A Gentile's Guide to the Jewish Holidays
Holiday dates vary because the Jewish calendar is lunar, not solar
Some Jews add an extra day to some holidays because of ancient tradition; some don't
Jews expect you to know a little about Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Chanukkah
There are many other holidays, but nobody expects gentiles to know about them
I know Weinstein's parents were upset, Superintendent, but I
was sure it was a phony excuse. I mean, it sounds so made up: "Yom Kippur."
- Principal Skinner, The Simpsons
If you want a general understanding of what your Jewish friends' and
colleagues' holidays are, or if you just want to avoid making Principal
Skinner's mistake when you schedule Jewish employees, co-workers, colleagues or
students, then this is the page for you. Other pages on this site provide more
detailed information about the Jewish calendar and
the holidays; this page just tells you what you
minimally need to know to avoid embarrassing yourself or offending Jews.
Why do Jewish holidays keep changing dates?
Congregant 1: When is Chanukkah this year?
Congregant 2: Same as always, 25th of Kislev.
- Overheard at Congregation Children of Israel,
Jewish holidays actually occur on the same day every year: the same day on the
Jewish calendar! The Jewish calendar has a different number of days than the
calendar you use because the Jewish calendar is tied to the moon's cycles
instead of the sun's. The Jewish calendar loses about 11 days relative to the
solar calendar every year, but makes up for it by adding a month every two or
three years. As a result, the holidays don't always fall on the same day, but
they always fall within the same month or two. The Chinese calendar (which is
also lunar) works the same way, which is why Chinese New Year occurs on
different days but is always in late January or early February. The Muslim
calendar is lunar but does not add months, which is why Ramadan circles the
When does a Jewish Holiday Start and End?
Attorney 1: Thursday is Rosh Hashanah, but I'm available for
trial on Friday
Attorney 2: Thursday and Friday are Rosh Hashanah for me.
Attorney 3: I have to leave early on Wednesday for Rosh Hashanah.
Judge: Is this holiday one day, two or three?
Attorney 1: One day.
Attorney 2: Two days.
Attorney 3: Two days.
- Inspired by a true story
How long is a Jewish holiday? It depends on who you ask!
In ancient times, because of confusion about the calendar, an extra day was
added to some holidays. In modern times, some branches of Judaism have
abandoned this custom, returning the holidays to the length specified in the
Bible. Other branches continue the ancient tradition of adding a day to certain
holidays. Thus for some Jews, Thursday is a holiday but Friday is not, while
for others, both Thursday and Friday are holidays.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that a Jewish "day" starts at sunset, and
holidays start the evening before the day on your secular calendar. For
example, if your calendar says that Passover starts on April 24, families will
be getting together for Passover dinner on the night of April 23. A few secular
calendars mark the preceding day as "Erev Passover," which basically means
Passover Eve. If your calendar says "Erev" or "Eve" before a holiday name, it
means the holiday starts the evening of that day and continues into the next day.
Popular Jewish Holidays
The holidays discussed below are not necessarily the most important Jewish
holidays, but they are the holidays that are most commonly observed by American
Jews, and they are the holidays that American Jews will expect you to be
This holiday commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. If you've seen Cecil B.
DeMille's "The Ten Commandments," then you know the story of Passover, more or
less. Passover is celebrated for seven or eight days (depending on your branch
of Judaism) starting on the night of a full moon in April. Passover usually
overlaps with Easter, though occasionally Passover occurs a month after Easter.
Almost all American Jews observe Passover to some extent, even if only to go to
their parents' house for a ritual dinner (called a seder, pronounced SAY-der)
on the first and/or second night of the holiday. Most (though not all) American
Jews avoid bread and grain products to one extent or another throughout this
holiday, in memory of the fact that our ancestors left Egypt in a hurry and
didn't have time to wait for their bread to rise. You should avoid scheduling
events involving food during this holiday, and should avoid scheduling travel
for Jews because it may be hard for them to find suitable food away from home.
Strictly observant Jews do not work, go to school or carry out any business on
the first two and last two days of Passover (first one day and last one day for
some branches). This is a requirement of Jewish law; however, only about 10% of
the American Jewish population observes this rule strictly. Most American Jews
will work through Passover, although many may want to take time off the day
before Passover, to prepare for the big family dinner. To put this in
perspective: imagine if you had to work during the day of Thanksgiving, then
prepare for Thanksgiving dinner after getting home from work.
