Jewish Holidays

Here is an overview of the major Jewish holidays, their purpose, customs and iconography.

ROSH HASHANAH
A 2-day celebration commemorating the new year.

  • Go to synagoge to hear the shofar blown
  • Perform tashlikh (casting away of ones sins into water)
  • Celebratory meals on either night (with Kiddush)
  • Send a holiday card
  • Say “Shana Tovah” (Have a good year)
  • Symbolic foods: pomegranate, apple dipped in honey, round challah
  • Iconography: Pomegranates, shofar, apples

YOM KIPPUR

The holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur completes the High Holidays and commemorates the Day of Atonement.

  • Go to synagogue
  • Fast the entire day
  • Light Yahrzeit memorial candle(s)
  • Give tzedekah
  • Break the fast celebratory meal
  • Symbolic foods: Bird-shaped challah
  • Iconography: White

SUKKOT

A seven day holiday that commemorates the time when the Israelites spent 40 years traveling the desert after the Exodus from Egypt.

  • Build a sukkah
  • Eat and sleep in the sukkah
  • Celebratory meals in the sukkah
  • Light candles first two nights
  • Bless the Lulav and Etrog
  • Perform Hoshanot at the synagogue
  • Iconography: Etrog, lulav, willow, myrtle, sukkah, grapes

SIMCHAT TORAH

A 2 day holiday that celebrates the conclusion of the annual Torah reading cycle and the beginning of a new cycle.

  • Go to synagoge and dance in the procession with the Torah
  • Celebratory meals on both nights
  • Light candles both nights
  • Iconography: Torah, music

CHANUKAH

An 8-day holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple by the Maccabees.

  • Light the menorah
  • Celebratory festival meals
  • Play dreidel with coins (gelt or real)
  • Send holiday card
  • Symbolic foods: Potato Latkes, Brisket, sufganiyot
  • Iconography: Menorah, dreidel, Star of David, Hanukkah gelt

TU B’SHEVAT

Originally commemorated for purposes of calculating tithes, Tu B’Shevat (The New Year for Trees) is now often celebrated as an environmental awareness day or agricultural holiday. Some compare it to Arbor Day. Read the Tu B’Shevat Primer for more information.

  • Eat symbolic fruits and nuts
  • Recite Sheheheyanu upon eating a specie for the first time that year
  • Plant a tree
  • Symbolic foods: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates, nuts
  • Iconography: trees, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates, nuts

PURIM

Commemorates the survival of the Jewish people from mass extermination during the reign of King Ahasuerus in ancient Persia, as recorded in the Book of Esther.

  • Go to synagoge and listen to Megillah (Book of Esther) reading, bring noisemaker
  • Attend a Purim spiel
  • Give gifts of food
  • Give charity to the poor
  • Celebratory festival meal with festive drinking
  • Go to a ball or festival in costume
  • Symbolic foods: Wine, Hamantaschen, baked goods, Fazuelos, seeds and nuts, Kreplach
  • Iconography: Masks, costumes, noise makers, wine, gift baskets

PASSOVER

7-day holiday that commemorates the story of the Exodus, in which the ancient Israelites escape slavery in Egypt.

  • Thoroughly (spring) clean the home, especially of any chametz
  • Celebratory meal (seder) on first two nights
  • Light candles the first two nights
  • Symbolic foods: Matzah, Maror, charoset, lamb
  • Iconography: Seder plate, matzah

YOM HA’ATZMAUT
Celebrates the national day of Israel, commemorating the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948.

  • Wear blue and white
  • Have a BBQ
  • Go to a local event
  • Light 12 candles the preceding day for Yom Hazikaron

LAG B’OMER
A day of celebration commemorating Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a Mishnaic sage who on this day revealed the secrets of kabbalah in his text, the Zohar.

  • Have a bonfire
  • Have a picnic
  • Eat carob
  • Read the Zohar or about the life of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
  • Iconography: fire, bows n arrows

SHAVUOT

Celebrates the anniversary of the day G-d gave the Torah to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. Celebrated either as a 2-day or 1-day holiday.

  • Go to synagoge to hear the 10 commandments
  • Celebratory meal
  • Light candles
  • Kiddish
  • Decorate the home with greenery and flowers, paper-cuts and crafts
  • Symbolic foods: dairy foods such as cheesecake, cheeses, blintzes
  • Iconography: Torah, Mount Sinai, greenery, flowers

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