The Jewish year starts with the New Year holiday, in September or October. The New Year is a time for prayer and reflection, when you spend several hours a day in the synagogue. The prayers are about repentance, but they are also an appeal and a hope for a good new year. A large part of the service is sung, either by the cantor or by the congregation. During the prayer you also blow a ram’s horn, whose special sound is supposed to call for reflection. All these elements create a fantastic atmosphere in the synagogues.
Except for services in the synagogue, the New Year holiday is spent around festive meals with family and friends. Certain traditional dishes are eaten. The most important one is apple dipped in honey, which you eat to get a happy and sweet new year.
Day of Atonement
A week after the New Year holiday is over, you reach the Day of Atonement, the holiest and most important day of the year. The day is devoted to prayer and repentance, whereas it is strictly prohibited to eat and drink, among other things. Many spend the whole day in the synagogue, where the very long service talks about repentance and improvement. However, the prayers also include beautiful singing.
Feast of Tabernacles
A few days after the Day of Atonement, the weeklong Feast of Tabernacles begins. The holiday is celebrated to commemorate the temporary huts in which the Jewish people dwelt during the wandering in the desert, on the way to Israel, after the Exodus. Most important during the Feast of Tabernacles is that you are supposed to have all your meals in a “booth” and not in a house. The “booth” is for example placed in the garden or on the balcony and consists of a wooden or metal frame with a sheet or a blanket as “walls”. The roof is made of palm fronds, bamboo, spruce twigs or any other natural material and you often decorate the “booth” with mobiles, garlands, etc.
The last day of the Feast of Tabernacles is called “The Day of the Joy of the Torah”. You celebrate that you have finished reading the whole Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and then start all over again. Both children and adults sing and dance and the atmosphere is fantastic.
In December every year Jews all over the world celebrate Chanuka (“The Festival of the Rededication of the Temple”). The holiday commemorates the successful Jewish revolt against the Syrian-Greek rulers that reigned in the land of Israel a few hundred years before the Common Era. The occupiers made Jewish traditions illegal and desecrated the temple in Jerusalem. However, a few years of guerilla warfare ended with Jewish victory and the temple was rededicated. When they lit the golden candelabrum, the sign of the Godly presence in the temple, a miracle occurred. There was only enough oil for one day, but it burned for eight days, which was the time it took to prepare new oil.
To remember the unexpected triumph and the miracle with the oil, everyone lights an eight-branched candelabrum during Chanuka and eats potato pancakes or doughnuts prepared in oil.
Another historic holiday is Purim, celebrated in February or March. This festival commemorates how the Jews of Persia, miraculously, were saved from extermination almost 2500 years ago.
During Purim you read the Book of Esther (telling the course of events), send gifts of food to relatives and friends, give money to poor people, have a festive meal and dress up in costumes. Purim is a very positive, happy and joyous holiday, appreciated by both children and adults.
In April Jews all over the world observe Pesach, commemorating the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt and the creation of the Jewish people, about 3300 years ago. One of the main characteristics of the weeklong holiday is the total ban of eating “normal” bread, permitting only unleavened bread. This tradition originates from the leaving of Egypt. Since the Jews hurried to leave the country, they brought the dough they had prepared to bake bread, but it did not have time to rise.
Fifty days after Pesach, in May or June, the holiday of Shavuot is celebrated. It marks the day the Jewish people received the Torah on Mount Sinai, about 3300 years ago. Two customs that belong to the holiday are studying Jewish subjects the whole night and eating dairy foods.
According to tradition, the Jewish people overslept the day that the Torah was handed over and to “make up” for this mistake, you usually stay awake the whole night and discuss Jewish matters.
Before the Jewish people received the Torah, they did not know the special rules that concern meat (what animals are permitted, how they are to be slaughtered, etc.) and therefore did not eat any. Thus, they ate dairy food, a custom that is still observed during the Shavuot holiday.
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