The biblical, rabbinic, and modern categories of Jewish holidays indicate the historical period during which these festivals came to be established events in the Jewish calendar. These categories prove helpful in understanding the development and meaning of the various holidays, but categorization has limitations as well: As is often the case with Jewish law and rituals, what is established in one period evolves during another, taking on new meanings and new customs.
The biblical holidays are obviously those that are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, such as Purim, which is mentioned in the Book of Esther. There are two chapters in the Torah that list the major biblical holidays, Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16. These include the three pilgrimage festivals, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur.
The three pilgrimage festivals of Passover (Pesach), Shavuot, and Sukkot commemorate important events in the foundational narrative of the Jewish people, yet their origins are to be sought in ancient agricultural celebrations tied to the land of Israel.
These holidays are called pilgrimage festivals because in ancient times all Israelite males were supposed to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem to make animal sacrifices at these times. Passover celebrates the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and is characterized by a special banquet–called the Seder (“Order”)–that is rife with symbolic foods that highlight aspects of the story as found in the Bible and later Jewish tradition. Shavuot celebrates the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, a post-biblical designation of this festival.
The celebration of the holiday was expanded in medieval times to include an all-night study session that was meant to symbolize the ancient Israelites’ sleepless anticipation of receiving the Torah. Sukkot celebrates the wandering of the Israelites in the desert for 40 years when, according to the Hebrew Bible, the intimate and close relationship between God and the Jews was like that of a husband and wife, or even a parent and child.
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