.
Hanukkah , or the Festival of Rededication, celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its defilement by the Syrian Greeks in 164 BCE. Although it is a late addition to the Jewish liturgical calendar, the eight-day festival of Hanukkah has become a beloved and joyous holiday. It is also known as the Festival of Lights and usually takes place in December, at the time of year when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere.
In the autumn of 164, Judah and his followers were able to capture the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been turned into a pagan shrine. They cleansed it and rededicated it to Israel’s God. This event was observed in an eight-day celebration, which was patterned on Sukkot, the autumn festival of huts. Much later rabbinic tradition ascribes the length of the festival to a miraculous small amount of oil that burned for eight days.
Much of the activity of Hanukkah takes place at home. Central to the holiday is the lighting of the hanukkiah or menorah, an eight-branched candelabrum to which one candle is added on each night of the holiday until it is ablaze with light on the eighth night. In commemoration of the legendary cruse of oil, it is traditional to eat foods fried in oil. The most familiar Hanukkah foods are the potato pancakes, or latkes, and the Israeli favorite, jelly donuts, or sufganiyot.
Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. Its name comes from the miracle in which God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites during the tenth plague. Centered on the family or communal celebration of the seder (ritual meal), Passover is one of the most beloved of all Jewish holidays.
In anticipation of Passover, it is traditional to engage in a thorough spring cleaning. During the holiday, the food reflects the major theme of Passover and is intended to help Jews relive God’s great redemptive act, albeit in a vicarious manner. Because the Israelites had no time to let their bread rise as they hurriedly left Egypt, Jewish law forbids eating (or even possessing) any food that contains leavened grains.Therefore, a major part of the preparations for Passover consists of removing all traces of leavened foods from the home and replacing them with unleavened foods. This necessitates both a massive cleanup and the replacement of one’s ordinary dishes with special Passover ones. It also requires a shopping expedition to stock the kitchen with special kosher-for-Passover foods.
The central ritual of Passover is the seder, a carefully choreographed ritual meal that typically takes place in the home. A number of symbolic foods are laid out on the table, of which the most important is the matzah, the unleavened “bread of affliction.” The seder follows a script laid out in the Haggadah, a book that tells the story of the redemption from Egypt. Although the Haggadah is a traditional text, many people add to it and revise it in accord with their theology and understanding of God’s redemptive actions in the world.