Remember that Passover, like all Jewish holidays, begins the evening before the
date that it appears on your calendar. If your calendar says that Passover
starts on April 24, then Passover really begins with the family dinner on the
night of April 23.
Rosh Hashanah is Jewish New Year, the day when the year number on the Jewish
calendar increases. It occurs between Labor Day and Columbus Day. It lasts for
one or two days, depending on your branch of Judaism.
Rosh Hashanah is a happy, festive holiday, but somewhat more solemn than
American New Year. Like American New Year, it is a time to look back at the
past year and make resolutions for the following year. It is also a wake-up
call, a time to begin mental preparations for the upcoming day of atonement,
Many Jews who do not go to synagogue any other time of year will go to
synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. You've heard of "twice-a-year Christians" who go to
church only on Christmas and Easter? "Twice-a-year Jews" go to synagogue only
on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Most American Jews expect gentiles to be aware of Rosh Hashanah. It is, after
all, listed on most calendars you buy in the store, but remember: the holiday
starts at sunset the night before the day shown on your calendar! Many will be
offended if you schedule important events, meetings or tests on Rosh Hashanah.
Even those who do not go to synagogue and do not observe the holiday may be
offended. Imagine how you would feel if someone scheduled such activities on
Christmas or Easter, even if you didn't have anything special planned for the
day, and you will understand how Jews feel about this holiday.
Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of atonement, a day of fasting and repentance to
reconcile ourselves with the Creator for the mistakes we have made in the last
year. It occurs on the ninth day after the first day of Rosh Hashanah (Rosh
Hashanah occurs on the first day of the Jewish month; Yom Kippur occurs on the
10th), so it is usually in late September or early October, sometimes falling
on Columbus Day. For obvious reasons, nobody adds an extra day to this 25-hour fast!
Remember that this holiday starts the evening before the day it appears on your
secular calendar. Some secular calendars will mark the preceding day as Kol
Nidre, which is the name of the first service of the holiday, in the evening.
Most (but not all) Jews take off from work or school on this day, even ones who
are not religious at other times. This is the busiest day of the year for
synagogues, even though many synagogues charge for tickets to this day's
services (to defray the cost of serving so many extra people). Many will also
want to leave work early the night before, so they have time for a large, slow
meal before this 25-hour fast. Like Rosh Hashanah, most American Jews expect
gentiles to be aware of this day, and almost all will be offended if you
schedule important activities on it.
How do you pronounce the name of this holiday? "Yom" rhymes with "home" and
"Kippur" sounds like "key poor" with emphasis on the "poor." A lot of Americans
(even American Jews) pronounce "Kippur" like the smoked fish dish, kipper, but
this really isn't correct. Please don't pronounce it that way; there is
something fundamentally wrong with naming a fast day after a food item!
Chanukkah is the festival of lights, commemorating the rededication of the
Temple in Jerusalem after a successful revolt against the Seleucid Greeks. As
part of the rededication, the victorious Jews needed to light the Temple's
menorah (candelabrum), but they had only enough oil to last one day and it
would take eight days to prepare more oil. Miraculously, the one-day supply of
oil lasted for eight days. The miracle of the oil is commemorated with this
eight-day candlelighting holiday.
Chanukkah begins between Thanksgiving and Christmas. About half of the time, it
overlaps with Christmas, but there are many years when Chanukkah ends long
before Christmas. In 2002, for example, Chanukkah began on Thanksgiving and
ended in the first week of December, but that is unusual.
Almost all Jews light candles with their families for at least some nights of
the holiday, so people like to be at home during this holiday. Although almost
nobody takes off from work or school for this holiday, many may not want to
work nights or travel during the holiday so they can light candles with the
family, and accommodations should be made for this.
The most important thing to remember about Chanukkah is that it is not Jewish
Christmas, no matter what the card shops and toy stores want you to believe.
Chanukkah is a very minor holiday. It's not about joy to the world and peace on
Earth and presents galore for everyone you've ever met; it's about lighting
candles and playing games for chocolate coins and eating potato pancakes. Many
Jewish parents give their children gifts during Chanukkah because they don't
want their children to feel left out of Christmas, but Chanukkah gift-giving
rarely extends much beyond one's own children.
