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There are essentially three major categories of Jewish holidays, celebrations, and commemorations found in the Jewish calendar. These are biblical holidays, rabbinic holidays, and post-rabbinic celebrations. These categories indicate the historical period during which these holidays came to be established events in the Jewish calendar.
The first major category is biblical holidays. These are festivals that are mentioned in either the Torah (Such as Passover) or other books of the Hebrew Bible. There are two central chapters in the Torah that list the biblical holidays: Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16. These chapters list two kinds of Israelite holidays, the three pilgrimage festivals and the High Holy Days.
The three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Feast of Weeks), and Sukkot (Festival of Booths) mark not only historical events in the development of the Jewish people, but also agricultural celebrations and the seasonal harvests in the land of Israel. These holidays are called pilgrimage festivals because in ancient times all Israelite men were commanded to travel to the Temple in Jerusalem, to take part in the festival celebrations. Even today, Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot continue to mark significant national-spiritual events in the life of the Jewish people, namely the Exodus from Egypt, the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, and God’s sheltering of the Israelites in the desert for 40 years, respectively.
The other holidays mentioned in the Torah are the High Holy Days. Although not given these names until much later, Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) are first described in the Torah, though not in the complete form that is observed today. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the beginning of the new Jewish calendar year (a later designation) and is celebrated with the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn(a biblical description). Yom Kippur is described as a day on which the Israelites are to practice self-denial (later understood to mean fasting and the refraining from several other activities) and to seek expiation for their individual and communal transgressions.
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