Rosh Hashanah (lit: Head of the Year)
Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first and second days of the Hebrew Month of Tishrei and is the start of the Jewish New Year. The Shofar, a ram’s horn, is sounded on Rosh Hashanah to ‘wake us up’ spiritually and focus our attention on God. On this day God judges all mankind and decrees how the upcoming year will play out for each and every one of us. It is customary to eat sweet foods, such as an apple dipped in honey to symbolize our wish for a sweet New Year. The Jewish New Year is a solemn but festive holiday where work is not permitted.
Yom Kippur (lit: Day of Atonement)
Yom Kippur is observed as a day of fasting and prayer. This holy day brings more Jews to synagogues than any other holiday. Yom Kippur is a day that brings Jews closer to G-d and encourages return to Him through the process of Teshuvah / Repentance. The laws for Yom Kippur include all of the work restrictions as per Shabbat in addition to five physical restrictions, most notably, eating or drinking. The intention of fasting is not to punish ourselves but rather to allow us to completely focus on prayer.
Sukkot (lit: Booths or Huts)
The Festival of Sukkot begins 5 days after Yom Kippur. Lasting for seven days, Sukkot commemorates the temporary dwellings that the Jewish people resided in throughout their desert travels. No work is permitted on the first two days of the holiday. As part of the observances, we eat in ‘Sukkot’ and shake the Lulav and Etrog, plant like objects which remind us of the service in the Holy Temple.
Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah: (lit: Eight Day Gathering / Rejoicing with the Torah
Shemini Atzeret is the holiday which is celebrated on the eighth day from the beginning of Sukkot. It is seen as the culmination of the Sukkot holiday, and by extension, all the holidays of the past month. The second day of Shemini Atzeret is referred to as Simchat Torah and on it, we complete the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah. Work is not done on these days.
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Chanukah: (lit: Dedication)
Chanukah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight day festival commemorating the re dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Macabees after it’s defilement by the Syrian-Greeks led by King Antiochus IV. There was only enough oil for a one day ceremony, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the precise time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah (candelabra). An eight-day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.
Tu B'Shevat is a holiday also known as the New Year for Trees. It says in the Mishna that on this day trees and vegetation re judged. Although not a holy day per se, there are few customs related to this holiday. One custom is to eat as many fruits as possible throughout the day, especially fruit from the land of Israel. It is also considered an auspicious day to plant a tree if one is able to do so. Work is not prohibited, and there are no required festive meals, and no special prayers added to the regular prayer services. Nevertheless, the day is invested with a festive sense.
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 extermination. The primary observances of Purim is to hear the reading of the Megilla at night and then again during the day. We are also commanded to eat a festive meal. In addition, we are commanded to send out gifts of food or drink to friend(s), and lastly, to donate to charity. Work is permitted on Purim, but with a mitzvah to get drunk – who can?
Passover is an eight day Jewish holiday which commemorates the exodus from the slavery of Egypt over 3000 years ago. On the first two nights of the holiday, elaborate meals known as 'Seders' are held with family and friends. The Seder re-enacts both the suffering of slavery and the freedom that followed. Over this 8 day holiday bread and other leaven products are forbidden to be consumed. Matza, a flat, simple, bread-like food is eaten to symbolize that the Jewish people left Egypt in such a hurry, that there was not time for even bread to rise. Work is prohibited on the first two days and the last two days of Passover.
Shavuot (along with Passover and Sukkot) is one of the three festivals of the Torah. It's observance is two-fold: For one, it is revered as the day that the Torah was revealed to Moses and the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. It also commemorates the harvesting of the first fruits from which special offerings were brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. No work is permitted on this two day holiday.