Types of Jewish Holidays

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The second major category of Jewish holidays is the rabbinic holidays. These are festivals or events which are not expressly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, but were developed later during the rabbinic period of Jewish history.

One holiday that the rabbis developed--though did not originate--is the holiday of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Shemini Atzeret is mentioned in the Torah, and so is an anomaly in the rabbinic holiday category, but it was the rabbis who imbued it with meaning. Originally described in the Torah as an eighth day of the pilgrimage festival of Sukkot, the rabbis declared that Shemini Atzeret was to be celebrated as a holiday in its own right. The second day was later called Simchat Torah, the day of rejoicing in the Torah, on which the ritual reading of the Torah is completed and begun all over again. (In Israel and in many contemporary liberal communities, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are celebrated simultaneously on one day, not two.)

The rabbis also added two public fast days to the Jewish calendar, which are briefly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible: the fast of Esther (Ta’anit Ester), in commemoration of the Jews’ fasting before Esther went in to see the king (Esther 4:16), and the fast of Gedaliah, whose assassination ended Judean sovereignty after the destruction of the First Temple (2 Kings 25:22-26; Jeremiah 40-41).

The other holidays that the rabbis added are primarily commemorations of events in Jewish history that occurred after the period of the Hebrew Bible. For example, Hanukkah, the festival of lights, celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenistic Syrians, and the fast of Tisha B’Av commemorates the traditional date on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed.

The third major category of Jewish holidays consists of post-rabbinic holidays. These mark significant events that occurred in the past 2000 years of Jewish history. One holiday that has had a noticeable evolution is Tu Bishvat. Although based on a biblical tradition, and observed after the destruction of the Temple, the character of Tu Bishevat took shape under the guidance of the medieval kabbalists (mystics).  Over time it has developed into a popular Jewish “arbor day” with spiritual overtones. Originally associated with planting crops and trees in ancient times, this day has become associated with planting trees and holding symbolic ritual meals characterized by eating fruits and nuts from the land of Israel.

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