Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year
In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means "head of the year" or "first of the year." Rosh Hashanah is commonly known as the Jewish New Year and usually takes place between September and October.
No work is permitted on Rosh Hashanah. Much of the day is spent in synagogue, where the regular daily liturgy is somewhat expanded.
For most Jews, Rosh Hashanah is a time to begin introspection, looking back at the mistakes of the past year and planning the changes to make in the new year. It is an occasion for family gathering and meals. A popular observance during this holiday is eating apples dipped in honey, a symbol of the Jewish wish for a sweet new year. Jews also eat pomegranates, so that their fulfilled wishes in the new year will be as numerous as the seeds in a pomegranate. Another popular practice of the holiday is Tashlikh ("casting off"). Jews walk to flowing water, such as a creek or river, on the afternoon of the first day, symbolically casting off their sins.
Yom Kippur is probably the most important holiday of the Jewish year and takes place eight days after Rosh Hashanah. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, fast and/or attend synagogue services on this day.
"Yom Kippur" means "Day of Atonement". It is a day set aside to "afflict the soul," to atone for the sins of the past year. Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and God, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person, one must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs committed against him or her if possible. That must all be done before Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath; no work can be performed on that day. Jews are supposed to refrain from eating and drinking (even water) on Yom Kippur. It is a complete 25-hour fast beginning before sunset on the evening before Yom Kippur and ending after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur. The Talmud also specifies additional restrictions that are less well-known: washing and bathing, anointing one's body (with cosmetics, deodorants, etc.), wearing leather shoes, and engaging in sexual relations are all prohibited on Yom Kippur.
As always, any of these restrictions can be lifted where a threat to life or health is involved. In fact, children under the age of nine and women in childbirth (from the time labor begins until three days after birth) are not permitted to fast, even if they want to. Most of the holiday is spent in the synagogue, in prayer. It is customary to wear white on the holiday, which symbolizes purity and calls to mind the promise that our sins shall be made as white as snow. Some people wear a kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried.
Pesach or Passover
Pesach begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan. It is the first of the three major festivals with both historical and agricultural significance (the other two are Shavu'ot and Sukkot). Agriculturally, it represents the beginning of the harvest season in Israel, but little attention is paid to this aspect of the holiday. The primary observances of Pesach are related to the Exodus from Egypt after generations of slavery.
The name "Pesach" comes from the Hebrew root meaning to pass through, to pass over, to exempt or to spare. It refers to the Jewish belief that God "passed over" the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Pharaoh's people. "Pesach" is also the name of the sacrificial offering (a lamb) that was made in the Temple in Jerusalem on this holiday. The holiday is also referred to as the Spring Festival.
Probably the most significant observance related to Pesach involves the removal of chametz (leaven bread) from Jewish homes. This commemorates the fact that the Jews had to leave Egypt in such hurry that they did not have time to let their bread rise. It is also a symbolic way of removing the "puffiness" (arrogance, pride) from the soul.
The grain product eaten during Pesach is called matzah. Matzah is unleavened bread, made simply from flour and water and cooked very quickly. This is the bread that the Jews made for their flight from Egypt.
On the first night of Pesach, Jews have a special family meal filled with ritual to remind them of the importance of freedom and rejection of oppression and slavery. Another important message of this holiday is to welcome all strangers, as Jews are reminded that once their forefathers were treated as strangers in ancient Egypt. This meal is called a seder, which comes from a Hebrew root meaning "order," because there is a specific set of information that must be discussed in a specific order.
Pesach lasts for seven days. The first and last days of the holiday are days on which no work is permitted.
Festival of Sukkot
The Festival of Sukkot begins on the fifth day after Yom Kippur. It is quite a drastic transition, from one of the most solemn holidays in the Jewish year to one of the most joyous.
Historically, Sukkot commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Agriculturally, Sukkot is a harvest festival. The word "Sukkot" means "booths," and refers to the temporary dwellings that Jews are commanded to live in during this holiday in memory of the period of wandering. Ever since the Jews were chased out of the ancient Palestine, they dreamed of their return to Jerusalem to rebuild the destroyed Temple.
Sukkot lasts for seven days. No work is permitted on the first and second days of the holiday.
Festival of Lights, Chanukkah
Chanukkah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. In the West, Chanukkah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas.
Chanukkah, from the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration", marks the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the forces of the Greek ruler, Antiochus IV. It commemorates the "miracle of the container of oil." According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication following the victory of the Jewish revolt against the repressive Antiochus, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate fresh olive oil.
Chanukkah is not an important religious holiday like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Passover. The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a Shammash (servant) at a different height.
Purim is one of the most joyous holidays on the Jewish calendar. It commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination.
The story of Purim is told in the Biblical book of Esther. The heroes of the story are Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman living in Persia, and her cousin Mordecai, who raised her as if she were his daughter. Esther was taken to the house of Ahasuerus, King of Persia, to become his wife. King Ahasuerus loved Esther more than his other women and made Esther queen, but the king did not know that Esther was a Jew, because Mordecai told her not to reveal her identity.
The villain of the story is Haman, an arrogant, egotistical advisor to the king. Haman hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, so Haman plotted to destroy the Jewish people. Haman told the king, "There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from those of every other people's, and they do not observe the king's laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them." The king gave the fate of the Jewish people to Haman, to do as he pleased to them. Haman planned to exterminate all of the Jews.
Mordecai persuaded Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people. This was a dangerous thing for Esther to do, because anyone who came into the king's presence without being summoned could be put to death, and she had not been summoned. Esther fasted for three days to prepare herself, then went into the king. He welcomed her. Later, she told him of Haman's plot against her people. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman was hanged on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai.
Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar, which is usually in March. The 13th of Adar is the day that Haman chose for the extermination of the Jews, and the day that the Jews battled their enemies for their lives. In leap years, when there are two months of Adar, Purim is celebrated in the second month of Adar, so it is always one month before Passover.
The word "Purim" means "lots" and refers to the lottery that Haman used to choose the date for the massacre.
It is customary to hold carnival-like celebrations on Purim and to perform plays and parodies. Purim is not subject to the Sabbath-like restrictions on work that some other holidays are; however, some sources indicate that we should not go about our ordinary business on Purim out of respect for the holiday.