About Jewish & Secular Holidays 101

The rhythm of Jewish life is determined by its calendar. Jewish existence is given structure and meaning by the passage of time. There are rituals, celebrations, and holidays that are observed on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis.  Time itself assumes a sacred function in Judaism, as is echoed in the blessing “Who sanctifies Israel and the seasons.” The first chapter of the Book of Genesis already imposes a weekly and daily structure on Jewish life. On the first day of creation, God creates the essential unit of time, the day. Seven days constitute a week, which culminates in Shabbat, the sacred day of rest.

Solar and Lunar

The Jewish calendar stands in a creative tension between the solar and lunar years. Approximately four weeks make a lunar month. However, a lunar year of twelve months would be too short to coordinate with the solar cycle of the seasons. Therefore, seven times in every nineteen-year cycle, an entire leap month is added to the Jewish year in order to coordinate the Jewish lunar calendar with the solar year.

Months of the Year

According to most scholars, it was only during the course of the Babylonian exile (after 586 BCE) that the Jews adopted the 12-month cycle that has since determined their calendar. As evidence of this origin, one can point to the names of the months, which are adaptations from the Babylonian names and generally not the names that were employed by the Bible.

Types of Holidays

There are various types of holidays in the Jewish calendar.

The basic ones date from biblical times. Of these, the most important are Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  This category also includes the three ancient pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot (the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles), Pesach (Passover), and Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost). A number of holidays were added during the post-biblical period, such as Hanukkah, (the Festival of Rededication). There are also a number of holidays arising out of the experience of the Jews in the 20th century that have gained widespread devotion, such as the somber Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and the joyful Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day).

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