Holiday Descriptions


The Jewish calendar is luni-solar in construction; thus, holy days which occur on specific dates in the various Hebrew months will occur on different dates in the civil (Gregorian) calendar from year to year.


A wide variety of feasts and fasts grace the Jewish year. These special days mark significant events in the spiritual and historical life of the Jewish community, from Biblical times onward. In all cases, holy days are marked by special synagogue services and celebration in the home. In some cases, our tradition requires a complete interruption of the normal routine such that one may not work or attend school, while in others, the normal routine may be followed. The descriptions which follow will identify into which of these two categories a holy day falls.



The most regularly occurring of the Jewish holy days is the Sabbath. Commencing at dusk on Friday evening and ending after dark on Saturday night, the Sabbath is a particularly special day in the Jewish week. In the tradition, it is understood to be a day set aside for appreciation of creation. It is a day for godly reflection and for abstaining from any involvement in creative processes. Traditional Jews observe the Sabbath through special home rituals and synagogue services. In practical terms, it is a day when attendance at work or school and participation in the very worldly concerns of business of any sort are prohibited.


The Jewish New Year occurs in the autumn as the year's harvest comes to an end. This two-day holiday is most specifically a time for reflection and self-assessment for the community and for individuals. The process of self-assessment is directed at attaining a greater awareness of how to be a truly good person, doing the best for one's self and for humanity. It is a time for promoting universal peace and well-being. It is, as well, a period of joyous celebration of creation. As such, the New Year period has both solemn and joyous aspects.

This process of self-assessment and reflection, which begins at the New Year, culminates in the Day of Atonement. Marked by fasting and an extended synagogue service, this is a day of special holiness on which severe limitations on the normal daily routine apply. The general restrictions on work, as described for the Sabbath, apply on the New Year and Day of Atonement as well.


Sukkot is a joyous festival celebrating God's bountiful harvest. At the same time, we pray for productive harvests in the year to come and for God's bounty being shared with all humanity. Various colourful rituals mark this nine-day festival. During the first two days and the last two days, Sabbath-like restrictions on work apply. The final day of the festival, Simchat Torah, is a particularly joyous occasion which marks the conclusion of the synagogue reading of the Torah (Pentateuch) and the immediate recommencement of its reading, completed through the reading of portions throughout the year.


This early-winter celebration commemorates the victory of the Maccabees over Hellenistic Greek oppressors in the 2nd century before the Common Era. The Maccabean battles were fought to establish the principles of religious pluralism and the acceptance of the rights of religious and ethnic minorities to live according to their traditional ways in the context of a larger and dominant culture. This eight-day festival is marked by special home and synagogue observances, and no restrictions on the normal work routine apply.


Celebrated at winter's end, Purim commemorates the salvation of the Jewish community, as described in the Biblical Book of Esther. The story is one of a small Jewish community involved fully and positively in the life of the realm, and the machinations of an evil individual who sees this positive involvement as a threat to his own position. In the end, he suffers the consequences of his evil plot to destroy the Jewish community. The Jewish community is spared, and its contribution to society is noted. The story teaches that differences of religion and cultural ways do not, and should not, preclude full involvement in civic affairs by members of minority groups. Indeed, such involvement is encouraged. Purim is an occasion for joyous celebration. Traditional observance of Purim may require some adjustments to the normal work routine but does not require absence from work.


Passover is a festival of the early spring; it is perhaps the best known of the Jewish festivals. In the home and in the synagogue, special rituals and prayers celebrate the fertility of the land in anticipation of a new harvest and the Biblical exodus from Egyptian bondage. The latter event is the preeminent factor in the creation of the Jewish people some 3,500 years ago.

Sabbath-like restrictions apply on the first two and last two days of this eight-day festival, while a restriction on the eating of any food containing leaven applies throughout this period. The festival commences with an elaborate feast, the Seder, replete with foods of special symbolic importance, at which the family relives the experience of redemption and focuses on what Jewish peoplehood involves. On a broader level, this is a time to consider the plight of all people who suffer a variety of enslavements. We note that with human efforts and divine assistance, all humanity may look forward to the joys and responsibilities of freedom.


Seven weeks after Passover, in the early summer, comes the festival of Shavuot. Here is celebrated the arrival of the first fruits of the new harvest and, as well, the giving of the Torah (Mosaic Law) at Mount Sinai. As the new grain and new produce nourish and sustain our bodies, so God's word nourishes and sustains our spirits. Body and spirit as a unit, the individual then takes up the challenge to do God's will. We dedicate ourselves to making this world a more godly place, with all humanity living in harmony and experiencing well-being. Sabbath-like restrictions apply during this two-day festival.


In mid-summer, Jews observe the anniversary of the destruction of the ancient Temple which stood in Jerusalem as the focus for ancient Jewish ritual experience. Still today, Jews turn towards the direction of Jerusalem when in prayer. Traditional Jews mark the day with a fast of 25 hours, from sunset to the following day's nightfall, with prayers of mourning and with limitations on usual work-day involvements.


We have briefly discussed the major holy days of the Jewish calendar. Listed below are holidays which do not impose any limitations on the normal work day. Please note that there are other special days throughout the year whose religious demands may interfere with participation in a normal work routine, and, as well, the religious response to various life-cycle events may require an adjustment to one's usual schedule. We hope that all requests for consideration in this regard will be addressed with sensitivity and in the spirit of reasonable accommodation.


Tu Bishevat marks the first day of spring in Israel and is considered the new year for trees. Since ancient times the Jewish people have observed it by eating fruit grown in Israel and in modern times by the planting of trees in the Holy Land.


This day, established to remember the Holocaust and the six million Jews who perished, is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.


The day before Yom Ha'atzmaut is dedicated to the memory of all who died defending Israel before and after it became a state.


The fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyar is Israel's Independence Day, recognizing the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948. The chief rabbinate of Israel recognizes this day as a minor festival, a thanksgiving to be celebrated in the home and the synagogue.


This day serves as a break in the mourning days between Pesach and Shavuot held as remembrance of misfortunes which afflicted the Jewish people during the days of Roman domination as well as during the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Lag B'Omer serves as a reminder of the faith and courage of the Torah scholars during the harsh rule of the Roman conquerors. No special liturgy or synagogue ritual exists for this day; most people treat it as an ordinary work day.


The newest holiday in the Jewish calendar, celebrated each year on the 28th day of the month of Iyar, Yom Yerushalayim marks the anniversary of the reclaiming in 1967 of Jerusalem as the nation's capital.