Biblical, Rabbinic, and Modern Holidays

The different types of Jewish festivals

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The second major category of Jewish holidays consists of rabbinic holidays. These include festivals that were crested by the rabbis of the rabbinic period.

The most well-known rabbinic holiday is Hanukkah. Known as the festival of lights, Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over the Hellenistic Syrians. In commemoration of the eight-day rededication of the Temple after its recapture and purification from pagan practices, a special eight-branched candelabrum--called a hanukkiyah--is lit.

A major category of rabbinic holy days consists of public fast days to the Jewish calendar that are based on events in the Hebrew Bible. These include the Fast of Esther, which is alluded to in the book of Esther, and the Fast of Gedaliah, who is mentioned in the books of Kings and Jeremiah. Before Esther went to appeal to the king to save the Jews from imminent death, she spiritually prepared herself by fasting. This is the basis for the Fast of Esther that is commemorated on the day before Purim. Gedaliah was the Jewish governor of Judah, appointed by the Babylonians following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. Viewed as a puppet-ruler and traitor by some of his fellow Judeans, he was assassinated, thus ending the last semblance of Jewish self-rule at the close of the First Temple era. His senseless death is commemorated by a sun-up to sundown fast, which falls the day after Rosh Hashanah. Other fast days commemorate various stages in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the end of independent Jewish rule in Palestine. (A full list of the rabbinic fast days can be found at the end of Tractate Ta’anit in the Talmud.)

The fast of Tisha B’Av ("the ninth day of the month of Av") commemorates the date on which both the first and second Temples were supposedly destroyed. Over the course of time, a number of other disasters in Jewish history are ironically also to have taken place on or around the same date, making it one of the bleakest days in the Jewish calendar.

Although based on a biblical tradition, Tu Bishvat (“the 15th day of the month of Shvat”) has developed into a popular Jewish “arbor day” with spiritual overtones. Originally associated with planting crops and trees in ancient times and reckoned as one of a total of four annual new year celebrations by the rabbis, this day has become associated with the planting of trees and the holding of a symbolic ritual meal modeled on the Passover Seder that is characterized by the eating of fruits and nuts from the land of Israel. Today, Jewish environmentalists have found this festival particularly meaningful. As such, it is an example of a holiday with origins in the rabbinic period that developed in the post-rabbinic era and has found new meaning in more recent times.
The final major category of Jewish holidays consists of modern, post-rabbinic holidays. These mark significant events that occurred during the course of more recent Jewish history. In more recent times, Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, was originally instituted in Israel to remember the approximately six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Europe. While it is still too early for an official liturgy to have developed for Yom Hashoah, common practices include communal gatherings, the symbolic lighting of six candles representing the six million Jewish victims, the reading of poems and eye-witness accounts, and the recitation of Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer and/or El Male Rahamim, the prayer for the dead.

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.