Most American Jews feel a sort of ambivalence about Chanukkah. On the one hand,
most of them know that Chanukkah is not a big deal, and they don't want to make
a big deal about it. On the other hand, Christmas is everywhere, unavoidable
and overwhelming, and Jews want something of their own to counterbalance it.
This is the primary motivation behind elaborate Chanukkah decorations and
enormous Chanukkah menorahs in public areas: Chanukkah is not very important,
but asserting our Jewish identity and distinctiveness and existence in the face
of overwhelming pressure to conform to a non-Jewish norm is important.
Pressuring Jews to conform to that norm or to participate in Christmas events
if they don't want to is inconsiderate at best.
Other Jewish Holidays
There are many other Jewish holidays, but most American Jews do not celebrate
these holidays as strictly or as regularly as the holidays above, and most do
not expect gentiles to be aware of them. In fact, there are a surprising number
of Jews who don't know about many of these holidays.
Sukkot: This festival of booths commemorates the Biblical period of
wandering in the desert, and is commemorated by building a temporary shelter
(called a sukkah, usually rhymes with "book a") in the yard and eating meals in
it. Some spend considerable time in the sukkah, even sleeping there. Sukkot
begins on the fifth day after Yom Kippur, in late September or October, and
lasts for 7 days. From the perspective of the Bible and Jewish law, this
holiday is every bit as important as Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,
but most American Jews don't see it that way. About 10% of Jews do not work on
the first two days of this holiday (one day for some branches), in accordance
with Jewish law, and will not want to travel during this holiday, because they
want to be able to have meals in the sukkah.
Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah: These two holidays fall immediately
after Sukkot. Shemini Atzeret is sort of an extra day tacked onto the end of
Sukkot; Simchat Torah celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of Bible
readings in sabbath services. About 10% of Jews will take both of these days
off from work. Some branches celebrate these two holidays on the same day,
which is the first day after Sukkot.
Tu B'Shevat: Jewish Arbor Day, used for calculating the age of trees for
certain religious purposes. Occurs in late January or early February. There are
no restrictions on this holiday that would require accommodation.
Purim: Jewish Mardi Gras, more or less. This is a partying holiday
celebrating the rescue of the Jews from a Hitler-like figure bent on genocide.
Occurs in March, a month before Passover, and lasts for one day. Although work
is technically not forbidden on this holiday, a small number of Jews prefer not
to work on it because of rabbinical dictum that no good will come from work
done on this day.
Yom Ha-Shoah: Holocaust Memorial Day. A day to remember the victims of
the Holocaust. Occurs in late April or early May. No accommodations are usually
Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, Yom Ha-Zikkaron, Yom Yerushalayim: Israeli Independence
Day, Israeli Memorial Day and Jerusalem Day. Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, in late April or
May, commemorates the day that the British Palestinian mandate expired, and
David Ben-Gurion declared the creation of the State of Israel within the lands
that the UN had set aside for a Jewish state in Palestine. Yom Ha-Zikkaron in
May is a memorial day for Israeli soldiers who died defending the state of
Israel in its many wars. Yom Yerushalayim in late May or early June
commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem in Israeli hands during the 1967
War. No accommodations are usually needed. Cities with large Jewish populations
often have parades on a Sunday for Israeli Independence Day, just as cities
with large Italian populations have Columbus Day parades. The other two
Israel-related holidays get little acknowledgement in America. If gentiles
choose to acknowledge these holidays, they should be sensitive to the feelings
of Arabs, who may not think that the creation of the state of Israel or the
reunification of Jerusalem in the hands of Jews is a cause for celebration, or
that the death of Israeli soldiers is a cause for mourning.
Shavu'ot: Commemorates the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Occurs
between Memorial Day and Independence Day, and lasts for one or two days,
depending on your branch. Like Sukkot, this holiday is every bit as important
as Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but most American Jews don't see it
that way. About 10% of Jews do not work on this holiday, in accordance with
Tisha B'Av: A fast commemorating the destruction of the Temple in
Jerusalem and other tragedies. Occurs in late July or August. About 10% of Jews
observe this fast. Although work is not forbidden on this day, some prefer not
to work on this day because it is difficult to fast while working with others
who are not fasting.
Minor Fasts: There are five other fast days scheduled at various times
of the year, which are observed only from sunrise to sunset. For the 10% or so
of Jews who observe these fasts, no accommodations are usually needed, other
than sensitivity for the fact that they are not eating.
© Copyright 5764-5771 (2004-2011), Tracey R Rich
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