This is the first in a series of pages on the Jewish holidays. This page discusses some basic considerations that apply to all or many holidays. Each of the individual holiday pages talks about the significance of a holiday, its traditional observances and related customs, the date on which each holiday will occur for the next five years, and in some cases recipes for traditional, Ashkenazic holiday-related foods.
The holidays covered are listed in the TIMES index in the bar at the top. For those who just want information on a need-to-know basis, there is also A Gentile's Guide to the Jewish Holidays, which will give you a basic awareness of the holidays most commonly observed by American Jews.
All Jewish holidays begin the evening before the date specified on most calendars. This is because a Jewish "day" begins and ends at sunset, rather than at midnight. If you read the story of creation in Genesis Ch. 1, you will notice that it says, "And there was evening, and there was morning, one day." From this, we infer that a day begins with evening, that is, sunset. Holidays end at nightfall of the date specified on most calendars; that is, at the time when it becomes dark out, about an hour after sunset.
For a discussion of why Jewish holidays occur on different days every year, see Jewish Calendar.
Work is not permitted on Rosh Hashanah, on Yom Kippur, on the first and second days of Sukkot, on Shemini Atzeret, on Simchat Torah, on Shavu'ot, and the first, second, seventh and eighth days of Passover. The "work" prohibited on those holidays is the same as that prohibited on Shabbat, except that cooking, baking, transferring fire and carrying, all of which are forbidden on Shabbat, are permitted on holidays. When a holiday occurs on Shabbat, the full Shabbat restrictions are observed.
For observant Jews who work in the secular gentile world, this can be problematic in some years: if all of the non-working holidays fall on weekdays (as they sometimes do), an observant Jew would need to take 13 days off of work just to observe holidays. This is more vacation time that some people have available.
You may notice that the number of days of some holidays do not accord with what the Bible specifies. In most cases, we celebrate one more day than the Bible requires. There is an interesting reason for this additional day.
The Jewish calendar is lunar, with each month beginning on the new moon. The new months used to be determined by observation. When the new moon was observed, the Sanhedrin declared the beginning of a new month and sent out messengers to tell people when the month began. People in distant communities could not always be notified of the new moon (and therefore, of the first day of the month), so they did not know the correct day to celebrate. They knew that the old month would be either 29 or 30 days, so if they didn't get notice of the new moon, they celebrated holidays on both possible days.
This practice of celebrating an extra day was maintained as a custom even after we adopted a precise mathematical calendar, because it was the custom of our ancestors. This extra day is not celebrated by Israelis, regardless of whether they are in Israel at the time of the holiday, because it is not the custom of their ancestors, but it is celebrated by everybody else, even if they are visiting Israel at the time of the holiday.
Rosh Hashanah is celebrated as two days everywhere (in Israel and outside Israel), because it occurs on the first day of a month. Messengers were not dispatched on the holiday, so even people in Israel did not know whether a new moon had been observed, and everybody celebrated two days. The practice was also maintained as a custom after the mathematical calendar was adopted.
Yom Kippur is celebrated only one day everywhere, because extending the holiday's severe restrictions for a second day would cause an undue hardship.
Below is a list of all major holiday dates for the next five years. All holidays begin at sundown on the day before the date specified here.