According to the Jewish calendar, a day runs from one evening to the next. The Jewish year is a lunar year consisting of months beginning with the new moon, each month lasting 29 or 30 days. Because all festivals are tied to particular seasons, the normal year of twelve months (and approximately 354 days) receives an additional month every two or three years – forming a ‘leap year’ of approximately 384 days.
The holidays prescribed by the Torah are divided into two groups: the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover [Pesach], Shavuot and Sukkott) and the ‘High Holidays’ (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur). Hanukkah and Purim are celebrated in memory of joyful events. The 9th of Av (Tisha Be’Av) and other fast days commemorate sad events.
The Shabbat and Festive Days
The Shabbat and the holidays prescribed by the Torah are intended to promote spiritual wellbeing, while worldly activities are prohibited. All these days begin on the preceding evening before sunset and end on the actual days approximately one hour after sunset.
Pesach (or Passover) begins on the 15th of Nissan (‘spring month’), lasts eight days and commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. On the first two evenings (the Seder evenings), the story of the exodus from Egypt is told. Everyone eats unleavened bread (Matza, pl. Matzot) and bitter herbs (Maror). The Seder evenings are spent engaging in a sequence of rituals and ceremonies laid down in the Haggadah.
The first two holidays are followed by four days known as intermediate days (Chol Hamoed) on which work that cannot be postponed is permitted. The period ends with two holidays commemorating the passage of the Israelites through the crossing in the sea of reeds opened up for them by G-d.
Shavuot (Feast of Weeks)
Shavuot is celebrated on the 50th day after Pesach. It commemorates the giving of laws (Torah) on Mount Sinai.
Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) with Simchat Torah (Joy of the Torah)
The third pilgrimage festival which lasts nine days consists of the seven days of Sukkot and the two concluding celebratory days. During Sukkot, all meals are taken in a Sukkah (a type of thatched hut or booth). The roof is made of plant material cut to size (twigs, leaves, bamboo etc.). Five intermediate days (Chol Hamoed) follow on from the first two full holidays.
The festival concludes with two final holidays on which the Torah is read until the end, completing a yearly reading cycle that is the begun anew. Hence the last day is known as the ‘joy of the Torah’ (Simchat Torah).
Rosh Hashana (New Year)
The first two days of the month of Tishri are celebrated as the beginning of the new year. In the Torah, this is known as the day of ‘blowing the shofar’. The sound of the shofar (a ram's horn) is a call to purification and the return to G-d. This is the underlying thought during the first ten days of the month of Tishri – also known as the ten days of return. Preparations are made for this during the preceding month of Elul and consist of special prayers and blowing the shofar.
Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)
The 10th day of Tishri is the Day of Atonement, rest, fasting, prayer and inner reflection. On Yom Kippur one doesn't eat or drink. The main objective is the need to return to G-d, which is marked by prayers acknowledging sins and expressing repentance.
Chanukah (Festival of Lights)
The eight days of Chanukah or consecration festival begins on the 25th of Kislev and commemorates the victories of the Maccabees over Antiochus, King of Syria. At the time, one small oil jar containing consecrated oil was found for use in the temple. Miraculously, this burnt for eight days, long enough for new oil to be prepared. In commemoration of this, one additional light or candle is lit each evening on the eight-armed Menorah, i.e. the Chanukah candle holder.
Purim (Festival of Lots)
Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar and commemorates failure of the plan to annihilate the Jews in the Persian Empire. In the evening and during the morning, the Book of Esther is read. This day is marked by giving gifts to friends, donations to charity and the eating of a festive meal.
The Four Fasting Days
In commemoration of events linked to the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the second temple in 70 CE, a total of four fasting days are observed. The 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av) is the strictest of them. Both the first and the second temples were destroyed on this date.